This No. 1 NBA Draft Pick Isn’t The Bust You Thought It Was

SAN FRANCISCO — Reputations tend to stick if they ring true, and for a while, Andrew Wiggins’ reputation in the NBA was that he was a dud.

For years, the word on Wiggins, a former No. 1 pick, was that he was inconsistent. That he was bad on defense. That he didn’t care.

The Cleveland Cavaliers selected him first overall in 2014, but traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves less than two months later. More than five seasons in Minnesota bore little fruit, and after the Timberwolves made the playoffs only once during that period, they sent Wiggins to Golden State.

However, his latest stop has turned things around for Wiggins. On Wednesday night he offered one more example of his progression.

Golden State made a statement in the opening game of the Western Conference finals, leading the Dallas Mavericks by 30 points in the fourth quarter and winning, 112-87. Golden State’s point total wasn’t exceptionally high, but their defense fueled their victory.

Wiggins was a big part of that. The Warriors asked Wiggins to be their main defender in All-Star guard Luka Doncic, and Wiggins made sure Doncic didn’t hurt Golden State the same way he had hurt the Mavericks’ previous playoff opponents.

“That’s why he was the first pick,” Golden State’s Klay Thompson said of Wiggins. “You can’t teach that athletics. You can’t teach that length. You can’t show him his time. I am happy that the world can see who he really is.”

Doncic finished the match with 20 points, only one more than Wiggins and only 2 of them after the first half. He also committed seven turnovers and had just four assists. Doncic suggested after the game that a sore shoulder of his had played a role in his performance, saying it was causing him pain when he shot the ball, but added that he would be fine with some treatment.

But part of Golden State’s plan was to wear him down, and it was Wiggins’ job to do that.

“He took the challenge and Luka is tough,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “He still finds a way to control possessions. You have to assume he’ll shoot a little better, but Wiggs was relentless. Every possession, he was out there on it. That’s all we really want. Even if Luka has the numbers on him, you just want, at the end of the day, to feel like he had to work for everything he got.”

On most possessions, Wiggins would begin to guard Doncic in the backcourt, not allowing him to get the ball up the court with ease. Asked after the game if that all-court effort had worn him out, Wiggins shrugged and offered a half smile.

“I feel like I’m still young,” Wiggins, 27, said. “I really don’t get too tired. I’m locked. I’m motivated. And when you see that it works or I feel that it helps us to play better, it motivates me to do it more”.

Said Thompson: “He just doesn’t seem to get tired.”

Thompson appreciated the effort more than most: The way Wiggins has been playing, he said, took some of the pressure off him.

“I don’t have to review the best player every night again,” said Thompson, who was known for his defense before missing the past two seasons with leg injuries. “Especially after what I’ve been through, it’s a nice change of pace.”

The 87 points the Mavericks scored was the lowest opponent total against Golden State this postseason. The Warriors have held opponents below 100 points three other times during this year’s playoffs; each time, they have won.

The Mavericks had great success from 3-point range in previous rounds, but were just 3-of-19 from 3-point range in the first quarter on Wednesday and finished the game 11-of-48 from behind the arc. Those mistakes came from his entire roster — it wasn’t just Doncic struggling offensively. But Doncic is the player who drives the Mavericks, so his problems are more important.

After the final buzzer, Doncic let out a long breath as he walked down the tunnel toward the visiting locker room at Chase Center. He was wearing a jersey over his uniform because he hadn’t played the last five minutes; by then the game was too out of control to be worth the risk. His face was marked by an inadvertent red scratch from Wiggins, several inches long, from the right side of his nose to his cheek.

The Mavericks have a habit of losing a lot and coming back. They lost to the Phoenix Suns by 30 points in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals before beating them by 27 in Game 6 and 33 in Game 7. Several Mavericks players spoke Wednesday after the game about expecting a much better performance from Doncic during Game 2 on Friday.

“We’re under no illusions that we’ve figured anything out,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.

What they discovered, and are glad others are now seeing, is that Wiggins has tapped into a part of his potential that might have been dormant, or at least less obvious in previous seasons.

Thompson said being with Golden State has allowed Wiggins to be himself. Curry said that he is learning how to win.

“Wiggs is understanding the nuances of what it’s like to win basketball and how to take advantage of the little things in terms of consistent effort on defense, taking those challenges one-on-one, being aggressive on the offensive end, using his athletic ability. to get to the rim if he needs to, confidence shooting the 3; feel comfortable in our offense,” Curry said. “So there are a lot of different things that he understands that this time, in terms of a playoff run, he requires winning games and the joy that comes with it.”

Wiggins passed credit for that to Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, who won three championships and reached five straight NBA Finals together.

“It helps me see a different side of the game,” Wiggins said. “Being here, the culture, the people, the organization, most importantly, just being surrounded by winners.”

A winner wasn’t a label that was attached to Wiggins much early in his career, but during these playoffs he has increasingly shown that he fits.

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