Andrew Wiggins is the reigning Rookie of the Year. After an extremely promising second half of the season for the Timberwolves and clear progress as the year wore on, expectations continue to climb for the former Kansas Jayhawk.
Wiggins did not turn 20 years old until February, so his rookie year was officially his age-19 season. And it isn’t difficult to compare Wiggins’ first professional campaign with another 19 year-old wing player who also came into the league with sky-high expectations and managed to win the Rookie of the Year award despite a relatively inefficient rookie season.
His name is Kevin Durant.
Blue Man Hoop
Let’s get the obvious parallels out of the way.
Both players played one year at a major college basketball program before being drafted high (University of Kansas’ Wiggins was #1 in 2014, University of Texas’ Durant went #2 behind Ohio State’s Greg Oden in 2007) and playing their rookie season at 19 years of age.
Wiggins is listed at six-foot-eight while Durant is listed at six-foot-nine. Both players played pretty much interchangeably at shooting guard and small forward as rookies.
While Durant’s shooting numbers were better across the board in college (Durant shot .473/.404/.816 compared to Wiggins’ .448/.341/.775), the hype surrounding each players offensive game reached a fever pitch by the time they were selected on their respective draft nights. Additionally, the noise surrounding Wiggins’ defense may offset Durant’s offensive advantage somewhat as pro prospects.
The offensive numbers are eerily similar for age-19 Durant and age-19 Wiggins.
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We’ll break down the shooting numbers a bit more here in a moment as a large factor in predicting the future effectiveness of young players is where on the court those shots are coming from — do they understand where and how they can get off an efficient shot?
But back to the above chart — Durant’s first two seasons in the NBA are the only two campaigns that he failed to crack a total rebounding rate of under 10%. Part of that is he played less and less at the two-guard the further he got into his career, and the rest of it is no doubt an improved feel for the game, positioning, and adding a little bit of muscle and body mass.
Wiggins has already shown solid activity and instincts on the glass as a rookie, and especially on the offensive end of the floor where it seems as though he was able to tally a couple of buckets each game as a result of put-backs.
One statistic left off of the above chart that plays into Wiggins’ advantage in turnover rate is usage rate. Durant played on a very thin Seattle SuperSonics squad that finished just 20-62 with a starting lineup that often featured Earl Watson, Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, and Damien Wilkins. That meant that his usage rate reached a crazy 28.1% as a rookie.
Even though the 2014-15 Wolves won just 16 games, they had a number of high-usage offensive players that played heavy minutes when healthy at various times throughout the season — namely Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic. That meant that Wiggins’ usage rate was “just” 22.6% in his rookie year, at least partially explaining the lower turnover rate in comparison to Durant.
Much has been made of Flip Saunders’ insistence to involve his prized rookie in the post early and often in Wiggins’ professional career. It wasn’t efficient, and while Wiggins has a good post-game and a solid turnaround jumper (especially for a rookie), it’s simply not the best way to score in today’s efficiency-conscious NBA.
Here’s the breakdown of where Kevin Durant and Andrew Wiggins shot the ball in their age-19 rookie seasons, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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That’s right, Durant actually attempted more mid-range shots that Wiggins as a rookie. In fact, from 10 feet away from the rim to the three-point line, it wasn’t close: Durant attempted 47% of his shots in that part of the floor while Wiggins hoisted just 38.7% of his attempts in the same area.
Of course, Durant shot the ball much better from the mid-range. As a rookie, KD made 41.5% of his shots from 16 feet from the rim out to the arc while Wiggins made only 30.5% of those attempts. For as much attention as Wiggins’ step-back and turn-around jumpers have received, he was pretty far from anything resembling efficient in that area of the floor.
However, Durant attempted only 25.9% of his shots within three feet of the rim as a rookie, making 60.7%. Wiggins attempted 30.7% of his shots within three feet and made an impressive 66.5% in his rookie season.
In other words, Durant’s game was far from perfect as a rookie, both in strategy and execution. Things have changed since then for Durant, obviously, and that is very encouraging for Wolves fans that harbor some level of concern for some of Wiggins’ offensive tendencies throughout his rookie season.
Also, if I wasn’t telling you now that the below shot attempt was from Durant’s rookie season (and if the video wasn’t in fuzzy standard definition), you’d believe it was a screen shot from the 2014-15 Wolves featuring Andrew Wiggins.
Yep, that’s Durant curling around a screen and forcing a contested jumper from nineteen-feet or so away from the basket. And here’s a shot of Durant rising and firing over a double-team in the corner.
Each of those screen shots are from the below video of Durant highlights, mostly from his rookie year as part of the Seattle SuperSonics but with a few clips from the University of Texas near the beginning. And really, some of those Sonics clips could easily have been shots of a 19 year-old Wiggins. You’ll see what I mean.
Time for a final disclaimer: by no means am I arguing that Wiggins will turn into Durant. While there are certainly striking similarities between Durant’s 2007-08 campaign and Wiggins’ 2014-15 season, the two players are far from identical.
Durant was a much better shooter as a freshman in college and other than an up-and-down rookie campaign shooting-wise, he’s been a great shooter as a pro. That’s Wiggins’ biggest shortcoming heading into his sophomore season, but if nothing else this comparison proves that a player’s style and shot selection can be easily adjusted.
And perhaps more important, there is a clear precedent for an ultra-talented wing player that struggled with efficiency as a 19 year-old rookie to make sudden and rapid improvements in his age-20 and age-21 seasons. Durant posted a Win Shares per 48 minutes of .040 as a rookie while Wiggins finished the season with a .034 mark. Durant’s number shot up to .132 as a 20 year-old, which is a mark consistent of a solid starter in the league.
By 2009-10, Durant was leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to the playoffs as a 21 year-old All-Star and posting a crazy WS/48 of .238. And while Wiggins’ improvement may not be as rapid or drastic over the next couple of years, he’s got a better cast of characters around him then Durant did on those Sonic and Thunder teams early in his career.
The sky is the limit for Wiggins, and the Durant precedent would certainly be a solid one to follow.
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