Defensive Impact, the Most Exciting Aspect of Andrew Wiggins’ Potential

by Rafael Uehara

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Andrew Wiggins is the most visible figure in college basketball in a while and the most hyped pro prospect in half-a-decade due to his prolific athletic ability at such a young age. Wiggins’ skill set is not quite as developed as his physical profile but he is mostly a victim of expectations impossibly difficult to reach. Ball handling and shooting consistency are aspects of Wiggins’ game that could use improvement but the idea that an 18-year-old should be a complete player is extremely misguided.

He is not as polished a scorer, passer and ball handler as Jabari Parker but two aspects make Wiggins the top prospect expected to declare for the 2014 draft at this moment; his open court prowess and his defense, the latter the most exciting part of his game in my opinion. Wiggins’ commitment to that end of the floor is quite impressive considering his age. It’s very hard to find plays he is not locked in. The combination of his natural interest in providing full effort when the opponent has the ball, his six-foot-eight height, seven-foot wingspan, quick moving feet and explosive leaping ability provides Wiggins the potential to become one of the very best defenders in the game.

Defending in isolation, he has already demonstrated as much. Wiggins is not necessarily unbeatable off the dribble. Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin enjoyed some success in their meeting early last month. But he can be considered an elite one-on-one stopper at the college level. Wiggins possesses great lateral mobility and is hardly ever blown by. He has demonstrated a good understanding of Kansas’ defensive principles, consistently sending the opposing driver towards the help. His athleticism helps him overwhelm smaller opponents and Bill Self has asked him to defend point guards in multiple occasions. That has resulted in some foul trouble in a couple of first halves but Wiggins has logged a team-leading 373 minutes in the first 12 games, showing the capability of staying on the floor while maintaining a high level of intensity in prevention.

Hoop-math.com has the Jayhawks allowing just 49.2% shooting at the rim, the 22nd best mark in college basketball. Wiggins has played a meaningful role in the team’s interior protection. He has 11 of Kansas’ 68 blocks, ranking third on the team. Wiggins has displayed good instincts in help-defense, though he hasn’t been as impactful as he is capable of, at times being too hesitant to leave his man and more actively seal the edge of the lane. Due to Joel Embiid’s and Jamari Traylor’s presence, Kansas does not need Wiggins to be an overaggressive help-defender outside of the principles of their scheme to make up for a shortage of interior protection from their big men but with his long arms and explosive leaping, Wiggins has the ceiling of becoming more of a true force in weak-side shot blocking than we have seen in the first couple months.

The one aspect of Wiggins’ defense that is subpar is his navigation through screens. He always goes under them, which makes it fair to assume that’s how he is coached to defend them. With his quickness, Wiggins should be able to go around the big and recover to contain dribble penetration better than we have seen at this point. He often gets caught on picks. Even when the opponent doesn’t attack off the screen right away, Wiggins has at times been a less effective isolation defender after getting screened. And opponents have already started to catch up on it. New Mexico had a game-plan built around screening Wiggins quite a bit and was successful. The Lobos scored 10 points in the five possessions in which they screened him and the ball handler finished the play with a shot, turnover or assist and were able to generate quality ball movement in several other occasions.

According to kenpom.com, Kansas has posted an adjusted defensive rating of 94.2 against the 11th toughest combination of offenses in the country. Embiid gets a lot of credit for his outstanding shot blocking but one can argue Wiggins has played just as a big role. His commitment to playing hard on defense provides Self the flexibility of always having him guard the opponents’ best perimeter scorer or put him on the top of the zone he has experimented with in the last couple of weeks. Because he is such a smooth athlete, Wiggins’ effort does not pop out of the screen like Michael Kidd-Gildchrist’s, for example, but is evident to those that watch him closely. He is not yet a force that impacts every single play around him but the ceiling is very much there. While many focus on whether he is aggressive enough in the half-court offense or the improvement of his jump-shot, I believe it’s his defensive impact the most exciting aspect of Wiggins’ potential.

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