Big Game Wiggins Is Making Everyone Forget About the Years of “Wasted Minutes”

The late Flip Saunders had a way of describing the worst of Andrew Wiggins—those stretches when a then-rookie Wiggins would fade into irrelevance, not to be seen or heard from for entire quarters at a time. He called them “wasted minutes.” And over the years, four different Timberwolves coaching administrations would attempt to weed them out, with no real success.

Wiggins would be dominant one night and irrelevant the next. A two way force and then a piece of furniture. Coaches and executives in Minnesota clung to the way Wiggins would perform in big games—like matchups with superstar wings or against the Cavs, the team that drafted him first overall just to trade him—and puzzled over how to entice the young forward to summon that same effort and intensity for every opponent. That disparity came to define Wiggins in his first five-plus seasons in the NBA, as he earned a reputation as a hollow scorer on a losing team.

Then he became a warrior. It’s taken time for Wiggins to find his way with Golden State, and for the team around him to become whole again. Yet at this point, the fit is undeniable.

Wiggins was at the center of the frame on Monday night, as the Warriors defeated the Celtics 104-94 to take a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals. He willed his way to a monster 26-point, 13-rebound outing while hounding Jayson Tatum for almost the entire game. Not a single minute wasted. It was the second time in his career that Wiggins posted back-to-back double-doubles, and he did it on the biggest stage with the greatest stakes. Maybe the secret to making Big Game Wiggins the standard issue was simply to make every game matter.

“It doesn’t get bigger than this,” Wiggins said with a smile.

The same player who rated as one of the worst rebounders at his size over his first five years in the NBA bodied up bigs to pull down essential boards in traffic. The flighty scorer who used to settle for empty-calorie jumpers drove on the Celtics whenever he could—including for a dunk to punctuate the win in its final minutes. It’s an incredible evolution, above and beyond what the Warriors had hoped for when they acquired Wiggins via trade in 2020. “We had no idea that he would make this kind of contribution,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “But I think it’s a reminder that for almost every player in the NBA, circumstances are everything.”

At the time, the trade for Wiggins was big news, but not necessarily regarded as a move that could lead the Warriors back to the Finals. Among other moving parts, the Warriors sent D’Angelo Russell to Minnesota for Wiggins and the lottery pick that would become Jonathan Kuminga. It was the move most emblematic of Golden State’s dual-track philosophy: a parlay for both a small forward Bob Myers and his staff thought could help the team in the near future and a lottery talent who could help the warriors extend their prominence down the line . Wiggins alone justifies the deal. The move was a work of vision from an organization that saw something in him other teams didn’t.

“If our environment can’t make somebody better, then we’re doing something wrong,” Myers said after the trade. “Then our environment, our coaching staff, and me, and all the support we provide isn’t worth that much if we don’t believe we can improve people.”

Back in November, Warriors governor Joe Lacob boasted to Tim Kawakami of The Athletic that the move for Wiggins and the pick that became Kuminga was “maybe the greatest deal we’ve ever done.” He could be right. With Golden State just one win away from the title, the addition of Wiggins looks like a move with championship-altering implications.

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

And it was all predicated on the idea that Wiggins could be something more than he had ever been. Not in production, per se, but in magnitude. Golden State has needed Wiggins to do the things no other Warrior can do: guard top-flight scorers the way an aging Andre Iguodala and the long-injured Klay Thompson used to, and bring some explosion to one of the game’s most balletic offenses. Wiggins averaged better than 18 points a game in both the conference finals and the finals, leveraging the space created by his teammates to cut straight through stifling defenses. The fact that he’s shooting 25 percent from beyond the arc in this championship series doesn’t even really matter—because Wiggins isn’t standing in the corner, plugging a gap. The younger warriors needed a forward like Harrison Barnes to be a rigid piece. The current warriors need Wiggins to be a dynamic one.

“These guys challenge you,” Wiggins said. “Every day before the game, they will tell you: We need you. That’s important, and I love the fact that they do that.”

Those words mean something different when they come from some of the most accomplished players of their generation. There is a pressure that comes with working alongside someone like Stephen Curry, but with it comes the chance to compete for history. Wiggins hath risen to that occasion, striving fearlessly through the greatest moments of his basketball life.

“He’s embraced the challenge of consistency and what he’s capable of doing on both ends of the floor,” Curry said. “The fact that there’s an opportunity for him to do what he’s doing [is] because of the way that we play and because of the way that we’ve embraced him from day one. [We] try to paint a picture of what his skill set can do for us to reach the highest level.”

With that support, the warriors now take Wiggins’s effort and force as a given. His coach lauds him for his tireless rebounding, and his teammates marvel at his sense of urgency. The promise of a career is coming to fruition, as all the qualifiers surrounding Wiggins melt away. Waste not, want not. A championship is within reach on Thursday, though securing it in Boston against an opponent of this caliber will require unfailing energy and extraordinary focus. It’s remarkable in its own right that the warriors know Wiggins is up for it.

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