About 20 minutes after the dust settled on the Jrue Holiday trade, I began referring to the 2013-14 season as WigginsWatch: The Quest for the Northern Light (a nickname I came up with, for the record, remember that in ten years when Nike is printing money off of it). At the time, Andrew Wiggins was the consensus number one prospect in the game, drawing labels like "the next Lebron" and "Maple Jordan." It wasn’t exactly a stretch for me proclaim my allegiance to our new Canadian overlord.
In the eight months since then, the landscape has changed. Having finally seen more of Wiggins’ game than a handful of YouTube highlight videos, people began to realize that this is actually an 18-year old kid who’s game, like most 18-year olds, has some holes in it. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman led the early charge, deciding after watching Wiggins in an October practice that Wiggins didn’t dominate like other top picks had. His status as the top pick was questioned right out of the gate when, in a nationally televised, head to head showdown in Chicago, Duke forward Jabari Parker torched Wiggins’ Jayhawks for 19 first half points. Despite Wiggins responding with 16 in the second half to lead Kansas to a victory over the Blue Devils, the narrative following that game was how impressive Parker was, and that maybe Parker was in fact the top overall prospect.
As 2013 concluded, those who tuned in to watch Wiggins play at Kansas came away more impressed by his teammate, center Joel Embiid. Embiid was considered a lottery pick with a very high upside, but was also considered to be extremely raw, a player who wouldn’t make much of an impact this season. More and more, scouts were impressed with Embiid’s current game and raved about how much more he could still improve. By January, many respected national media outlets that cover the draft had Embiid ranked as the top prospect in the draft, a position he still occupies today.
Despite all the changing narratives, my faith has remained steadfast. If I was General Sam Hinkie, Commander of the 76th Tank Battalion, and I had the #1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, I would select Andrew Wiggins.
First and foremost, I think Wiggins is, by far, the safest bet in this draft, based almost solely on his defensive abilities. Wiggins today is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, if not the best. Put him on the Sixers tomorrow and he immediately becomes the team’s best perimeter defender, with all apologies to Hollis Thompson. (Granted, this statement has a "tallest midget in the circus" quality to it, but the point remains.)
People always ask me what Wiggins’ floor in this league (this really happens, I promise), and I always answer "Andre Iguodala." Now, that’s obviously high praise in the Liberty Ballers community, and usually terrifies most Sixers fans I talk to (usually not people who actually watch the Sixers), who associate Andre Iguodala with years of mediocrity. I firmly believe it. Wiggins is already an elite defender at the college level, and his measurables are elite as well. At the pro level, Wiggins can very easily be a top-tier perimeter defender with an inconsistent offensive game. A lot of Wiggins’ perceived deficiencies are similar to deficiencies in Iguodala’s game. A below-average to average perimeter jumper, passivity on the offensive side of the ball, these are all things we’ve seen before. But that’s the floor.
Secondly is obviously the massive upside to Wiggins’ game. As an athlete, he’s the 1%. His deficiencies are all things that I think can easily be improved upon over a long NBA career; they’re basketball skills, not athletic skills. Now, to be fair, I feel the same way about Embiid, and in previous WigginsWatch incarnations, I’ve talked how I still don’t blame Portland for picking Oden over Durant, but that leads me directly into the third reason why the Sixers should have Wiggins first.
Andrew Wiggins fits the Sixers as currently constructed like a glove. The Sixers have two long-term pieces in place, a point guard and a center. There’s no doubt about Andrew Wiggins short-term and long-term role on this team and how he fits with the current pieces. With Embiid, that’s a legitimate concern. We don’t know how well Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid would play together. It’s a risk. Some might see it as a good problem to have, but it is a problem. Now, obviously, you don’t draft for need at the top of the draft, but you can’t discount it either. You’re talking about the future of your franchise. If you already have a franchise quarterback, you don’t draft another one. The NBA is changing into a faster, outside game, and I’m not so sure two franchise bigs is the way to build anymore. Obviously, Noel and Embiid aren’t your typical plodding big men, and you’d have a massive size advantage in the low post over most teams, but you also become incredibly vulnerable to defending teams who play on the perimeter.
There are a lot of basketball analysts today that generalize and mythologize the elite basketball players in the game. Bill Simmons does this a lot when he talks about "alpha dogs" and who’s capable of being "the man" on a basketball team. It’s the idea that players step up during big games and impose their will on their opponent. This is what Goodman was attacking Wiggins for in October. While I think it gets exaggerated a lot, because it’s often used as a crutch to back someone’s pre-existing biases about a player, there is something to it. How does a player respond to adversity? Do they want the ball in crunch time? How do they react in the national spotlight? These are intangible qualities that are important when it comes to being the best player on a NBA team.
Saturday night, I settled in to watch Texas at Kansas. I watched it on DVR after I watched a game where an older gentleman was running around yelling at referees to get off his lawn, so I already knew Wiggins put up a big first half. I didn’t know the half of it. It was an absolutely dominant performance. Wiggins put on a great shooting display, led a couple incredible fast breaks, played well above the rim, and absolutely shut down Texas’s perimeter game. By halftime, the game was over. A February game against Texas isn't exactly the NBA finals, but that sort of total dominance is pretty good for a guy who supposedly lacks a killer instinct.
In the college basketball world, March is Narrative Awareness Month. The lights are brightest, the stakes are biggest and the takes are hottest. With so much attention on this crop of prospects, the narrative will shift on the top players daily. Agendas will change, "scout's opinions" will leak, madness will indeed ensue.
Barring anything shocking, like an injury or Wiggins choking out a referee (with his 7-foot wingspan!), my narrative remains the same. WigginsWatch isn’t just a clever branding title. It’s a dream. It’s what’s gotten me through the hunger. The Northern Light has always been at the end of the tunnel.
Andrew Wiggins is the best player in this draft. Wiggins forever.