On Wednesday, the Minnesota Timberwolves officially committed long-term to one of their young building blocks, inking 22-year-old Andrew Wiggins to a five-year, $146.5 million extension.
The max contract, which had reportedly been on the table for weeks, was a no-brainer for Minnesota if you think Wiggins is destined for the type of stardom long foreseen for him. But if you’re skeptical, as many observers are, that Wiggins truly possesses All-NBA potential, the deal looks awfully scary for the Timberwolves. What is clear is that the team is taking a substantial risk in committing so much money to such an uncertain player.
Andrew Wiggins' Minnesota final extension terms: five-year, $146.5M max deal — with no player option, league source tells The Vertical.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) October 11, 2017
Wiggins’ deal is less about rewarding who Wiggins has become and more about speculating on the potential he has flashed for the past half decade.
It’s easy to forget amid all that has happened since, but Wiggins was once a mega-prospect with as much hype as any high schooler since LeBron. He was the No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2014… until he reclassified and became the No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2013. He committed to Kansas and was named to the preseason All-America team as a freshman. Few players this century have face such massive expectations before even appearing in a college game.
From there, things got a little dicey for Wiggins. The guard was good at Kansas but disappeared on the court more than the Jayhawks would have liked. He lost his top-prospect status to Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid, and as the NBA Draft approached, some analysts speculated he could slip to No. 3. As it turned out, the Timberwolves selected Wiggins No. 1 overall after all, but some of his future-superstar sheen had been rubbed off.
Three years later, Wiggins’ NBA career is off to a solid start. He has lifted his scoring average from 16.9 points per game to 20.7 to 23.6 last year, as his jump shot has steadily improved. Five times last season he put up 40 or more points in a game. At his best, he’s the rare player who can truly carry his team.
But at the same time, Wiggins leaves plenty to be desired. He has never shot better than 46 percent from the field in the NBA. He is prone to off games and poor shooting nights. And, most troublingly, FiveThirtyEight named him last season’s “Least Defensive Player,” writing that he “barely jumps to contest shots, doesn’t run hard to close out, and gets lost watching the ball.” Add it all together, and Wiggins is the No. 57 player in the NBA, per ESPN, and the No. 50 player in the NBA, per Sports Illustrated, hardly the type of star who typically signs a max contract.
With Jimmy Butler arriving in Minnesota, Wiggins will likely see fewer touches and fewer shots. That means he’ll have to step up the non-scoring aspects of his game, staying focused on defense while finding open teammates and carefully choosing his spots on offense. Given the shape of his early career, it’s fair to wonder how effectively he’ll be able to pull that off.
For Wiggins to earn his new contract extension, he will need to improve steadily, particularly on defense, and find a highly productive role on a team that employs a similar player. If he can’t do that, Minnesota will be left with the type of highly paid volume scorer who weighs down a championship-caliber team.
The Timberwolves are done with their rebuilding stage. In Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, they now have two of the top 20 players in the NBA, and anything short of a postseason berth in 2017-18 will be a disappointment. Whether they progress into a title contender could depend in large part whether their new max-contract star plays like a max-contract star.