The Phoenix Suns should not want to end up like the Minnesota Timberwolves
Four years before Deandre Ayton was taken with the No. 1 overall pick by the Phoenix Suns, newly crowned world champion Andrew Wiggins was taken with the top overall pick by the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014. Wiggins was the most talented player in the draft, and would be one of the most talented in the whole league from the day he first took the floor.
After being traded to the rebuilding Minnesota Timberwolves that summer for Kevin Love, he posted good numbers for a shooting guard, and soon he was paired with another No. 1 overall pick the next year, Karl-Anthony Towns.
Wiggins put up respectable numbers, but there was something missing. An introvert with a flat, rarely changing facial expression and too-easy body language, Wiggins never seemed to climb out of cruise control. He was the same after wins and losses.
After three seasons, Wiggins points per game had increased from 17 to 20 to 23, but with an inefficient shot profile that leaned heavily to the mid-range area and far away from the new modern NBA of three-point chucking employed by teams like the World Champ Warriors and D’Antoni’s hopeful Rockets. Wiggins was not a three point shooter (33% on less than 5 attempts per game).
Sound familiar, Suns fans? A former No. 1 overall pick who’s game is very good but doesn’t match the profile of the new NBA? Yep.
Still, Wiggins was a former No. 1 pick and the Wolves extended him with the maximum offer in the summer after his third season anyway.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said in a statement, “Andrew is one of the best players in the NBA and he has the talent and work ethic to get even better and be a foundation for our franchise for many years.”
In July 2017, Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau told ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell that Wiggins’ “challenge is to be a complete player.”
The Wolves committed $146 million the 22-year old Wiggins, who’d never sniffed an All-Star game or a 33-win season, based on his potential rather than what he’d already shown.
It’s unfortunate the Suns didn’t show the same consideration for a much more accomplished Deandre Ayton after year three. Ayton developed faster than Wiggins, and was a top-three player on a Finals teams in year three. And he was better in the playoffs than the regular season — exactly what you need from your best players.
Yet the Suns inexplicably held off on a max extension, citing many of the same reasons people were skeptical of Wiggins: if he hadn’t maximized his talents after three years, why maximize his future income?
Extension in hand, year-four Wiggins had a great chance to become a real star while Deandre Ayton got to enter his fourth season still needing to prove his personal worth without hindering team goals.
Wiggins was shooting for his first playoff appearance, while Ayton was shooting for an NBA championship. Except this time, Ayton needed that championship to coincide with a personal evolution into bigger scoring stats.
Meanwhile, Wiggins could flourish as the third banana behind fiery veteran Jimmy Butler and max-teammate Towns. Butler carried them by the bootstraps to 47 wins and the Wolves first playoff appearance in 14 years, before going down to Chris Paul’s three-point crazy Rockets in five quick games.
When they missed the playoffs a year later, the hard-driving Butler quickly soured on cruise-control Wiggins and Towns. He knew the franchise had committed to the young pair, so he staged a very public coup to get himself traded to the Bulls. The Wolves answered by starting a new rebuild around their pair of max-contract kiddos while the Bulls contended fo a deep playoff run.
In a similar way, the hard-driving Paul and Booker appear to have soured on Ayton after a disappointing finish to the season, saying they love him as a person but remaining non-committal about a future together.
Minnesota chose youth, while Phoenix appears to have chosen the vets.
Time will tell what happens to Paul, Booker and the Suns, but the Wiggins path since that organizational decision has been fascinating… and should be seen as a cautionary tale for the Suns.
Wiggins never overcame the baggage inherent with playing for the Wolves, and was eventually salary-dumped to the Warriors for a guy with supposedly more potential, and a fresh start of his own, in De’Angelo Russell.
By then, the world had given up on future stardom for the ultra-talented 24-year old Wiggins. He simply didn’t look the part of a guy who should be getting big money. He was never demonstrative enough. He didn’t carry his team to wins. He seemed like he was playing basketball because he was good at it, not because he loved it.
Golden State was supposed to be a pitstop on the way to oblivion. People assumed the non-passing, cruise-control Wiggins would never fit in with pass-happy, energy-driven Warriors, that they would trade him for another star as soon they could. That he was only as good as his salary slot.
But then the unexpected happened. His new team somehow didn’t care whether he screamed after making a bucket or not. They didn’t feed scraps to the press about lack of commitment. They accepted Wiggins for who he was, and gave him a role in which he could excel by convincing him to focus on defense first, while genuinely appreciating his mid-range skills and quiet but steady work ethic.
Freed from the baggage of being his team’s former No. 1 overall pick, Wiggins became a fan favorite. And not just any fan favorite. Warriors fans voted him into the starting lineup of the 2022 All-Star game! Question the voting process all you want, but it’s remarkable — nay, unfathomable — that an athlete so heavily criticized and disdained by his Wolves fanbase became a fan favorite on his next team without ever changing his facial expression or speeding up his body movements.
He was simply given a fresh start. He wasn’t a former No. 1 overall pick, and he wasn’t expected to do anything more than be the best teammate he could be. The baggage was gone, and all that remained was appreciation for contributions to a winning team.
Now, Andrew Wiggins is an All-Star and an NBA champion as one of the two or three best players on the Warriors, just over two years removed from being salary-dumped by the Wolves at the ripe old age of 24.
How did he do it? Seven years into his career, Wiggins focused on defense. By using his incredible physical gifts, he became a lock-down defender on one of the league’s best defenses.
Here’s the cautionary tale: Can’t you imagine this story arc happening to Deandre Ayton?
We’ve already seen him as the third-best player on a Finals team at only 22 years old. Imagine another year or two of development, and freedom from the baggage of unfair expectations.
You’re probably questioning the ‘unfair’ part. Yet, what are NBA teams trying to do? Win games. Any player that’s one of the two or three best players on an NBA champion deserves ALL the flowers and none of the criticism you’re still holding because of what happened on a draft night in June.
Don’t let Deandre Ayton become the next Andrew Wiggins, please.
I’m begging you, Suns.