Early in the first quarter, the Cleveland Cavaliers punching up the San Antonio Spurs 13-2 in an afternoon contest at NBA Summer League, the ball arrived in the hands of Andrew Wiggins at the top of the three-point arc. He put the shot up and as the ball arced towards the hoop one fan was certain – “There it is! There it is!”
Indeed: The ball snapped the net, swish, and the full-house crowd of about 2,500 basketball obsessives at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas bellowed their cheers, a ringing endorsement of this year’s No. 1 draft pick.
It was, however, a staccato, imperfect afternoon of work for Wiggins, who at 19 years old made his professional debut this weekend in the heat of the Nevada desert. After a sterling opening on Friday night, when his 18 points led all scorers in a Cleveland win over the Milwaukee Bucks, on Sunday Wiggins missed eight of his 11 shots from the floor.
Summer League, of course, does not define any player and true success this coming season for Wiggins will firstly be defined by his defensive ability as much as sinking buckets. And, now, the much, much bigger story is the return of LeBron James to Cleveland, after spurning the team and his home four years ago.
The Decision Part 2 is a tremendous boon for Wiggins, the most-hyped player to ever emerge from Canada – even if it was in limbo for a day. On Friday, when James unveiled his move from Miami in an essay in Sports Illustrated, he set off a ream of chatter. James named several new teammates he was excited to mentor but notably did not mention either last year’s No. 1 pick from Canada, Anthony Bennett, nor Wiggins. The reason was the potential uncertainty around the two back-to-back No. 1s, as Cleveland tries to further bolster its roster by landing Minnesota’s Kevin Love in a trade.
Talk of Wiggins exiting Cleveland just as he has become a Cavalier quieted over the weekend. On a variety of fronts, a consensus emerged that Wiggins will stay with Cleveland and begin his pro career not on a struggling squad but on a contender. “Andrew’s not going anywhere,” the Cavs new coach David Blatt told reporters.
Whether all three young Canadians – Wiggins, Bennett, and Tristan Thompson – are all Cavaliers when the season starts in the fall remains unclear, as the Cavs work to attain Love, but Wiggins is poised to fit in a role so tailored for him that it seems, for those who might nod at greater forces in the universe at work, scripted.
Wiggins, for all the hype, the YouTube stardom, the big-time new Adidas shoe deal, has never shaped his game that puts him in the sole spotlight. He can bring it, pour in points, but he is not one to always want the ball. He is not the guy who goes out every night with the express purpose of landing himself in a highlight reel. He is, instead, a worker, a teammate. His play, at times, can make your eyes pop out of your head but he plays and lives with a humility grounded in his Christian faith.
This has irked some observers, skeptical of the hype, pointing to the fact that during his one year of college at the University of Kansas he did not truly look like a superstar-in-waiting, undeserving of the unrelenting praise. But a player does not have to be the singular man to be great. Wiggins has big goals – he has publicly pronounced his goal of rookie of the year, all-star, NBA all-defensive team – but on a team led by James, Wiggins’s willingness to be a teammate first fits him well in a role of a Scottie Pippen to James’s Michael Jordan.
And the comparison is not idle: There are many similarities between Wiggins and Pippen, their physical attributes and defensive ability to start, and even if it’s a seeming secondary role, Pippen’s play did get him to the Hall of Fame.
“It’s a great situation,” said Wiggins after a Cavs practice on Saturday. “Takes a lot of pressure off of me, obviously, and everyone else on the team, when the best player in the NBA is coming to your team.” Wiggins, and the other young Canadians, suddenly have the best on-court tutor in basketball, and Wiggins will, in his words, “see what it takes” to rank among the best.
Playing alongside James, all the amazing things that are promised by Wiggins’s insane athleticism, his quickness, his leaping ability, his long, long reach, are set to unfurl. And it will happen under the direction of Blatt, a noted basketball technician who is a rookie NBA coach but has a long track record of success elsewhere. After Sunday's game, Blatt radiated with excitement about the prospects of his James-led, Wiggins-supported team, giddy with "the many, many possibilities" he can put into action.
“Really looking forward to it,” said Blatt of coaching James. And to make sure no one missed the point, Blatt repeated it for emphasis: “Really looking forward to it.”
Wiggins is, no doubt, too. And it can easily be said all of Canada’s hoops fans are as well. It will be a wonderful spectacle, which is the best thing sports can deliver.