Future of Wolves rests on Andrew Wiggins' emergence

The list of players in NBA history who have averaged 20 points by age 20 is loaded with No. 1 overall picks, Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers. It includes Shaquille O'Neal, Adrian Dantley, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving.

Last year Andrew Wiggins became the 10th player to reach the mark, when he averaged 20.7 points per game in his second year with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Pure scoring is a volume stat, and there's a reason why so many high picks score a lot: They generally go to bad teams who need someone to make baskets.

Elton Brand, who had a good but not great career, is on it. As is Tyreke Evans, whose promising start was derailed by injuries. So it's not the holy grail number, but the track records of the stars on the list says plenty. It also leaves a range of outcomes for Wiggins, who is still a bit of a mystery.

Is he going to trend toward the superstars on that list? Will this, the golden third season when so many of the league's great players took a leap, be when he does? These are vital questions for the future of the Wolves and what they're going to make of their promising young roster.

Tom Thibodeau knows it. Of all the projects he's working on in taking over a team that hasn't made the playoffs for 12 years, Wiggins is a priority. He has spent a lot of time with Wiggins since getting the job, being with him in individual workouts, video sessions and on the road. The team's potential is tied largely to Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins, but it is Wiggins whose future appears less clear.

"When you look at what Andrew's done, for a guy his age, it's very impressive," Thibodeau said. "He has to continue to grow, and so does Karl. We don't want to be known as young players with potential forever. That has to translate into something for our team. So I think the big thing is the challenge to be complete."

Wiggins has developed a strong midrange game, and he has gotten more comfortable with this back to the basket. He gets to the foul line at a high rate, driving his scoring numbers, and although his 3-point shooting numbers aren't great -- 30 percent for his career -- he made them at a 41 percent clip after the All-Star break last season. He has added bulk, though he still sometimes gets bodied by bigger small forwards.

More alarming is his rebounding, just 3.6 per game last season, and his squishy defensive numbers. He ranked 38th among small forwards in real plus-minus, not surprising as the Wolves finished in the bottom five in team defense last year. Beyond the numbers, though, the eye test shows he's not yet reaching his capabilities as a defender. This is clearly an area where Thibodeau is going to work.

He molded Jimmy Butler, a player with perhaps fewer physical gifts than Wiggins but remarkable will, into one of the league's best wing players. Comparing Wiggins to Butler isn't fair; they have different traits, and Butler is older. But Thibodeau needs Wiggins to trend more toward Butler, who flourished under Thibodeau's daily challenges.

"His first two seasons have been very good, but it hasn't translated into wins," Thibodeau said. "Commitment to improve is huge for us."

Wiggins is feeling it. His first few months with Thibodeau have been heavy on defense and accountability, the gravelly voice on him with every defensive rotation. Wednesday in front of a quiet preseason crowd in Lincoln, Nebraska, Thibodeau's voice boomed throughout the arena as Wiggins worked against the bigger and more mature Wilson Chandler of the Denver Nuggets. Wiggins had 20 points in just 28 minutes; his shot wasn't on, but his knack for getting to the foul line was in midseason form. He was trying to be in the right place at the right time, even if it wasn't always the case.

"I looked at my stats, and I was like, 'I'm too big and too athletic to average three rebounds a game,'" Wiggins said. "A lot of people can score. What else can you do?"

The book on Wiggins thus far in his young career is that he's immensely talented but sometimes looks like he doesn't have intensity to match. Some of the best games of his career came in his first few games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that traded him for Kevin Love after letting him twist in the wind for the entire summer of 2014.

In those games, he played with a fire in trying to prove a point; he averaged 32 points in his first three games against Cleveland. As impressive as it was, it left a question as to what could motivate him to do it more often.

"I looked at my stats, and I was like, 'I'm too big and too athletic to average three rebounds a game.' A lot of people can score. What else can you do?"
Andrew Wiggins

"I don't think you really know a player until you coach him yourself," Thibodeau said. "So you hear things, you see things. I know when I coached against Andrew his rookie year, he gave us fits. I know what he's capable of doing. I think it's the personality type. Winners come in all personality types. Some guys have that quiet confidence, and they really go after you. Some guys can fool you, too. Sometimes a loud guy who you think is something other than what he's presenting, you find out he's not what he pretends to be. So you look at the actions more than anything else."

Thibodeau has told his players about what he learned working with Team USA last summer, when he saw the league's best players during their offseason pouring work in after practices and talking to each other, going over ideas. For someone who is never satisfied himself, the work ethic of the elite appealed to Thibodeau.

And after early practices in training camp, there was Wiggins working out after practice with Thibodeau watching over him and then walking with him to the locker room with instructions.

"I'm trying to take a leadership role; I'm really trying to break this playoff slump," Wiggins said. "When we were working out on individual stuff, coach tries to get to know you -- he really tries to learn your game. We can be as good as we want to be. I know that's a general thing to say, I know. We're working on it."

For October, that's all that can really be said. Wiggins is working on it. So is Thibodeau.

"You get into tough situations, how does a guy respond? How does a guy work? When you're going against the best, how does he respond? And I think that gets revealed over time," Thibodeau said. "But the drive, the passion, the intelligence -- those things go a long way. Usually the guys who put the work into it, those are the guys who improve."