The Warriors’ desire for sustained success hinges not solely on Stephen Curry extending his peak and James Wiseman realizing his potential, but also on forward Andrew Wiggins. At 26 years old, Wiggins may represent the bridge between Golden State’s present and future.
While the development of Wiseman, who turned 20 on Wednesday, and second-year guard Jordan Poole will be key storylines over the remainder of the season, both are years away from reaching their primes. Meanwhile, it’s Wiggins who is on the cusp of his and must prove over the final 5 ½ weeks of the season that he can be a part of Golden State’s core.
His post-All-Star break stretch is off to a strong start: In 10 games, he’s averaging 22.5 points on 51.3% shooting, including 55.6% on 5.4 attempts from 3-point range, 5.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.3 steals.
In Miami on Thursday, he will play his 60th game with the Warriors. So far in his tenure (dating back to last season) he’s averaging 18.4 points on 47.1% shooting, including 38.6% on 3-pointers, 4.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists. This larger sample is more in line with what should be expected.
“One of the most impressive things is he just never misses a game,” head coach Steve Kerr said of Wiggins, the only Warriors player to start every game this season. “It’s so valuable to be able to count on players night in and night out.”
Availability and efficiency are important and deserving of praise, but there are still concerns about his impact on winning.
During his time in Golden State, the Warriors have been outscored by a total of 182 points with Wiggins on the floor. Granted, the Warriors have done a whole lot of losing during that time and Wiggins is far down the list of reasons why. In particular, Klay Thompson’s season-ending Achilles tear has made it difficult to evaluate this roster that has a 23-24 record and the league’s 22nd-ranked offense.
“With Klay out, we’re trying to figure out what we have and evaluate what we are,” general manager Bob Myers said after the trade deadline last week.
But that didn’t stop Myers last season from trading D’Angelo Russell before seeing him play with the Splash Bros. Wiggins, who has settled into a role as a 3-and-D wing, has been a far better fit than the ball-dominant and defense-averse Russell. Wiggins’ tantalizing athleticism, length and ability to create his shot gives the impression he can do even more.
This has been the book on Wiggins throughout his career. A scan of articles from his days in high school to Kansas to the Timberwolves reveals questions about “killer instinct” and “desire.”
The truth is, the Warriors don’t need Wiggins to live up to his No. 1 pick billing, but that doesn’t change the fact that he makes $31.5 million next season, and $33.6 million the season after that. Trading Wiggins this offseason could yield a return of a rotation-caliber player and cap savings for a middling team with the highest payroll in the league.
Golden State is encouraged by how Wiggins has fit in but is hoping he can grow into a bigger star in his role. Over the next 25 games, coaches will work with Wiggins to improve his off-ball defense. As Kerr tilts the offense toward more pick-and-roll, Wiggins could see more opportunities.
“You’ll have Klay and Steph on the wings (next season), which will also open up a lot of things,” Draymond Green said. “He’s continuing to show more and more that he can play-make out of (the pick-and-roll) and not just score out of it.”
This could lead to Wiggins’ next step: Being able to take over when Curry is not on the floor.
The Warriors’ net rating plummets when Wiggins is playing and Curry is not, from outscoring opponents by 1.3 points per 100 possessions with both on the court to being outscored by 11.7 points per 100 possessions with just Wiggins — a 13-point swing. To be fair, that’s been the case for most of Curry’s teammates, but Golden State has been slightly better in those non-Curry minutes when Wiggins does not play. That’s a problem.
Other than Thompson coming back and spacing the floor, there’s not much else the Warriors can do to coax more out of Wiggins. Behind Curry, he already averages the second-most shots and runs the second-most pick-and-rolls on the team.
But Wiggins’ idealized role in Golden State isn’t as a primary playmaker. Poole’s emergence as Curry’s backup means Wiggins can play off the ball and thrive as a cutter, shooter and sturdy defender with the first or second unit.
As it always does with Wiggins, it will come down to him simply stepping up. He is the Warriors’ only player with his combination of size, speed and ball-handling ability. When the Warriors go two minutes without a basket, can he take control of a couple of possessions, get to the rim and draw a foul? As Curry gets double-teamed and Thompson climbs back from two season-ending injuries, can he be a release valve on offense?
If Poole blossoms into a closer and Wiseman becomes a more consistent threat to score, the Warriors won’t need Wiggins to do those things. But those are a pair of big “ifs” and Wiggins is better equipped to answer those questions in the short term.
There’s reason for optimism. On paper, Wiggins is an ideal fit next to Curry, Thompson and Green. And though he hasn’t even played a full season’s worth of games in Golden State, Wiggins is already playing the best basketball of his career. The warm way his teammates and coaches talk about him appears authentic.
“All in all, he’s having an excellent year and I think what’s really exciting is that he’s getting more and more comfortable playing alongside Steph and Draymond,” Kerr said. “As we go forward, it’s just great that he’s not only playing well but feeling good about his surroundings, his teammates, the style of play, everything else.”