Andrew Wiggins: A statistical analysis of the present and what’s to come

TORONTO, CANADA - JANUARY 30: The jersey of Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA - JANUARY 30: The jersey of Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Andrew Wiggins has been a polarizing figure thus far in his young career. Let’s take an analytical view at his present and future.

Six feet, eight inches. Two-hundred pounds. Seven-foot wingspan. Forty-four-inch vertical leap. Twenty points-per-game.

In a vacuum, the player described above would be a highly-coveted, high-volume scoring wing; the elixir of the modern NBA. This player, a player that once received lofty comparisons out of college, landing him the nickname “Maple Jordan,” has quickly become one of the NBA’s most controversial players.

That player? Andrew Wiggins, of course.

In his first four seasons, Andrew Wiggins has averaged 19.9 points per game with a 44.9 percent field goal percentage and a league-average 3-point percentage of 33.1 percent. In a pure box-score setting, these numbers would undoubtedly translate to something close to an All-Star; possibly when compounded with good defense could stretch to All-NBA recognition.

Yet, many tout Wiggins as a player below replacement-level, completely unworthy of the four-year, $146 million contract he inked this past summer. What do the numbers say?

For the duration of his career to this point, Wiggins has been a relatively inefficient, yet high volume scorer whose game is largely one-dimensional. He was drafted number-one overall in 2014 with the expectation that when put as the primary option on a flailing Timberwolves team, his game would develop on both sides of the ball, drawing him comparisons to elite two-way players such as DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard.

Yet, whether it be attributed to poor coaching, lackadaisical work ethic, or just a simple void of pure talent, to this point in his career, Andrew Wiggins has not lived up to the exacting standards set for him.

Charted above is Andrew Wiggins’ career arc to this point under SACUMUR, a statistical measuring and projecting system that compounds per-36-minute usage adjusted statistics with efficiency and other advanced statistics as well as historical trends (read more here).

Wiggins is evidently well-below the standard of play that can be expected from a replacement-level player, an observation reaffirmed by his career negative VORP and TPA scores. Granted, Wiggins has been playing in losing situations for the majority of his career, but his teammate, fellow number-one overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, has managed to put up well-above average numbers in these respective fields, even finishing 13th last season in TPA, despite taking fewer field goal attempts than his 23-year old counterpart.

To delve into the purely numeric aspect of the chart, Wiggins’ first season score is comparable to an average rookie, and he took an expected relatively significant jump his second year. His score marginally slid his third year, showing no deviation from historical norms, but when the average player would revert to the mean their fourth year (this year) or possibly take a very significant jump, Wiggins regressed by 51 percent.

Some may attribute this backslide to the addition of Butler, who plays a similar role to what Wiggins played in last year’s offense and continues to play in Butler’s absence, but Wiggins is still managing nearly 16 shots a game — most on the team. Disregard these numbers if you want, but history would tell us these numbers are very disconcerting.

Here, we see the same graph as above, but contrasted with those of Corey Brewer and Will Barton.

These two players are generally considered to be very average — generic if you will — players at their respective positions. Corey Brewer, a traditional wing, and Will Barton, a traditional shooting guard, were chosen because not only are their scores and career arcs somewhat similar to that of Wiggins, but it also offers a sample size of a small forward and a shooting guard, as Wiggins often plays somewhere in between these roles.

Barton is in his fifth NBA season, and few regard him to have the potential that Wiggins has. Yet he has scored higher than Wiggins in every season of their respective careers, and projects to score more than Wiggins in the coming years with superior efficiency — a ghastly reality for Timberwolves fans and Wiggins backers alike.

On the other hand, in his first four seasons, Corey Brewer scored stride-for-stride with Wiggins, showing alternating progression and regression with the exception of his fourth year. Should Wiggins have been undrafted, we should be happy with comparison to a player of this mediocre caliber. Yet, woe is the Timberwolves fanbase as Wiggins was not undrafted but was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2013.

Of the other top draft picks from 2008-15, only two have never made an All-Star team: Anthony Bennett and Wiggins.

Let’s take a look at how SACUMUR predicts Wiggins to perform over the next four years of his career, the duration of his extension and likely the beginning of his prime. Perhaps the future will be brighter.

Wiggins projects to progress each of the following three years, followed by sharp regression in his fourth year. I would not put too much stock in this eighth-year regression, as this regression is very natural and most players of his position experience similar regression in their eighth year. If his ninth year was displayed, it would show mean reversion, followed by one last relatively sharp jump, followed by leveling off the following two years and gradual median-adjusted decline for the rest of his career.

Focusing just on the four-year predictions displayed on these graphs, what is stark and alarming about the numbers is not the overall arc of his career, but rather the pure numeric value of his projected score. In his median career outlook, the most likely scenario, Wiggins projects to be a slightly above replacement-level player. A Kent Bazemore, maybe a Rudy Gay if you will. Yes, this production out of a number-one pick is incredibly disappointing, but any championship caliber team needs solid role players.

And if the Timberwolves can somehow hit a home run in the draft, a prime KAT, extraneous superstar, an aging Jimmy Butler, and an efficient Andrew Wiggins would be a very formidable lineup.

Concerning Wiggins’ ceiling, one might notice that there is an astronomical difference between Wiggins’ ceiling function and his median function. This discrepancy is to be attributed to the simple fact that Wiggins undeniably has all the potential in the world. Any given year, if things go absolutely right for Wiggins, he could easily soar to be a near All-Star level player, reflected by his ceiling function for the upcoming years.

His floor function, slightly more probable than his ceiling, is simply a reflection of his career to this point. In his fourth season, Wiggins has shown very minimal improvement, and even regression as he has aged, and at the point of his career he is at, there is a somewhat significant likelihood that Wiggins remains at the level of play he is currently at. Should that be the case, the Timberwolves fanbase, and franchise as a whole, is in store for a very disappointing future.

For additional reference, I’ve included a graph of Wiggins median projection versus Rudy Gay and Corey Brewer’s career SACUMUR arc.

I have made my living by being an adamant defender of analytics and their integration into modern basketball, forming all my basketball opinions and thoughts through some prism of numbers. Yet, these numbers I love so much, these numbers that are revolutionizing the game, have one, deathly flaw. The flaw? They cannot measure heart. Analytics are inanimate, they are an algorithm, to which I plug an input and receive an output. Humans are not. Humans are complex, they have intangible intricacies that extend past what the eye can see.

It is one of these intricacies that drive the greatest athletes, that drove Jordan to reach the epitome of basketball prowess, that drove Michael Phelps to never settle, and that drives Tom Brady to keep winning and to sustain success. Some call this determination or perseverance. Some call it killer instinct. I call it desire. For Andrew Wiggins to one day fulfill the potential naturally instilled within him, he needs the desire.

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Whether he has it inside of him, I cannot say, but to all that watch him, it is evident that he has another gear, a dormant state which when activated could propel him, and his franchise, to greatness. It’s just a matter of devotion. So Andrew, when I call you replacement-level, prove me wrong. Prove me to be an idiot.

As a lifelong Minnesota sports fan, my instinctual proneness to hope is gone. For a few moments each decade, my hope is restored, like when Chris Webber’s 3-pointer rimmed out in Game Seven back on 2004, when Brett Favre led that final Vikings drive of the 2008 season, or most recently when I thought destiny was upon us after Stefon Diggs sprinted down the sideline after a miraculous catch.

Nonetheless, the curse ensures good things cannot happen to us. The Vikings are still 0-4. The Timberwolves are no closer to a ring than they were 13 years ago. The North Stars are still in Dallas. When I was still full of youth and hope, I once thought it would be Kevin Love that would end the curse. Then I thought, perhaps it would be this 18-year-old passing phenomenon out of Spain, or the speedy Syracuse guard.

When they flamed out, I put my chips on Derrick Williams, who inevitably tortured my soul before leaving it shattered and lost. Finally, my destitute, indigent soul, with only a sliver of hope left, put the last of my eggs into Andrew Wiggins’ basket.

Perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps I should have attempted to preserve it, perhaps I should have forfeited it altogether. But no, I succumbed to my instinct, and now the past is the past. It is out of my hands.

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So, Andrew, I have one last petition for you. For me, my family, and the entire state of Minnesota, prove me wrong. Please, please prove me wrong.