Moments after being drafted first overall in the deepest incoming NBA cohort in a decade, Andrew Wiggins described it as an out-of-body experience.
“A thousand thoughts are going through my head right now,” Wiggins said. “I don’t even know how I feel. It doesn’t even feel real right now.”
Six weeks later, it’s feeling pretty real. In the same way catching a swinging door in the face feels real.
No incoming player of his promise has ever gotten the sort of rough treatment Wiggins has received from the Cleveland Cavaliers. For a few days after the draft, it was all bright futures and let’s see if we can get this sinking ship to float.
Then LeBron James came home, and Wiggins was pushed out of the boat.
At first, the Cavs claimed they wanted to keep him. After a little chat with James about his vision for the club, they didn’t. That was insulting enough. But they couldn’t stop telling people off the record how willing they were to jettison him.
Having never before faced any real doubt about his potential, Wiggins was suddenly a spare part. He was trotted out in Vegas Summer League like a show pony. He was forced to do a series of excruciating sit-down interviews where he fairly pleaded for someone, anyone, to show an interest.
“I just want to play for a team that wants me. Whichever team wants me, I’ll play for.”
The No. 1 overall pick, and he’d already been reduced to scrub talk.
Here’s how one ESPN talking head started off an interview: “You’re wearing a Cleveland jersey. Can you send me a pic of it? I feel like, one day, this is going to be a collector’s item.”
Wiggins looked as if he’d been slapped.
Cleveland signed him to a rookie deal, so that he could be fired. Minnesota team owner Glen Taylor told local reporters that he expected to trade his declining asset, Kevin Love, on August 23 or 24. Those are the first two days on which Wiggins can be dealt, per league rules.
Most hurtful of all – Wiggins admitted he’s never talked to James. Not even a lousy text.
Andrew Wiggins has become the only child of a polygamous divorce. Everyone knows what’s best for him, but no one has bothered to talk to him about it.
He’s been doing his best to hide during all this. After all, what’s he supposed to say?
Over the weekend, he went back to his alma mater, Kansas, to help out at a clinic. He refused to speak to reporters, instead sending out his former coach, Bill Self, to act as a transparent proxy.
“When all this trade stuff started, I talked to Andrew and Andrew told me, ‘I hope I get traded,’” Self said. “And I’m like, ‘No you don’t.’ And he said, ‘Coach, I do. It’s better for me, knowing my personality and what I need to do, to go somewhere where I’m forced to be something as opposed to going in there where they’re going to be patient with me and I’m going to be a piece.’”
It’s hard to figure what would be more embarrassing here – that Wiggins is demanding a trade a week after he’s been traded; or that no one has taken the trouble to tell him that it’s already happened.
On Monday, he was back at his grade school in the Toronto suburbs, filming a commercial for an organic sports nutritional drink. The adjacent park is named for his mother, Olympic sprinter Marita Payne.
Wiggins seemed at ease in the company of a slew of child extras. His smile, which had become a reflexive defence mechanism, was back and real. At 19 years of age, he’s still a kid. Out on the court is the only place he looks like one.
At one point, he was mucking around under the basket in a scrum of dangerously small people. He slammed into one, and nearly went ass-over-teakettle in mid-air.
Wiggins laughed. Someone stuck him with a one-liner: “You’ve already signed that contract, right?” He stopped laughing.
There was a limited media availability. “Limited” in the sense that everyone was politely reminded not to ask Wiggins about his trade situation. Nearly every question was about his trade situation.
If this is killing him, he’s been skillfully media-trained to make it seem as if it isn’t. He keeps his answers short and non-specific. He often stops mid-flow, and reverses himself. These past six weeks have already taught him to spot trouble coming from a ways off.
“I don’t worry about anything that’s out of my control. I just know I’ll be playing basketball come September,” he drawled at the outset.
What’s changed since the draft?
“More eyes on me. More criticism.”
Where does he see himself?
“Wherever God wants.”
Every sentence out of Wiggins’ mouth right now should end in a shoulder-shrug emoticon rather than punctuation.
In the end, this will have been the best possible thing for him as a basketball player.
In Cleveland, he would have been a role player jamming up the spaces James wants to be in. In Minnesota, he’s a 40-minute-a-game cornerstone from the jump.
In Cleveland, he’d have been free to indulge his tendency to drift. In Minnesota, he will arrive dragging a boulder-sized sense of grievance behind him.
In five years time, the Cavaliers may find that by treating Andrew Wiggins so shabbily, they’re largely responsible for turning him into the sort of player they should’ve kept.