How Andrew Wiggins has turned into the Warriors’ go-to wing defender

Peninsula Premier Admin

Asked about Andrew Wiggins’ long-running nickname “Maple Jordan,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was flabbergasted.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “that’s a thing?”

Kerr, who played on Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the 1990s, had never heard of the snappy moniker. It was bestowed upon Wiggins when he was a top high-school prospect growing up in syrup-slinging Toronto. Years later, Wiggins is the NBA’s all-time leader for points by a Canadian-born player. It’s something he takes pride in.

“I play for my country,” Wiggins said after Sunday’s one-point win over the Toronto Raptors. “Everything I do, I’m Canadian. So, I embrace it.”

But despite having scored 9,118 points through seven seasons — 152 more than any other Canadian to play in the NBA — it is his commitment to playing sticky defense that has helped the Warriors establish themselves as a playoff contender and Wiggins shed a more undesirable label.

After Wiggins signed a five-year, $146.5 million contract extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2017, labeled the 2014 No. 1 pick the league’s “Least Defensive Player,” concluding through analytics that being guarded by Wiggins was the equivalent of getting a wide-open shot.

In 2014, the Timberwolves acquired Wiggins in a trade for Kevin Love hoping he would push the franchise toward title contention. Instead during his 5 1/2 seasons, Minnesota made just one playoff appearance and failed to rank better than 24th in defensive rating in a single season.

Wiggins was accused by media and fans for lacking toughness and leadership skills and picked up a reputation for being one of the worst defenders in the league. Despite his easy-going demeanor, Wiggins takes exception with that assumption.

“I feel like I always play good defense,” Wiggins said Sunday. “I just feel like here the culture is different. Here, everything is different, especially with the guys I have behind me. It’s not just me out there on defense.”

Along with 2017 Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green, pesky wing Kelly Oubre Jr. and a savvy defender in Stephen Curry, Wiggins is helping anchor Golden State’s tightening defense.

Over the last four games, the Warriors have held their opponents to fewer than 110 points and a combined 42.6% shooting. They have the third-best defensive rating in the league during that stretch.

Wiggins is an important factor in that. In the last 10 days, he’s bothered top scorers such as Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Pascal Siakam with his length, athleticism and anticipation.

Guarding Siakam on the final possession of the Warriors’ 106-105 win over the Raptors, Wiggins flipped his hips, waved his arms and stayed in front of Siakam from half-court to the foul line. Siakam’s tough turnaround jumper rimmed out and the Warriors held on.

“He’s been amazing,” Curry said. “He’s taken the challenges in one-on-one defense, being able to be physical, use his length, just make guys work.”

Against the Raptors, Wiggins made timely closeouts, recorded four blocks and guarded everyone from Kyle Lowry to Siakam.

In the previous two games against the Clippers, Wiggins forced Leonard into tough shots and turnovers, and prevented the former Finals MVP from getting into a scoring rhythm. next stretch will be just as challenging as the last. Over the next week, Wiggins will guard Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Phoenix’s Devin Booker before a marquee matchup against LeBron James and the Lakers on Martin Luther King Day.

“We now have someone we can put on the opposing team’s best player,” Kerr said. “Whether it’s Pascal Siakam, LeBron, Kawhi, or Paul George — the ability to put Andrew on those types of players to use his size and athleticism, it’s really the key to our current roster construction.”

Those defensive assignments used to fall to Golden State’s assortment of long, defensive-minded wings. But with Klay Thompson sidelined last season with an ACL tear and now a season-ending Achilles tear, Andre Iguodala in Miami and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, the Warriors briefly had a void on the perimeter.

This is why they made the deadline deal to trade point guard D’Angelo Russell to Minnesota for Wiggins last season. Despite his uninspired reputation, the Warriors believed they could coax Wiggins, a 6-foot-7 forward with a near 7-foot wingspan, into recognizing his defensive potential.

No longer expected to be the savior of a franchise, Wiggins has settled into his role. In 10 games he has averaged 17.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, made a career-high 38.5% of his 3-point shots and graded out as one the top defensive wings in the league.


Data via

When Thompson returns next season, he will be doing so after two major lower body injuries that could sap him of his previous defensive dominance. With the 25-year-old Wiggins under contract through 2023, the Warriors have insurance. But if Thompson can still be a lockdown perimeter defender, Golden State will approach the sort of defensive versatility they had during their five Finals runs.

“We’re not asking him to change our franchise,” Kerr said of Wiggins. “We’re asking him to play defense, run the floor and get buckets. He’s capable of doing all of that.”

This won’t reinforce the “Maple Jordan” nickname, but it will stop websites from labeling Wiggins as the “Least Defensive Player” and a “bust.” As for what he should be called next, simple may be better.

“He definitely takes up the challenge every single night,” said guard Damion Lee. “He is a two-way player.”

Contributed by local news sources

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