Andrew Wiggins’ growth with the Warriors is undeniable

Published June 15, 2022, 11:00 PMPolo Bustamante

Game 5 was further proof that the right situation changed the course of Andrew Wiggins’ career.

Andrew Wiggins is an interesting case of nature versus nurture.

He’s one of the most naturally gifted athletes to play the game. A player doesn’t get the nickname “Maple Jordan” if he doesn't have God-given athleticism. Talent was never an issue. It was what he did with that talent that was his problem.

Early in his career, Wiggins was in a tough situation with the Minnesota Timberwolves. In the first six seasons of his career, Wiggins had four head coaches, only one playoff appearance, and no All-Star selections. He got his buckets, sure. But that seemed like the only thing he was interested in. Even if a guy as athletically gifted as him could impact the game in so many other ways, he chose not to. 

Wiggins’ reputation for mediocrity followed him to Golden State when he was traded to the Warriors back in 2020. Fans and analysts didn’t understand why a championship team would trade for a perceived basketball slacker like Wiggins. The team thought otherwise.

“A lot of people looked at that trade like, oh, that's another piece they can move. We looked at the trade from the very beginning like that is a guy who can fit next to a healthy group absolutely well,” explained Draymond Green.

It was a partnership that needed work from both ends. Wiggins had to learn how to play the Warriors way. He couldn’t focus on just scoring. He had to exert effort in all aspects of the game, especially on the defensive end. The Warriors, for their part, knew they had a special talent in Wiggins. They just needed to nurture that talent and allow it to grow within their system.

The relationship that Wiggins and the Warriors have been building is finally paying off this season.

Wiggins has been one of the most consistent players for the Warriors on both ends of the floor this season. He’s happy as the team’s third option offensively and he’s always ready as the new weapon they can deploy defensively. He’s been the glue guy for the team, holding things together when they faced several injuries this season.

“That trust has been building for two and a half years now since he got here,” shared Green. “I think he started to feel it out, but coming into this year, he was an All-Star starter for a reason. He defended very well. He scored the ball very well and really just plugged right in. Like it wasn't like, oh, you need to call a set for him every time. He's kind of been getting it. He's continued to do that.”

The most impressive thing about Wiggins this season was how his play continued to rise as the stakes got higher.

“He's just been fantastic, not just in this series but throughout the playoffs,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “He's definitely confident. He's definitely enjoying the playoffs. He loves the challenge. He loves the competition. And he's found such a crucial role on our team, and I think that empowers him. He knows how much we need him, so he's been fantastic.”

The Warriors definitely needed Wiggins in Game 5.

After Steph Curry’s fiery performance in Game 4, the Boston Celtics keyed their defense on him. They limited Curry to just 16 points, with no threes, on just 31 percent shooting. Golden State needed someone else to step up, and just like he’s done all season long, Wiggins answered the call.

He led the team in scoring, dropping 26 points at a 52 percent clip. But it wasn’t his scoring that had the biggest effect on the result. It was everything else that he did. He grabbed 13 rebounds, played excellent defense on Jayson Tatum, and stayed aggressive all night long.

The biggest play of Game 5 came at the end of the third period. Boston came all the way back from a 16-point deficit to take the lead in the final moments of the quarter. That was until Jordan Poole drilled a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give the lead, and momentum, back to the Warriors.

What most people won’t remember was everything that happened before that shot. Wiggins locked Tatum up, forcing the Celtics to settle for a bad shot. He grabbed the miss, dribbled it up the court, attracting the defense, and timed his pass perfectly to a wide-open Poole.

“I think it's just, you know, staying active. You know, staying -- asserting yourself, even when you're tired or just finding reasons to motivate yourself to win, and I feel like it's just a competitive spirit in me. I love guarding every team's best player. I know it's huge. It's going to help win games, and it's something I look forward to,” Wiggins said about his big game.

He stayed aggressive in the fourth period. He continuously attacked the basket, relentlessly hounded Tatum, and fiercely battled for boards in the paint. He scored six points – all on drives to the hoop – during Golden State’s 14-4 run to open the quarter. His ninth and 10th point of the period was the exclamation point of the game.

His Game 5 performance is why the Warriors traded for Wiggins. They knew that they could buy low on a misunderstood player, and with a little investment, he could become special. Maybe even be the second-best player on an NBA Finals team.

“That's a guy -- you want a guy like that - when the stage gets big, they respond and play their best basketball, and that's what he's been doing,” said Green about Wiggins. “He's continued to get better. He's taken on every challenge that we have thrown in front of him. And that's been huge. And we need him to do that for one more win.”