“What we promised,” Self says, “was to put him in a position where he was as prepared as could be after one year.”
Becoming a better player
Wiggins arrived last June for a summer session at the university, 65 km west of Kansas City. “Feels good to be out here in Kansas!” he tweeted.
For all his obvious ability, his weaknesses on the court were also evident. At practices, Self pushed the then-18-year-old to take charge. If Wiggins disappeared into a secondary role, Self would run the whole team, telling everyone: “I’m sick and tired of watching Andrew not be as good as he can be.”
In his Middle American twang, the Oklahoma-born coach puts it this way: “Andrew’s a pleaser. He wants to please his teammates, he wants to please his coaches, he wants to please his family. Maybe to a fault sometimes. What we try to do is put him in situations where he’s challenged every day – and that fitting in isn’t good enough. You have to separate. When he’s passive, he becomes a thinker. And when you think, you can’t play.”
Off court, film and fitness were the primary focus.
Jeff Forbes, the Jayhawks video co-ordinator, gets the new recruits right away. He wants them to study and learn, as if they’re in the NBA. While Wiggins has often been likened to LeBron James, Forbes had him parse film of Tracy McGrady, the now-retired NBA star who is the same height as Wiggins, was similarly talented, and played the same position, the wing – a blend of shooting guard and small forward.
Even practices were filmed and assessed. There were many adjustments: When guarding right-handed shooters, Wiggins was instructed to get his left hand up, his right arm free to make trouble. In team sessions, studying opponents, Forbes assembled 200 clips and banged them out in fractions of three or four seconds over 15 minutes, demanding the concentration of a game. Wiggins was fast to memorize all aspects.
“Andrew has learned how to be a professional,” Forbes says. “Once he was here, and the car got driving, it just took off.”
In the weight room, there was Andrea Hudy. She has been called Kansas’s secret weapon and numerous NBA players credit her tutelage for making the leap to the pros. “She made me a lot stronger,” Wiggins says. “She works miracles.”
Some of the principal work was on what’s called anterior chain strength – power through the knees, flexible calves and strong quads, the basis of lateral movement. It’s the strength to stay with an opponent driving to the hoop, or to burst past a defender. One exercise was jumping off an object, down about 75 centimetres, and up immediately as high as the athlete could manage. “Ground reaction forces,” Hudy says.
On her iPhone, she charted progress, the gauges of load, explode, drive, measured by the latest technology.
“In basketball, you never run in a straight line,” Hudy says. “Andrew is an exceptional athlete. But he wasn’t exceptionally versed in basketball movements. We emphasize basketball movements, to make him a better basketball player.”
There were flashes of just that. Through December, January and into February, Wiggins would star in some games, only to have nights when observers would wonder what the fuss was all about.
By mid-February, the lessons learned during a rapid schooling in Kansas were apparent at a mid-afternoon practice. Now, not just the talent was on display but the work ethic, too.
Wiggins quietly chastised himself – “Damn” – when he missed an open three-point shot from the corner, hustling back on defence. “Get your hands up,” one of the coaches reminded him. Later, from the top of the three-point arc, Wiggins drove to the hoop, wove through three defenders and spun the ball up and in.
On another play, he leaped to the rim from two metres away but couldn’t get the dunk to go down; a moment later, on a second chance from well behind the three-point line, Wiggins shot with a defender in his face – swish.
Self, who has coached many fine players, sees the perfect NBA body in Wiggins, and unlimited potential.
“Andrew’s a different dude,” he says. “He’s a guy that can do things you can’t coach, and athletically, he can make plays you can’t teach. You talk to every NBA person, they say, ‘Wait till he’s 22, wait till he’s 21.’ The kid just turned 19. His ceiling is so high. So high.”