Smiling, looking proud, perhaps even relieved. As Andrew Wiggins sat at the podium with his championship hat and championship tee and showed off the Canadian flag, it was a crowning dream realized: Maple Jordan having the last laugh.
Impacting the game on all levels, Wiggins finished with 18 points, six rebounds, five assists, four steals, and three blocks in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to help Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors clinch yet another title and forever put to bed the notion that he hasn’t lived up to the expectations of being a top draft selection in 2014 or receiving a rookie max contract extension in 2017. In doing so, he has earned the respect of many and turned haters into believers.
“It feels good, it feels amazing,” Wiggins said. “You put in so much work, so much time to make it here at this result of becoming a champion. There’s nothing like it now I’m gonna celebrate like crazy. ”
It will always be easy to remember Wiggins’ dunk on Luka Doncic in the Western Conference Finals. It was a combination of elegance and power as he glided through the air that made it utterly mesmerizing. There are big threes he made, and mid-range bailouts, too. How about the way he marauded the offensive glass in Boston towards the end of Game 4 of the NBA Finals to help clinch a pivotal victory that squared the series 2-2?
What I will also remember is the end of the third quarter of Game 5, when with the Celtics clinging to a two-point lead, Jayson Tatum was matched up with Andrew Wiggins for what was supposed to be the final possession. Grant Williams came over to set a screen to get Tatum switched onto Jordan Poole, but Wiggins wouldn’t have any of it. In the process of being swallowed whole, Tatum evacuated with a pass to Jaylen Brown. When Brown missed his three-point attempt, it was Wiggins who skied highest for the rebound with just under four seconds remaining and made his way down the court. Just when you thought he’d throw up an unlikely heave, he found Poole for a better shot from the Finals logo, a bank shot that went in and gave the Warriors the lead heading into the fourth quarter. Golden State didn’t trail again.
Over and over in a Golden State uniform, Wiggins has had sequences like these that spell WINNER. This isn’t even to say let’s just celebrate these pockets of brilliance because there wasn’t much else to talk about. The native of Thornhill, Ontario was an absolute monster in the Warriors’ final three games — all wins — averaging 20.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks while playing lockdown defense on Jayson Tatum, who shot 36.2 percent for the series.
Wiggins was convincingly the second-best Warriors player in the Finals and arguably their second-most consistent player of the entire playoff run. Imagine that for a second, Wiggins and the word “consistent” together in a sentence. It’s been a minute waiting to see it happen but it’s here and it’s spectacular.
“They challenged me: Draymond, Klay, Steph, Andre, all the vets,” Wiggins said. “They challenged me every day, every time I stepped on the court they challenged me. That’s motivational, those are future Hall of Famers so whenever they tell me to do something or challenges, I just wanna get it done and prove it to them and earn their respect. ”
That’s a far cry from the player who was openly mocked for his lack of energy and effort to the point where beloved basketball show Game of Zones dramatized Jimmy Butler’s vengeful practice session in Minnesota by having him slaughter the team. During this battle, a heart emerges only for then coach Tom Thibodeau to quip back to the suggestion it was Wiggins’ with, “It’s too big.”
Through the majority of his career with the Timberwolves, Wiggins was much maligned and there was plenty of blame to be shared. A player with all the potential in the world, he seemingly only flashed it as and when he pleased, which meant either against the Cleveland Cavaliers who traded him or his hometown team the Toronto Raptors. Against those two opponents, he’s averaged over 22 points, five rebounds, and three assists on very good percentages. Why couldn’t he be this guy against the rest of the league? Did he not love the game enough? Was Minnesota just a soul-sucking environment that incubated losing habits?
For whatever reasons it didn’t happen with the Wolves, his trade to Golden State was going to set the record straight for better or worse. Until that point, the majority of it was on Wiggins as far as the public was concerned — a player with plenty of hype who played the game in an inefficient manner and always left you on edge wondering if you’d get your money’s worth.
Even the moments that could have endeared him to Canadians escaped him in the most excruciating fashion. In 2015, he was a member of the squad that was shocked in Mexico City by Venezuela 79-78 in the semifinals, when a win would have sent them to the Rio Olympics. After skipping a last-chance qualifier in 2016, he also opted out of World Cup qualifying games in 2018 and the World Cup itself in 2019.
The 2020-21 NBA season showed an Andrew Wiggins who was learning, growing. Bad habits were being slowly but steadily kicked to the curb and replaced with decisions that suited the best interests of the team. The Warriors knocked on the door of a post-season return, but a swift play-in tournament exit left them licking their wounds. He showed up for Canada’s last-chance Olympic qualifier in Victoria, BC and singlehandedly willed them back into the game to force overtime courtesy a fadeaway game-tying three-pointer but the team still fell heartbreakingly short. Another summer with the Dubs’ structure fully instilled and another training camp, Wiggins was ready to make real, winning noise.
With Klay Thompson still recovering from first a torn ACL in his left knee and then a ruptured right Achilles tendon, Wiggins took on the required onus and defended opposing team’s best players to help the Warriors look very, very familiar. When he was named an All-Star starter — amid a degree of controversy — it was a coming of age moment regardless of what onlookers thought. Things tapered off some when Thompson made his return and Draymond Green missed time through injury, but by then Golden State goal posts were always going to be within the prism of the playoffs.
That vision has now crystallized, Wiggins can be a dependable tertiary scorer, sometimes even a secondary one. He can be a terrific primary defender. He can go get it on the glass possession after possession and night after night. He can make reads that make his teammates better. We can all stand and applaud.
It wasn’t all just Wiggins’ fault in Minnesota. The situation matters, and given the right environment, Wiggins has delivered. He has wiped the slate clean. So what if he isn’t the main character? Who didn’t enjoy Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight or Mahershala Ali in Moonlight? Given a role outside the main spotlight, Wiggins showed that he can very much fit within a team with championship aspirations and be every bit as good as Canada needs him to be.
“We wouldn’t be here without Wiggs,” Kerr said. “His defense throughout the playoffs has been amazing. The threat he provides offensively gives us another dynamic, it’s just been beautiful to watch him blend in with the core group. ”
A legitimate piece of the puzzle that is the dynastic Warriors. This is the beginning of a new window, not just a final feather in the cap for Golden State. Thompson will enter next season looking to play a full year for the first time since 2018-19, Curry and Green will be themselves. Jordan Poole will be better, so will Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. James Wiseman will re-enter the fold.
With the expected physical burden that will come with deep playoff runs, it’s understandable that Wiggins couldn’t commit to the three-year deal Team Canada’s head coach Nick Nurse was looking to make good on the men’s team’s hoop dreams. When he can commit, he is worthy of being an exception.
At his best, which now comes more often than not, Wiggins has proven he can help bridge the gap between good and great.