MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — In the throes of a sometimes-contentious negotiation on a contract extension with the Timberwolves, Ricky Rubio sat down at a table and started to recount the reasons he wanted to stay in Minnesota.
His first three seasons were filled with disappointment, injuries and losses, and the Wolves had recently traded the only established star they have had since Kevin Garnett. Kevin Love, who turned so many of Rubio’s nifty passes into assists, was gone to Cleveland, leaving the point guard behind with a roster in flux.
But there was something about the crown jewel of the three-player package the Wolves got in return for Love; something about the way 19-year-old Andrew Wiggins carried himself under a spotlight that has blinded so many others; something in the way he moved in practice that told Rubio everything eventually was going to be OK.
“He always looks like he’s going in slow motion while everyone around him is moving 100 miles per hour,” Rubio said on that October night before the season began. “He’s going to be great.”
Wiggins isn’t there yet and everything is not OK in Minnesota. But three months into his rookie season, and a month before he turns 20, the No. 1 overall draft pick is starting to give the Timberwolves and their beleaguered fans hope that all these losses, all these growing pains, will eventually be worth it.
Wiggins leads all rookies in minutes, scoring and free throw attempts and has won Western Conference rookie of the month honors in each of the first two months of the season, with a third likely on the way.
“I would say there’s been a lot of growing pains, a lot of stuff we’re learning to get better at,” Wiggins said. “I feel like all the young people, we’re getting better every game, every situation we have.”
After an underwhelming start to his career that renewed concerns about his willingness to consistently play hard, Wiggins has flourished while injuries to Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic thrust him into a featured role. He has scored in double figures in 19 straight games — averaging 19.4 points on 47.4 percent shooting in 37.6 minutes in that span — and completely separated himself from the rest of the rookie class through the first half of the season.
“He’s above where we thought he would be,” coach Flip Saunders said. “There have not been very many rookies that have gone through a 15-game stretch where they’re averaging 21 a game and been in a situation where they’re taking the other team’s best defensive player and playing both ends of the floor.”
The Timberwolves are on track to miss the playoffs for an 11th straight season, the longest active streak in the league. All the injuries have contributed to an 8-37 record, the worst mark in the league. But it has also forced Wiggins’ hand to a positive degree.
A player who was called passive at times in his one season at Kansas and whose quiet demeanor in interviews has led to questions about his motor has brushed all of that aside and embraced the role of a go-to guy — on both ends of the floor. Wiggins is nightly asked to guard the opponent’s best perimeter player, and he’s had success against the likes of Russell Westbrook (7 for 22), James Harden (8 for 23) and Eric Bledsoe (7 for 17).
Wiggins really started to kick things into gear when the Wolves visited the Cavaliers for the first time on Dec. 23. He scored 27 points and played with the aggressiveness his coaches and teammates were demanding of him.
“I did have a little hop in my step” because it was the team that traded him, Wiggins said.
Truth be told, Wiggins welcomed the move to Minnesota. He knows that in Cleveland he would have been the third or fourth option on most nights, deferring to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on a team with championship aspirations that didn’t have time for a teenager to learn on the job.
He never would have had the opportunity to carry an offense this soon, and his development should only hasten when Rubio returns from his ankle injury.
“I know it’s frustrating for fans and coaches and everyone, the losses and what we’ve done,” Saunders said. “But we’re going to reap the benefits. It might not be until next year when you really reap the benefits.”
The young Wolves get the Cavs on their home floor on Saturday night, and the crowd is expected to give Love plenty of grief for orchestrating his exit last summer. But if Wiggins can be the dynamic player many think he can be and help pull the Wolves out of the NBA abyss, maybe the crowd should offer a more pragmatic response: “Thank you.”
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