In Las Vegas this week, at the 11-day basketball convention that is NBA Summer League, there are two categories of players: The anointed, the ones who have been hyped for a long while and were chosen near the top of the NBA draft; and the rest, players ranging from from lower draft picks and undrafted rookies to young men who have a couple years of experience on the fringes of pro hoops.
The latter group is the reason Summer League features an odd sort of basketball in which players, in a happy chaos, chuck up shots to rack up stats, hoping to catch the notice of one of the many scouts and NBA executives milling about. Summer League, for most, does not lead directly to the NBA.
But if shots fall, they can help players land spots in the Development League, or on a team somewhere in Europe, and maybe another shot at next year’s Summer League, and maybe – maybe – a seat on an NBA bench.
There are two Wigginses here in Vegas this week.
One, of course, is Andrew Wiggins, who’s in that fortunate first group.
Now 19, he achieved his predicted destiny last month as the No. 1 pick in the draft.
He hasn’t played particularly well so far – hitting barely a third of his shots in his first two games – but it hardly matters.
He’s shown flashes and he’s working on elements of his game, such as taking the ball hard to the hoop. The results of a week in cooking-hot Vegas in July will not alter his path to the starting lineup of the Cleveland Cavaliers on opening night of the NBA season.
The other Wiggins is 23-year-old Nick. He’s in the unfortunate group – he’s here on the 16-player roster of the Sacramento Kings thanks to the weight of powerhouse agency BDA Sports behind him, whose client list includes Nick’s younger brother.
The first couple days of Summer League have been a painful grind for Nick Wiggins, watching all of the first two Kings games from the team’s bench.
There are a bunch of players the Kings really want to see play in the positions Nick would fit. So he watches, and waits for his shot.
Late Sunday afternoon, after the Kings defeat the Charlotte Hornets 72-65, Nick sits in a folding chair in the makeshift locker room behind the stands at the cosy Cox Pavilion, answering questions for a small group of Canadian reporters. Vice Sports, filming a web series about the promising cohort of young Canadian hoops players, wants to know how it feels. How does it feel to be Brent Gretzky? How does it feel to be a footnote?
Nick Wiggins is two inches shorter than his ballyhooed brother, and a little slower.
The fractions of ability that separate the NBA from the D-League or Europe seem small, but they may as well be a chasm, often unbridgeable, as in all elite sports. The rung below the pinnacle is a long way down.
The hardest thing for Nick, by Sunday, is that he hadn’t had any playing time, hadn’t got to put up his shots, hadn’t had the chance to catch one scout’s eye.
“It’s definitely tough, you know,” he says, his voice even but his eyes far away. It would be no fun for anyone to answer such questions after a day at work, where you sat there but had nothing to do. It is especially not fun for a 23-year-old chasing a boyhood dream. “I wish I could be out there. I feel like I have the talent and the ability to be out there playing with those guys. But I just got to wait on my turn.”
So from the sidelines, Nick watches. He studies the speed of the pro game, how refs call the game, how physical you can be. “And just waiting on my opportunity,” he says.
Unlike Andrew, Nick has never had a rapid ascent in basketball. He played junior college after high school before landing at Division I Wichita State, where as a senior he was a role player coming off the bench – scoring an average of 5.1 points a game on a team that earned one of the No. 1 seeds going into the 2014 NCAA tournament.
“I’ve never been a player to take that big leap,” said Nick. “I always took stepping stones.”
Success now will be measured by landing a pro deal, maybe somewhere in Europe.
There is no chance with the Kings. Sacramento coach Mike Malone is diplomatic.
“Nick Wiggins is in a tough spot,” Malone says, because there are better players ahead of him. “He’s just got to remain patient and wait for his opportunity.”
Nick isn’t bitter about the gifts possessed by his kid brother. “Not at all, not at all,” he says. “Seeing him do so well is a positive motivation – I’m very happy for him. He deserves everything. Worked very hard for it.”
He stands up to depart. He has a diamond-studded hoop in one ear. He’s a positive person and fights to stay remain so. He’s usually a more effusive personality, but this week is not easy. “I know it’s going to take time,” he says. “I’m willing to keep pushing.” He walks out of the gym. An hour later he tweets: “The harder the road the more beautiful the journey!”
On Monday afternoon, an opportunity comes. A tiny one. At the end of a game that is already settled, with two minutes left, Nick is subbed in. He runs the floor with energy, and he gets his chance. The ball is kicked out to him in the corner, but he bobbles it, and the defender takes it down the floor for a basket. Wiggins grinds on until the game ends. His scoreline is a long list of zeros, save for that one turnover. He’ll need another chance.