We throw the word “bust” around so easily. You know who was a bust? Michael Olowokandi was a bust. LaRue Martin was a bust. Kwame Brown was a bust. Want to spread the playing field a little and include the NFL? Ja Marcus Russell was a bust. Tim Couch was a bust. Sam Bradford was a bust.
He owns an NBA Rookie of the Year trophy. He averaged more than 20 points a game in the NBA in three different seasons. He has started an All Star Game. By any measure, a player who accrues that kind of career should be spared seeing his name and “bust” in the same sentence.
Such is the burden of extraordinary talent, and being selected No. 1 overall in a draft. Hell, before he played a collegiate game at Kansas he’d been given an impossible-to-live-up-to nickname honoring both his homeland and a certain player whose precious skillset his talent hinted at: Maple Jordan.
Jimmy Butler, a Wiggins teammate at Minnesota and as exacting a judge as anyone, once said, “Wiggs has more God-given ability than any player in the league right now.”
So anything—everything—Wiggins did, there was always a caveat. There was always a sense he could do more. There was the belief he was a stat stuffer, a guy who’ll score you a bunch of points in loss after loss. He was dubbed the worst rebounder in the NBA. He was accused of leading the league in empty minutes.
And now, he is 48 minutes away from one of the great redemption stories in NBA history, maybe 48 minutes away from accepting the Bill Russell Trophy as MVP of the NBA Finals if the Warriors can close out the Celtics either in Game 6 on Thursday night in Boston or in Game 7 on Sunday in San Francisco.
Though it might take a surplus of cold-blooded, clear-eyed voters to deny Steph Curry the MVP award for a fourth time if the Warriors pull that off, the fact Wiggins is as prominent in the conversation as he is tells the most compelling story of these finals. He is averaging 18.4 points and 9.4 rebounds, but more specifically, in the two most important games of the season — and his life — he went for 17 points and 16 rebounds in Game 4 and followed that with 26 and 13 in Game 5, helping pull Golden State out of a two-games-to-one hole and push the Warriors to the brink of a title.
“It doesn’t get bigger than this,” Wiggins said after Game 5, and he said it with a satisfaction that lets you know: He has heard the whispers. He knows what people said about him. And he knows that when it mattered most, he elevated his game.
“I think it’s a reminder that for almost every player in the NBA, circumstances are everything,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “You kind of need to find the right place, the right teammates, that kind of stuff. Wiggs has been in great shape.”
You don’t often see a no. 1-overall pick endure the kind of humbling Wiggins has absorbed — and remember, this is his eighth season in the league — and then take a quantum leap forward.
Really, the only example who feels remotely similar is Jim Plunkett, who went No. 1 in the 1971 NFL Draft, had some early speed in New England (runner-up as Offensive Rookie of the Year) and then fell off the grid for seven years. Then, rather impossibly, he reemerged as a star with the Raiders, leading them to wins in Super Bowls XV and XVIII, and completely recalibrating the chronicle of his career.
The prelude to Wiggins’ star turn wasn’t quite as stark as Plunkett’s, but his development as an essential cog in a championship engine is every bit as improbable. The Warriors puzzled a lot of the league when they swapped D’Angelo Russell and a few lesser players for Wiggins and a couple of picks. They called the trade a lot of things, except for what it turned out to be: the missing ingredient.
“He’s embraced the challenge of consistency and what he’s capable of doing on both ends of the floor,” Curry said. “We’ve embraced him from Day 1. We try to paint a picture of what his skill set can do for us to reach the highest level.”
That plateau is well within their reach now. And somehow — improbably, impossibly — Andrew Wiggins has provided the proper push to get them there. Once a bust, now a boost. Who saw that coming, except maybe for Maple Jordan himself?