When Klay Thompson was pronounced out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, Golden State Warriors fans, who have found it harder and harder to embrace the franchise's time-tested "We Believe" mantra over the last two years, were left grasping for reasons to hold onto hope.
"We've still got Steph and Draymond!"
"Wiseman could be the best player in the draft!"
"We traded for that Oubre guy -- he's pretty good, right?"
It's been notable, and somewhat fascinating, that you rarely hear fans or analysts mention Andrew Wiggins as a potential Warriors savior. This is a former No. 1 overall pick, christened as the next NBA superstar while still in high school, who has averaged 20 points per game for his career. But you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone talking about how Wiggins can pick up the slack and keep Golden State in the championship conversation during Thompson's absence.
Still just 25 years old, Wiggins has been widely viewed as a disappointment and designated as a known commodity -- an inefficient scorer who can put up stats but can't put up wins.
"Everyone has something to say. Everyone has their own opinions and stuff. You only can control what you do, how you do things. That's my thought process," Wiggins said during Warriors media week. "I'm coming into the season, I want to do what I have to do to help the team win, and I think I can do it."
In order to help the team win, Wiggins will have to take on a larger scoring load than expected now that Thompson is out of the lineup. This doesn't seem like that big of an ask for a player who averaged almost 24 points per game three seasons ago with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but this clearly wasn't the vision that general manager Bob Myers had when he acquired Wiggins, along with a potentially valuable 2021 first-round draft pick, for D'Angelo Russell, Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman before last February's trade deadline. Next to Thompson and Stephen Curry, Wiggins would have the scoring pressure lifted from his wiry shoulders, leaving him free to explore his role as a tertiary option. That's no longer the case, and he'll only have a brief period to develop chemistry with the team's stars before the season begins.
"We'll see what Andrew can do. He'll probably get more opportunity offensively than he would have, and that's not something we wanted -- probably not something he wanted," Myers said of Wiggins' revised role. "He'd love to share the ball with a Klay Thompson, give Andrew space. But he still hasn't played with Steph or Klay or Draymond much for that matter -- a little bit. So we'll see. We'll see what he does."
Wiggins is just one enigmatic piece of the second straight Warriors preseason shrouded in mystery. While his 3-point shot may never become elite, he should be able to impact that game with his transition and cutting ability. Steve Kerr has said that he wants to play fast, and Wiggins performed well in transition last season after coming over to the Warriors, averaging 1.257 points per possession (79th percentile) in those situations, per Synergy Sports Technology. As a cutter, he was in the 89th percentile at 1.527 points per possession last season with Minnesota -- a positive sign that he'll be able to take advantage of the gravity that Curry creates.
"I played one game with [Curry] last year, and just in that game I could see the difference," Wiggins said. "Just the open space I had because everyone was paying attention to him, and just how much he creates for his teammates. So he just makes the game easier."
This is the kind of space and creation that Wiggins is talking about:
While it's easy to focus on how Wiggins can attempt to replace Thompson's offense, the Warriors are equally hurt by Thompson's absence on the other end. Without the crucial components of Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston last season, the Warriors' defensive efficiency dropped to 26th in the league, allowing 113 points per 100 possessions -- they hadn't finished lower than 12th since the 2011-12 season. Wiggins has the physical tools to be a lock-down defender but has yet to evolve into that over his seven-year NBA career. If the Warriors are truly going to compete for a title, they'll need Wiggins to make the leap. To that end, Wiggins said he put in the work defensively this offseason, adding "a couple pounds" of muscle while working on his defense through film study and training.
"No matter how well you shoot it, how efficiently you score, when you can't make stops, you just can't really get any traction in the game," Kerr said during Warriors media week. "To me, our whole identity has to be based on our defense. We got to get stops, establish ourselves as a defensive team first, then the offense we'll figure out as we go."
Wiggins was active defensively with the Warriors last season, picking up five steals against the Los Angeles Lakers in his Golden State debut and notching a career-high four blocks against the Phoenix Suns a few days later. In fact, he blocked multiple shots in six of his 12 games with the Warriors, after doing it eight times in 42 games with the Timberwolves last season. Clearly, there's much more to defense than steals and blocks, but the numbers at least indicate a certain level of energy and commitment.
Here's an example of Wiggins' commitment, as he closes out hard to Jeff Green to run him off his spot, bites on a pump fake, but quickly recovers to block the shot. Keep in mind that the Warriors were down 32 points in the fourth quarter at the time, making Wiggins' effort all the more noteworthy.
A lot of defensive success comes from chemistry and communication, and Wiggins has the luxury of playing with a couple of familiar faces. Kelly Oubre Jr. went on his recruiting trip to Kansas during Wiggins' lone season in Lawrence, and Oubre said the two of them have connected because they're both "low key" and "introverts." Warriors assistant coach Aaron Miles also went to Kansas, and Kevon Looney knows Wiggins a bit from having played together during their high school days.
"I think he's gonna flourish with this team," Looney said of Wiggins during Warriors media week. "Playing with Steph is gonna be a great help for him. I'm excited to see what he can do. I know he's gonna take his game to the next level, and I'm just excited to be on the floor with him."
Even if Wiggins can't help get the Warriors back to championship contention through his play, he has another means of aiding the franchise's resurgence. Any trade for a star would likely involve moving Wiggins' contract, which has three years and nearly $95 million remaining, to match salary. With John Wall leaving Washington and Russell Westbrook coming in, all eyes are on Bradley Beal to see if he eventually requests a change of scenery. If and when that happens, Wiggins will almost assuredly be in any deal Golden State could offer.
But to think of Wiggins as strictly a trade chip is to do him a disservice. He has all the tools to evolve into the All-Star he seemed destined to become, and players have turned their careers around at much older than 25. Having an elongated offseason entrenched in the Warriors culture, combined with playing next to Curry and Green, should bring another level out of Wiggins. The question is whether it will be enough to bring Golden State back to prominence.
"Right now we've gotta think, 'why not us?' We've put in the work for it and we're still gonna keep working hard for it," Wiggins said on Tuesday. "We've got a great team, a great coaching staff, great fans. When Steph Curry's healthy, we all feel good on the team. We have a lot of young guys, you know, James [Wiseman]. I feel like things are looking good for us."