The trumpets blared and the confetti flew, and all of a sudden, a team that had won only 31 percent of their games over the past four years was now the center of the NBA universe. When LeBron James decided to go back to Cleveland, he became the biggest story of the summer, but he wasn’t alone: the second-biggest story of the summer was secured by the Cavaliers too, when they brought in another superstar – Kevin Love – to the mix. With the All Star trio of James, Love, and Irving, plus a healthy supporting cast around them, the Cavs had now become one of the favourites to win the upcoming NBA title, and definitely the most talked-about team in the league.
And somewhere, in the blitz and drama of it all, a number one draft pick and one of the most anticipated young players in recent years was all but forgotten.
When the Cavaliers traded Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to the Timberwolves for Love, they sent two former number one picks – both Canadians – for a proven star commodity. Despite his expected potential, Wiggins was considered to be too much of a wildcard and the Cavs chose to bet LeBron’s prime years on a sure-shot like Love. In the process, Wiggins became just the sixth number one pick in NBA history to never play for the team that drafted him, and the first since 1993 when the Orlando Magic sent Chris Webber to Golden State.
For Wiggins, the last few months have been a roller-coaster ride: at the NBA draft, the Cavs chose to bank their future on him by choosing him first above the likes of Jabari Parker and his college teammate Joel Embiid. Wiggins wore the Cavaliers draft hat with pride and was ready to become the future face of the franchise. But a few months later, with LeBron’s arrival and the potential availability of Love, they turned their back on the very player they had exalted and considered him expendable in exchange for Love. The Cavaliers hat would be replaced by a Timberwolves one.
Only a day after the draft, Embiid provided some historical perspective to his friend and former teammate with a simple but powerful tweet. “Don’t worry pal,” Embiid tweeted, “Great things ahead.” He attached his message with a photograph of another young wing player who was traded by the team that drafted him before the season began. Another player who changed hats to begin his NBA career in a different team. A player who went on to reward that team over the next decade and a half with five championships and international acclaim. A player who went on to become one of the greatest players of his generation, an MVP and a 16-time All Star.
That player was Kobe Bryant, and the photograph was from draft night in 1996, when Kobe was picked by the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets soon traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac, and the rest – as Lakers fans will happily attest – was history.
Time to prove critics wrong
Of course, Wiggins’ situation doesn’t have exactly the same parallels. The Cavaliers in 2014 aren’t like the Hornets were in 1996, and many would agree that trading for Love for an unproven young commodity like Wiggins was a smart idea. But now, the trade sets up an alternate reality for Wiggins in Minnesota, a chance for the 19-year-old to begin his career differently, and gives him the fire and motivation to prove his doubters wrong.
Love was in the last year of his contract and after missing on the playoffs in each of his first six seasons in the NBA, it was widely considered that he would have left Minnesota by next summer. It made sense for the Timberwolves to try and deal him now for the best returns. Usually, NBA history has shown that a desperate trade of All Star or superstar caliber player rarely brings the team back fair returns. But the Timberwolves can count themselves lucky: if they had waited for a season, Love would’ve left them for nothing and – being a small market – they would’ve found it impossible to attract star free agents up to Minnesota.
The trade turned to be a best-case scenario for them: they got a hold of both Wiggins and Bennett on their rookie deals. They managed to hold on to Bennett and in a separate trade, acquired another serviceable talent in Thaddeus Young from the happy-to-tank 76ers. While Bennett was a flop in his rookie year, he still has the talent to be a good auxiliary piece in the right system. And Wiggins, well, the sky could be the limit for the young man who was once called the ‘Canadian LeBron’ because of his dominant showings in High School.
Wiggins will get more exposure with the Timberwolves
Will Wiggins be ever as good as Love? Only time will tell, but for now, his potential is tantalizing enough for Minnesota to place their faith on his young shoulders. Wiggins has tremendous athletic ability, has the promise to morph into an elite wing defender, and has shown willingness to be a team-first player. His offense and shooting are still a work in progress, but this is where being in Minnesota benefits him individually. In Cleveland, Wiggins may not have had the space to grow offensively behind James and Irving. In Minnesota, he’ll have to carry a much larger bulk of the offense from day one. The extra responsibility could completely expose lack of offensive ability, but on the flip side, it could force him to raise his game to an even higher pedestal.
Even with Love on their side for the next year, it was highly unlikely that the Timberwolves would’ve made the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. Now, they get a chance to refresh with lower expectations, but probably the same final result. Wiggins will join a nice core with point guard Ricky Rubio, who will now have to take up more leadership duties in the squad. Rubio is an elite distributor, and he will have ample options between Wiggins, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, Young, Bennett, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, and athletic rookie Zach LaVine. The Timberwolves might not win too many games, but they sure will be one of the most exciting teams in the NBA.
The future looks promising, but both Wiggins and his young squad have to hit at all the right cylinders to turn this promise into reality. The world’s attention may be drawn towards Cleveland right now, but if Wiggins is able to improve dramatically over the next few seasons, perhaps he truly might affirm those who once compared him to LeBron James or believed that he deserved to be the number one pick in the draft.
Meanwhile, the real LeBron James has played general manager over in Cleveland, recruiting the players that he feels would be the right fit around him (Love, Mike Miller, Shaun Marion, and maybe even Ray Allen). He also allowed his team to trade the players he feels are expendable (Wiggins, Bennett). Wiggins’ career begins with a clear nudge from the game’s best player; perhaps he would not be motivated to use this slight to rise up and prove both LeBron and the Cavs wrong about him.
18 years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers made the right decision in letting go of their big man to Charlotte in exchange for an unproven rookie teenager. Will Embiid’s prediction come true, and Wiggins will make the team that drafted him forever regret their decision just like Charlotte did with Kobe? There could have hardly been a crazier way for Andrew Wiggins to begin his NBA journey – now, he has a chance to turn the shape of this fantastic journey ahead on his own terms.