Andrew Wiggins keeps coming

Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Spo

The Kansas freshman entered the season with unprecedented hype, but he continues to get better as March draws near.

The hype for the 2014 NBA Draft unofficially began in October 2012. That's when Andrew Wiggins decided to reclassify in high school and become eligible for the 2013-14 college season. Chicago's Jabari Parker had already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated five months before, accompanied by a headline that proclaimed him to be "the best high school basketball player since LeBron James". The day Wiggins reclassified, he jumped ahead of Parker in just about every national prospect ranking. Wiggins' ascent was cold, ruthless and unquestioned.

Wiggins rose to prominence a few months earlier on the AAU circuit as a then-incoming high school junior. With Parker sidelined by a foot injury during the summer, all eyes turned to Wiggins' matchup with Dallas forward Julius Randle at the prestigious Peach Jam event in South Carolina. It was a TKO victory for the Wiggins, not dissimilar to the way LeBron James announced himself against Lenny Cooke at the ABCD camp in 2001. Wiggins finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds and, even more impressively, locked up the bigger and stronger Randle on the other end of the court.

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At that point, Wiggins was more of a myth than a man; a prospect who almost no one had seen expect for a highlight mixtape that everyone had seen. Even the people who make high school mixtapes don't believe they're useful scouting tools, but the footage of Wiggins was seemingly undeniable. You do not see humans fly the way Andrew Wiggins could fly even as a 16-year-old. The mixtape didn't create the legend of Wiggins as much as it reinforced it. The tape started an open season for all of the grandiose athletic hyperbole the human mind could conjure.

The enormous amount of hype surrounding his arrival in Lawrence might lead you to believe he's been a bit of a disappointment. It isn't true, but it shows just how easily even 18-year-olds can be a victim of circumstance.

What followed was the most reclusive recruiting process a top talent has gone through in recent memory. Wiggins was so perturbed by the cat and mouse game of recruiting that he even refused to speak to the head coaches vying for his commitment. It didn't stop the four schools on his final list -- Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Florida State -- from pulling out their most shameless sales pitches.

FSU honored each of Wiggins' parents -- steady, if unspectacular, athletes for the Seminoles more than two decades earlier -- at halftime of his official visit. Florida State also brought girls. Lots of girls. Kansas' pitch was less overt, but not exactly by-the-book. When Wiggins visited, KU made it a point to throw alley-oops. They ended up throwing six in the first half.

Wiggins announced he would join Kansas at a small party with with only two media members. Even after the decision, he didn't respond to Bill Self's text messages for three days.

Wiggins1

(Credit: Michael C. Johnson // USA TODAY Sports)
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"In high school, he could do what he wanted, when he wanted," said Fulford, who coached Wiggins at Huntington Prep in West Virginia. "If he had to he could jump over everybody.

"But now he’s having to score through contact. Getting hacked and bumped by a 16-year-old high school sophomore isn’t the same as getting hacked and bumped by a 23-year-old college senior. It’s been good for him. It’s humbled him a bit."

Andrew Wiggins has not struggled at Kansas. He's the second-leading scorer among major-conference freshman, behind only Jabari Parker. He's leading the Jayhawks in scoring and in steals by a comfortable margin. But if the world expected Wiggins to dominate the Big 12 the way Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley did in their one year of college, it isn't happening. Wiggins has been very good, and he's getting better every game, but the enormous amount of hype surrounding his arrival in Lawrence might lead you to believe he's been a bit of a disappointment. It isn't true, but it shows just how easily even 18-year-olds can be a victim of circumstance.

Wiggins' talent has been on display since the second game of his college career, when he finished with 22 points and eight rebounds in a win over No. 4 Duke at the Champions Classic in Chicago. The arena was loaded with NBA front-office types, and they saw Wiggins in all of his raw, untapped glory.

What's followed have been the type of peaks and valleys you'd expect from any college freshman who wasn't Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins finished with 10 points, four turnovers and zero assists in a loss to Villanova in November. The very next night, he scored six points on 2-of-9 shooting in a close win over UTEP. Two games later, Wiggins finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds in a win against the team that will be No. 1 in the polls next week, the Florida Gators.

This is how it goes for freshmen, even the ones eventually ticketed for superstardom. Look at how Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose played early in their college careers. Even for those with otherworldly talent, domination can be a process.

The nonconference schedule exposed some flaws in Wiggins that will have to be addressed eventually.  He's had zero assists in seven different games this season as well as eight games with only one assist. That's an issue for a future No. 1 option on the perimeter for an NBA team. Lately, Wiggins has started to see the floor a little better. He's hit five assists in a game twice in the last month.

It's easier to focus on the areas where Wiggins needs to improve, but he already does many things at an elite level. First and foremost is defense.

Wiggins is a willing defender, and at 6'8 with a seven-foot wingspan alongside top-end athleticism, he has the gifts to be a force at that end. Wiggins' high school mixtape never showed him denying the ball and darting into passing lanes, but it's part of what makes him such a special prospect. He's going to be a great NBA defender, which is more than you can say about most of the 2014 draft's top prospects. It's perhaps the most important thing to be mindful of when evaluating Wiggins' play.

The athleticism manifests itself in more than just highlight reel dunks.

The athleticism manifests itself in more than just highlight reel dunks. If anything, those around Wiggins have been trying to get him to dunk more. Though Kansas ranks outside of the top 100 in pace, it's clear Wiggins is a killer in transition. He's already showing the makings of a nice Euro step move that will come in handy down the line. He's been developing a floater, as well.

One knock on Wiggins is that he hasn't been great at finishing through contact, but he's still converting over 60 percent of his shots at the rim, per hoop-math. That's the exact same rate as Parker, only Wiggins doesn't need as much help getting there. Wiggins has been assisted on 46.3 percent of his shots at the rim, while Parker gets an assist there 55.3 percent of the time. While Parker is constantly lauded for his polish on the offensive end, Wiggins' effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage are nearly identical to the Duke star.

Other strengths are only obvious if you're watching the games. Have you seen Wiggins' second jump? It's remarkable. He used it to tie the game at the end of regulation against Kansas State on Feb. 10:

Wiggins-kstate-putback

(GIF via @CJZero)

It's easy to wonder how many NBA wings have that in them. Wiggins did it again in Kansas' most recent game, a win over Texas Tech, when he put in the game-winner at the buzzer:

The numbers back it up. Wiggins has a team-leading 19 putbacks this year, seven more than even teammate Joel Embiid, who has quickly become the odds on favorite to go No. 1 in the draft. Wiggins' long arms combined with his ability to jump twice before most players can jump once all bodes well for his future.

Wiggins might also be a better shooter than most realized. Kansas is already running out of timeout plays to get him open looks for threes at the top of the key, and Wiggins is usually delivering. He's hitting 34.4 percent of his threes this year, on over three attempts per game. That isn't far behind Parker, who makes 36.5 percent of his threes on the same number of attempts.

Kansas is up to No. 8 in the AP poll at 19-6, leading the Big 12 by two games. They'll likely be a No. 2 seed in the tournament, where Wiggins will have the opportunity to break out the same way Derrick Rose did in 2008. Kansas has the most talent of any team in the country, but that doesn't guarantee anything. Durant's Texas team lost in the round of 32. Beasley's Kansas State team did, too.

For all of the anxiety over Wiggins apparent lack of domination, he keeps getting better. He's mostly been terrific in conference play, and he'll have five more opportunities to prove himself there before the Big 12 tournament starts. It's been a long road for Wiggins to get to this point, but now is when it really matters. Forget everything you heard about Andrew Wiggins along the way. When taken at face value, he's been pretty damn good.

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