The pain of loss was obvious on the face of Andrew Wiggins. In the biggest game of his short college basketball career, he played his worst, scoring just four points on the weekend when the University of Kansas was bounced by underdog Stanford from March Madness.
“I should have done more,” said Wiggins in the locker room after the loss, sitting in his uniform, disbelief and upset on his face. He parried questions about his National Basketball Association future.
He rued his performance against Stanford. “I always stay confident,” he said. “I just wasn’t making anything. I missed an easy layup. That’s not what a good player really does. So I think I really messed up today.”
It was indeed an ignominious end to Wiggins’s winter of college hoops, and there was some predictable chatter about how the poor performance might affect where he is picked in the NBA draft on June 26. Wiggins, who turned 19 last month, has never hemmed and hawed about his plans, and while he has not made it official, he had always been set to head to the NBA as soon as he could.
The expectations have weighed on him since he was anointed the consensus No. 1 2014 pick before he had even played a college game, with scouts in love with his athletic ability, so quick and agile, with amazing leaping ability. But pencilled in at No. 1 leaves a player only one direction to go.
“The level of pressure that he’s under is as high as it gets,” said Howard Kelsey, executive vice-president of Canada Basketball. “Anybody can have a bad day on a big stage. I don’t think it will dramatically affect his draft status. He’s an exceptionally gifted athlete.”
As of Monday, Wiggins was still pegged at No. 1 by a few experts, but others had him at No. 2 or No. 3 in a mix that includes his injured teammate and friend, freshman centre Joel Embiid, and Jabari Parker, the Duke freshman who also played so-so in the NCAA tournament as his team was defeated in its first game. Wiggins’s stock has fluctuated through the year, starting with his inconsistent play early in the year and the emergence of Embiid.
Potential is the chief consideration in the NBA draft – how much better a young man can get, rather than precisely how he performed in specific games. The Stanford defeat highlighted the main question about Wiggins: whether he has the ferocity to carry a team. In some recent games, including a 41-point performance against West Virginia earlier in March, demonstrated to many that Wiggins is on track. His coaches at Kansas foresee an NBA all-star in four years.
As well, his high school coach is among the observers who see the NBA as a better fit for Wiggins. Against Stanford, he was stymied by the the Cardinal zone defence and the clogged lanes. He won’t see that in the NBA, because of different rules that promote a one-on-one game. Right now, the key is to add bulk and strength to his 6-foot-8 frame.
“He’ll be a better NBA player than in college,” said Rob Fulford, coach of Huntington Prep School. “In college he’s drawing everyone’s attention. It’s crowded.”
Numerous college players, including other Canadians, have decisions to make about turning pro. Embiid, from Cameroon, is among the most high-profile of those, but others from the Toronto suburbs are also in the mix. Tyler Ennis has had a fantastic freshman season at Syracuse, even though his team lost in the second round this past weekend; the poised point guard is a projected lottery pick if he makes the jump. Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas, whose team made the Sweet 16, is predicted to go later in the first round.
Charles Barkley, the Hall of Fame player and broadcaster, said he wants to see players stay in college at least two years, even though he conceded on Sunday there’s no right or wrong answer.
“These kids aren’t physically or emotionally ready to come and play against grown men,” said Barkley on CBS, citing Wiggins and Parker. “They didn’t have very good games – and it’s just one game – but if they’re going to struggle against Mercer and against Stanford, they’re really going to struggle against grown men.”
Since the rules say players can become draft-eligible after only one year in college, the established trend of highly touted freshman jumping directly to the NBA hardly looks like it’s going to end. This year, freshmen once again dominate NBA draft speculation, and the past four No. 1s have been freshman.
One often-overlooked asset Wiggins has is his defensive game, which scouts believe bolsters his immediate impact in the NBA. There will be time to improve his shooting and ball-handling.
“It’s great to see the progress he’s made as a defensive player,” said Rowan Barrett, assistant general manager of the men’s team for Canada Basketball. In the game against West Virginia, for instance, Wiggins’s 41 points overshadowed a great defensive performance – five steals, four blocks and eight rebounds. “Absolutely shutting players down, which is a phenomenal ability that is not much talked about,” Barrett said. “But when you want to think about winning championships, winning medals, you absolutely need that.”