The Heir Up There: Can Andrew Wiggins pick up where his father abruptly left off?

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Andrew Wiggins already has world-class athleticism—he hit the jackpot of all genetic lotteries. The anticipation surrounding his ascension and arrival to the NBA rivals few others. But he also carries with him the one device that others who have come before him did not have—his father’s past.

Mitchell Wiggins had seen better days. His eyes are tired. His head is bald. A gold chain hangs from his neck, fully displayed by the deep V created by his unbuttoned, wide-collared shirt. Don Johnson would be proud.

Now 54 years old, his aged face carries with it every transaction that saw him play professional basketball for 18 different teams—in four different countries—in what was a 20-year career that had been de-railed by multiple run-ins with cocaine. It was a career that, started with three different colleges prior to hearing his name called in the late first round of the 1983 NBA Draft1 If you ask Mitchell, it was one that would have seen eight-to-ten more years of his name on an NBA roster. Instead, it ended in a blur amidst bad choices, deceit, and disappointment.

Mitchell speaks slow and calculated, but a smile widens and his voice levels raise only as he discusses his children—three sons and three daughters—all of whom are the product of high-end athleticism as his wife, Marita Payne-Wiggins, competed for Canada in track and field at the 1984 Summer Olympics, winning two silver medals. His second son, Nicholas, played basketball for Wichita State, one of the country’s best teams over the last year. But his youngest son, Andrew, has the fortune of being the most recent No. 1 draft pick in the National Basketball Association.

While both boys have the chance to carry on a legacy that he could not, it’s Andrew who possesses the best chance of doing so. He has footwork that is reserved for only the elite. His vertical leap has been measured at 44 inches. His gazelle-like strides and body control tend to border on artistry. And it is Mitchell who, while proud of his son’s accomplishments in what is just 19 years of his time on Earth, will serve as a walking, talking reminder of what can happen to a career if taken for granted. His well-documented story will always loom overhead as long as the Internet exists. His gravelly voice is an on-call PSA that is always just one phone call away.

***

The youngest male in his home, Andrew Wiggins was forced to grow up at an elevated pace. His dad already laced up alongside Hakeem Olajuwon, his brothers were already both bigger, faster and stronger. As life can get in a house full of athletic, pure-bread, competitive individuals, the driveway games never came easy. “They got rough,” Wiggins would say with an ear-to-ear smile.

But things started to change once Andrew turned 12 years of age. A growth spurt enabled him to be able to dunk the basketball, completely tilting the landscape in his favor. Two years later, as he was entering middle school, the Wiggins family started to see young Andrew’s name in the newspaper. “The cameras and glare have been in front of him since he was 14,” Mitchell said. At 15, when Andrew was enlisted in one of Michael Jordan’s camps, reserved for only the best of the game’s young talent, the kid from Vaughan, Ontario managed to catch the eye of the best to ever step on to the hardwood.

“Is that your son?” Jordan asked his former peer.

“Yeah,” Mitchell succinctly replied.

“Ooooh…He’s got a little something,” Jordan said.

Andrew Wiggins grew up in a gym. He was always suiting up against older, stronger, wiser competition. Yet each time he would take to the floor, the game started to become easier. At 15, Wiggins stood at 6-foot-7. He was the youngest competitor in the 2012 Nike Hoop Summit where he led Team World to a victory over Team USA, scoring a team-high 20 points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking two shots in 33 minutes of action. At such a young age, Wiggins showed why he was among the top prospects in the world, flashing his seamless ability to get to the basket while reading defenses and creating his own shot when the opportunities arose. From that point on, in a world where fans and media outlets are yearning to crown the Next Big Thing to take the stage, the light was firmly shining on this shy but polite kid who welcomed the attention—after all, it came with the territory—but never basked in it.

In early March, as the recruiting trail was hitting full speed, Wiggins and his family sat behind the Kansas University bench as the Jayhawks played host to Texas Tech. Kansas would handle the Red Raiders with ease with a barrage of on-ball screens and enough lobs to make the Los Angeles Clippers jealous. It was an offensive scheme that worked on this day, but it was one that Jayhawks coach, Bill Self, would later admit that was put in place so that Wiggins could see it first-hand as it played right into his above-the-rim wheelhouse.

One month later, Wiggins, still undecided as to where he would attend college, would find himself blowing the roof off of a west-Chicago gym that housed countless NBA personnel and fellow McDonalds All-Americans. In typical Andrew Wiggins fashion, he entered the weekend’s dunk contest, only to start the event off with a safe one-hander. His second dunk would see him bring the ball behind his back before slamming it home, enough to make you nod your head in approval. He would go behind the back once again on his next try, only while turning a full 360 degrees in mid-air. Now we’re talking. His finale? A reverse 360-degree dunk that not only included Wiggins taking the ball underneath his leg, but doing so at a speed that forces you to watch the dunk multiple times in slow motion just so you can see the entire sequence unfold between blinks.

Wiggins didn’t talk to coaches during his recruitment. He loathed media scrums and the one-and-done line of questioning that pertained to up-and-coming basketball players. It was all but assumed that he would be attending Kentucky, playing under John Calipari and several of the players he ran with during the All-American game. Rather than prematurely hatching his own egg to a world of superstardom, Wiggins preferred to enjoy the last of what would be his final days as a kid (having reclassified to enter the NBA a year early), playing Call of Duty with his high school friends at Huntington Prep.

In May of that same year, the kid who nearly made an entire gymnasium collapse on itself in adulation held his collegiate press conference in a room where only his family and one member of the media—a local newspaper reporter—would be present. There were no hats. There were no lights. Rather than turn his announcement into a spectacle, Wiggins wanted a private signing ceremony where he attended classes at St. Joseph’s Central Catholic High School in Huntington.2 Despite ties to Florida State (where both of his parents attended) and the basketball world pushing him toward the NBA factory turnstiles of John Calipari in Kentucky, Wiggins would choose Kansas. “I just followed my heart,” Wiggins said.3 His brother Nick was already in Wichita. Self would become aware of Andrew’s decision along with the rest of the world.

Does this scream "passive" to you?

Does this scream “passive” to you?

In the summer of 2013, Andrew Wiggins took in the NBA Draft alongside several Kansas University teammates on a couch nestled within the house of his coach Bill Self. Not long after the Cleveland Cavaliers used the No. 1 pick on UNLV’s Anthony Bennett (who also happens to call Canada home), Wiggins’ name was mentioned as being called in the top spot some 365 days down the road. By all accounts, the 18-year-old remained unfazed, allowing what could easily inflate an ego to slide past him as if it were never uttered.

One of the biggest knocks against Andrew Wiggins as he was heading into the 2014 NBA Draft was based on a perception that the kid, despite all of the talents in the world, was too passive—he never really took over a game in the way that others with his skill set did. He didn’t have that “killer instinct.” Rather than owning the press conference, he nervously fills space with “you know.” As the sports world searched for The Next LeBron James, Wiggins spent much of his lone season with the Jayhawks deferring to teammates and playing the style of team basketball he watched from the front row just a few months earlier. Though he averaged over 17 points per game, there were many afternoons where TNLJ was absent, taking few shots, hitting even fewer. When Kansas center Joel Embiid, arguably the best big man in the country, would miss time with a back injury, many expected the 6-foot-8-inch phenom to step up in his place. Instead, the Jayhawks were bounced out of the NCAA tournament by Stanford. Wiggins went 1-for-6 from the floor while the entire world was watching, the inverse of what many expected from a kid whose favorite player is Allen Iverson, the absolute embodiment of a do-it-all risk-taker who put an entire team on his back and led them to the NBA Finals.

“A lot of people have said a lot of things,” said Andrew. “What I [have] learned is you can’t really live up to everybody else’s expectations, you’ve got to live up to your own.”

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Was it Mitchell Wiggins who may have passed this team-first gene on to his son? Playing alongside Olajuwon and Sampson, prior to succumbing to his demons, the elder Wiggins was a great fit as a role player. Where most kids with Andrew’s talent yearn to take the world by storm, though just 19 years of age, he’s mature beyond his years. Andrew thanks his mother for his metabolism, but it was his father who taught him that while offense may lead to more highlight reels, defense is where one can show their hard work and dedication. It was his father who instilled in him the emotion of anger when the opponent scores, to the point where Andrew is forced to bite his lip when his man scores while he’s on the bench.

The Cavaliers, despite these concerns, believed enough in Andrew’s abilities and understanding of his shortcomings that they invested the first-overall pick in his future. The team’s general manager, David Griffin, openly admitted to having discussions with Andrew, ensuring that both parties were on the same page. And if there was any question about Andrew Wiggins and any attempts to lurk in the shadows, look no further than draft night when the slender swingman unleashed his style sense in the way of a floral print coat made of European Birdseye—a material typically reserved for royalty—a satin bowtie, slim-fit pants and suede loafers without socks.4 He embodied any men’s style magazine to have been printed in the last year, once you discount the never-ending grin that was plastered to his face the second his name rang over the Radio City Music Hall speakers.

“Some people want him to grow a mustache, look mean, look all this and that,” Mitchell said. “But he’s all about winning. He’s a great teammate, and he just wants to win. For me, I think he’s a coach’s dream. All he wants to do is win. The ball doesn’t stick to his hands, he just wants to win.”

 ***

It had been a long 24 hours for Mitchell Wiggins and his family. Perhaps this is the reason for today’s bout of tired eyes. Andrew had just been selected with the No. 1 pick, the culmination of months of hard work, travel and logistics. But it was only the beginning. Everyone knows that the talent is there—no one makes it to the NBA without it. The leaping, the explosiveness, the 360-degree slams—it’s these reason that Andrew’s fan base includes names like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Cavs guard Kyrie Irving. But it is also the jumping off point from which the hard work will allow for this kid, the one who many have waited years to see take to the NBA floor, will differentiate himself even further.

“He wants to be a Hall of Famer,” Mitchell said. “Everybody knows he’s got talent. You have to put in the work ethic with the talent and make some internal sacrifices.”

When discussing his own past, his missteps, Mitchell can’t help but look down at the floor during the middle of his sentences. “Everybody knows my history,” he would say in a shamed tone.

But in a way that seems to rival most kid-athlete parents, it’s Andrews triumph over all of the things that could have derailed his future, allowing him to be selected at the top of what had been a highly anticipated draft class, that has provided a sense of closure for Mitchell—closure to on an open-ended career that he insists could have lasted another decade or so had temptation not reared it’s ugly, destructive head.

Andrew knows he has to get stronger. He knows he has to work on tightening up his handle, staying lower to the ground on the offensive end as to not let the opposition use his seven-foot wingspan to their advantage. He knows he will asked to take over on occasion as the Cavaliers are coming off of a season where the offensive side of the ball left plenty to be desired. The game that has come so easy to him to this point will now start to provide it’s own unique challenges, the kind that have destroyed the once promising careers of so many others—including his own father.

“I’m so proud,” Mitchell said of his youngest son. “This was his dream and he made it happen.

“My hope for him is that he stays true, stays grounded and stays humble.”

 If the way Andrew has embraced his family to this point is any indication, staying grounded will be the least of Mitchell’s concerns. Andrew’s opponents, however, will still have to deal with that pesky 44-inch vertical.

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Footnotes:

  1. Alongside names like Ralph Sampson, Byron Scott, Clyde Drexler and Doc Rivers. []
  2. “I wanted the people that appreciate me and the people I appreciate to be here watching while I made my decision because they are the ones who helped me out throughout the last two years and my Mom and Dad throughout my lifetime,” said Wiggins. “I didn’t really want a lot of random people here. I wanted more people I knew.” []
  3. “They run a lot of pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop — a lot of stuff as he goes to the next level, he’s already ready for,” Mitchell Wiggins would say. Recruiting tactics! []
  4. His sock game, however, is way strong. He matched some yellow-green joints to his tie and pocket square the following afternoon. Given how subdued his light grey suit was, these served as the pop. []
  • Harv 21

    It’s going to be so much fun to watch him, even as he makes rookie mistakes. Hard to wrap the mind around a 6’8″ kid with a 44″ vertical. I think he’s going to look like a taller and even more explosive version of early Ron Harper, before he blew out his knee. Harper was shy and didn’t need the ball a lot to score but lways played defense and Lenny always said really understood the game; hope this kid does too.

    And having Wiggins should expose Kyrie’s intentions: there’s no longer any excuse for not running the offense. There’s assists waiting if you want them. And the chance to get the ball back in good places for yourself as well. You’re entering your fourth season, you’re the floor general and the time to elevate the play of your team right now..

  • mgbode

    Fantastic write-up Scott. I love the long-form articles and had read a couple short ones on Wiggins and his dad’s past, but this article was by far more comprehensive and much more well-written.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Any scenario where someone gets a rebound and doesn’t immediately look to run the ball up the floor and find Wiggins streaking down the sideline seems like it will be a waste of a possession. This kid can get from the three-point line to the rack in two steps. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch if they can do it right.

  • mgbode

    Grab a rebound and blindly toss the ball towards the other end of the court with some air under it might become a legitimate play for us.

  • pigeonholepundit

    Great post. Not a big NBA follower but at least i know some history now. Wrapped it up nicely