Andrew Wiggins embraces the attention, ready to thrive in it

Andrew Wiggins embraces the attention, ready to thrive in it
June 26, 2014, 8:45 am
Share This Post
Mark Strotman

Andrew Wiggins is humble enough not to want all the attention he receives.

He's also smart enough to understand that attention isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

And it's with that knowledge that the Kansas freshman enters tonight's NBA Draft, anxiously awaiting for Adam Silver to reveal whether he'll be joining former No. 1 picks Kyrie Irving and Anthony Bennett in Cleveland or become the foundation of the Bucks' rebuilding project in Milwaukee. There's also the possibility a third team - Philadelphia, Orlando or Utah - covets him enough to deal valuable future assets to obtain his services and become the face of a franchise in desperate need of one.

Wherever he lands, this is a new Andrew Wiggins. In the past the subdued, ear-to-ear smiling forward was ranked as the top recruit in his class, was named an All-American before he ever played a game for the Jayhawks and earned All-Big 12 efforts for his only season in Lawrence. His future will include shoe deals, millions of dollars and heaps of success in the NBA. But for the 19-year-old Canadian, this moment is about attacking his current situation the way he attacks the basket with his 44-inch vertical leap.

"I’m just living for the moment," he said.

Most years a player of Wiggins' caliber would be the surefire overall top pick like former freshmen Anthony Davis and John Wall before him. But in a loaded class he's got competition at the top with Duke's Jabari Parker; before teammate Joel Embiid broke his foot Wiggins could have gone as late as No. 3, though that worked out fine for His Airness and the Bulls two decades ago.

[RELATED: 2014 NBA first-round mock draft]

The Cavaliers, recipients of the top pick for the third time in the last four years, have a decision to make: play it safe after last year's Anthony Bennett debacle and draft Parker, whose scoring prowess (19.1 ppg) and size make him as close to a sure thing as there is in this year's class, or gamble on Wiggins. His shot is far from a sure thing - he made just 34 percent of his jumpers last year - and, despite his successful freshman season, he's still more of an athlete than anything and got by primarily on natural skill than fundamentals.

But those "weaknesses" are merely blips on the radar for a prospect who may not have shown off the total package in the Jayhawks' team-oriented offense but is oozing with potential. His jump-shot form doesn't need much tweaking, if any, and he's made a concerted effort to improve his ball handling, staying lower to the floor which should help decrease the 2.3 turnovers per game he averaged a year ago, eighth most in the Big 12 but not a real concern for a player with a usage rate upwards of 25 percent. There aren't statistics to show it, but Wiggins is the top perimeter defender in the draft, a trait that gets severely overlooked at times.

"I'm just trying to perfect everything," he said.

One area of his game Wiggins believes he's already perfected is his mental makeup. Whether a result of his contagious smile, laid back personality or cool composure on the court, the Toronto native was criticized at large for not possessing a killer instinct at Kansas. Some have even questioned his work ethic and passion for the game, wondering if he's got it in him to go toe-to-toe with the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant for 48 minutes a night, 82 games a season.

And while it may not have come in the form of being a vocal leader or having an in-your-face mentality, Wiggins dispelled those notions on multiple occasions.

He showed a knack for the spotlight in his second game with the Jayhawks, pouring in 16 second-half points - including six in the final 90 seconds - in a win over Parker and Duke at the Champions Classic at the United Center. He dealt with tough road environments when he dropped 26 points on Florida, the country's second most efficient defense by season's end, and went for 41 points at West Virginia. He helped hand No. 8 Iowa State their only home loss of the year with a 17-point, 19-rebound effort in January, and scored 29 points in a win at home against the Cyclones two weeks later.

[RELATED: Complete list of 2014 NBA Draft profiles]

But in today's social-media world, where instant analysis reigns king and a player is seemingly only as good as his most recent game, the doubters flocked any time Wiggins failed to live up to the hype of an All-American. A seven-point outing at Texas. Three points in 23 minutes against Oklahoma State. 1 of 6 shooting, three turnovers and as many personal fouls (four) as rebounds in Kansas' NCAA Tournament loss to No. 10 Stanford in the third round.

At the next level, however, the reserved Wiggins is going to face that kind of scrutiny. If LeBron James' back-to-back MVPs and championships were forgotten in the minds of some when he failed to three-peat, Wiggins won't stand a chance of avoiding it when he goes 3-for-14 in a double-digit loss on TNT. And while that once would have bothered Wiggins, a kid who was strongly considering Florida State over Kansas in part because it would better deflect the attention he didn't desire, he's ready for it now.

"It all just grows on you, really. My first year as a freshman you get, not nervous, but you hesitate a lot, not knowing what to say," Wiggins said of his dealing with public spotlight. "But as you keep doing it and doing it and doing it, it grows on you. You’ve just got to prepare yourself for it, really."

His passion for the game may not show the same it does for a player like Marcus Smart, but his competitive edge is as strong as ever. Whereas Parker said Wednesday that he believes he'll be the second overall pick, presumably because he prefers the Bucks over the Cavaliers, Wiggins has made it his priority to be the top pick. His reasoning?

"I think that’s more the competitive side of me," he said." "Just wanting to be above everybody else and not wanting anyone to go ahead of me."

Wherever Wiggins winds up tonight, he'll have his work cut out for him; the Cavaliers won just 33 games a year ago, while the Bucks limped to a 15-67 record. The spotlight on him won't dim, either, and he'll be picked apart when things aren't going his way, which they inevitably will at times for any 19-year-old tasked with building a franchise from the ground up, in Milwaukee's case.

His humility is as evident as his athleticism is, and as he reveals an ever-improving skill set to the NBA he'll also bring with him a passion for the game that surely will bring him success at the next level. Tonight the interviews, the measurements, the workouts and the 

"No matter what team I go to, I want to win. That’s my goal. No one wants to be a loser," he said. "I’m willing to do anything for the team to put ourselves in that situation."