ATLANTA — The Minnesota Timberwolves were sputtering. Heading into their Thanksgiving week matchup against the Atlanta Hawks, and after a surprisingly strong start to the season, they had lost two in a row and four of their last five, dropping their record to 8-8. Head coach Ryan Saunders felt a change was needed.
In the days leading up to the game, Jeff Teague, the Timberwolves' veteran starting point guard, shared a thought with his coach: He'd be OK coming off the bench if the team thought it could help. Saunders and the rest of the Timberwolves' brain trust believed it might, that their second unit, which had grown static, could use a conductor. The question was whether the starting lineup could withstand the removal of its point guard. The Timberwolves believed it could, and they believed it could because of Andrew Wiggins.
That a player who coming into the season was widely viewed as both ineffective and inefficient, labels not often assigned to No. 1 picks and Rookie of the Year winners, is now someone whose presence reassures his coaches might be the most surprising development of the 2019-20 season.
As recently as this summer, you didn't have to do much digging to find dirt on Wiggins. There was the time a renowned skills trainer flew into Minnesota to work with Wiggins, only for Wiggins to blow him off. There were stories about how Wiggins did not heed advice from his coaches. And perhaps most damning, there was a belief around the league—and among some previous Timberwolves coaches, front-office people and, reportedly, Jimmy Butler during his time in Minnesota—that Wiggins didn't love basketball, that he didn't work hard, that he was in this solely for the money. And that money was already on its way, thanks to the five-year, nearly $150 million extension he signed in October 2017. Wiggins responded to the contract the two worst seasons of his career.
The narrative has been different this season. Like basic box-score stats? Wiggins is averaging career highs in scoring (24.8 points per game), field-goal percentage (46.2) rebounding (5.4), assists (3.5) and blocks (1.2). Advanced metrics more your thing? Last year, Wiggins' player efficiency rating (12.42) ranked 217th in the league, right behind noted stalwarts like David Nwaba and Yogi Ferrell.
This year, that number (20.12) has vaulted him into the league's top 50. Wiggins' true shooting percentage—a metric that takes into account three-pointers and free throws—has skyrocketed from 49.3 to 54.5 percent, also a career high. His usage rate—the frequency of possessions that finish with the ball in a player's hands when he's on the floor—of 28.2 percent is another career best, ranking 29th in the NBA through Sunday).
In layman's terms, Wiggins has pulled off the difficult juggling act of becoming more efficient while also carrying a heavier load. "I see a different mentality with him," Saunders said recently. "It's just being aggressive and being engaged throughout the course of what his minutes are." It's a stunning turnaround for a player whose career up until this season was marked more for what he hasn't done than what he could do.
Given his first five seasons, it's not unfair to wonder if this all is real or just a hot streak amplified because it's come at the beginning of the season. If it's legit, what brought it about? What does it mean for the Timberwolves' future? And what does it say about how all of us—people both inside and outside the league—discuss, evaluate and label NBA players?
Wiggins' turnaround can be traced back to a series of decisions made by the Timberwolves in May, when they tabbed longtime Houston Rockets executive Gersson Rosas to serve as their president of basketball operations. Rosas hired Saunders, who the previous season had taken over on an interim basis for the deposed Tom Thibodeau, to be Timberwolves' full-time head coach, and brought in Sachin Gupta, a former Rockets colleague and consigliere to Sam Hinkie during the Philadelphia 76ers' "process" years, to serve as his executive vice president of basketball operations.
The trio spent the summer overhauling everything about the organization. Analytics became a driving force for decisions. Player development a focus. The training program was revamped. Nutrition was emphasized.
But the group also took a look at how the organization could best relate to the players. "Gersson is a big believer in the mental side of the game," one longtime NBA executive said. He, Gupta and Saunders wanted to figure out how they could best communicate the changes they were trying to make and, more importantly, illustrate why those changes would benefit all.
No player was in more need of changing and had more to gain from the process than Wiggins. He was still just 24. If the group could help him finally harness his talent and serve as Robin to Karl-Anthony Towns' Batman, then Minnesota would suddenly have one of the league's more promising young cores.
Wiggins and Saunders had a number of conversations over the summer. About what the team expected from him and how they thought he could reach his ceiling. But the tenor of those talks was different than in years past. "[There] was a heightened urgency," Saunders said, adding: "He understands this is a big year for him. He knows that, and we know that as an organization."
The ability to connect with players, people around the Timberwolves and across the NBA say, is one of Saunders' gifts. His age helps—at 33, he's the youngest head coach in the NBA—but so too does a sense of caring that players believe is genuine. To Wiggins, this matters.
"Andrew's a guy that has basically had the same circle of friends since high school," said Tony McIntyre, his former AAU coach. "He really values relationships." The problem, according to people who have been around him, is that he's both laconic and reserved, making it tough for those who don't know him well to feel as if they've broken through. "When [Thibodeau] was there, very few people on staff connected with him," one former Timberwolves staffer said. Many of them just didn't know how.
Saunders is different, both in disposition—Thibodeau is not exactly the cuddly type—and because of the history he and Wiggins share. There have been funerals (for Saunders' father, Flip, the former Timberwolves head coach who died in 2015 from Hodgkin's lymphoma) and childbirths (when Wiggins found out his girlfriend was expecting, Saunders was one of the first people he told), the highs of a playoff season, the lows of the Butler circus. They've laughed together. They've cried together. They've spent hundreds of hours working out together. And so when Saunders approached Wiggins this past offseason, Wiggins knew he was doing so as a boss and a friend.
"He's a big difference," Wiggins said. "He believes in me, and he puts more confidence in me. To have a head coach that's like that, that means a lot."
With that trust already in place, getting Wiggins to tweak his offensive approach was simple. "Ryan told me [that] he wanted me to be successful and [that] this is one of the ways that can help me and my career, just thinking more about the shots that I take," Wiggins said.
Long twos were bad—why not instead take a step back and launch a shot that could net three points? Settling for lazy mid-range pull-ups was exactly what the defense wanted—why not, when coming off a screen, get downhill and put pressure on the defense by attacking the rim? Rosas, Gupta and Saunders even slapped a bunch of stickers down on their practice floor, with different numbers written onto them, to illustrate how many points a shot from each spot was typically worth based on the metrics.
Wiggins wanted to grow. He was aware of his reputation.
"You hear it, on social media, when you turn on the TV and watch sports, you always see certain stuff; certain people say certain things," he said. He did his best to remain positive, to try tuning out the noise. "It never really got to me to the point where, you know, it messed up my lifestyle, my life," he said. "I love myself more than anyone loves me." But he does admit there have been times, especially last year, when all the criticism dragged him down.
"I'd go through a slump, and then you can't help but hear it, and then you're like, 'F--k,'" Wiggins said. "You always want to shut the people up that doubt you."
The season is still young, but the changes in Wiggins' game are as unmistakable as they are rare for a six-year vet. Just 12 percent of his shots this season have come from the dreaded "long two" area, a 10 percent drop from last season, according to Cleaning the Glass. He's launching nearly two more triples per game (4.8 to 6.6) and connecting on a solid 34.3 percent. He's also almost doubled the number of pull-up jumpers he's taken from behind the arc (1.4 to 2.6), per NBA.com.
Most notably, he's attacking the rim in a way he never has—15.7 times per game, according to NBA.com, nearly double what he averaged in each of the past two seasons. In years' past, it seemed like he didn't know he was allowed to pass off the dribble; now he's firing crisp, crosscourt passes while on the move multiple times every game.
While Wiggins' work refining his handle (his trainer, Chris Johnson, put him through drills over the summer where multiple defenders would guard him) and adopting what the team's brain trust advised has played a big role in his evolution, part of the credit goes to the Timberwolves, who have overhauled their offensive attack to reflect what they are preaching. They play fast, space the floor, hunt threes and ignore the mid-range area. Only four teams (through Sunday) have launched a greater percentage of their shots from deep this season, a remarkable adjustment for a group that was 25th in that category last year.
In other words, the Timberwolves, who, at 10-9, have the seventh-best record in the Western Conference, have put Wiggins in a situation where he can easily apply the changes they've urged him to make and then see how beneficial they can be—creating a sort of self-fulfilling cycle of improvement.
But shaking bad habits can take time. Wiggins still fires the occasional early-shot clock 18-footer, and he still occasionally falls asleep on defense when manning the weak side. As Saunders put it, "There's still a lot of season left, and everything isn't always going to be perfect."
For now, everyone involved is confident the changes they've seen from Wiggins are the result of the work put in by all parties over the offseason. If the Timberwolves are proved right, Wiggins' rejuvenation will serve as a lesson to the NBA world that a player's career can take a dramatic turn, even after people may think they have him figured out.
As one rival executive put it, "The league is watching."
Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.