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Andrew Wiggins: candidate for NBA's Most Improved Player?

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Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Clippers
Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves drives to the basket during a game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, 2018, in Los Angeles.
Harry How | Getty Images 2018

The Minnesota Timberwolves and Andrew Wiggins are bonded together until his contract is up.

Heading into the 2019-20 NBA season, Minnesota’s new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas and his staff must first prioritize Karl-Anthony Towns. But secondly, they must help Wiggins become the two-way player he was destined to be.

There were rumblings about the Timberwolves looking to move Wiggins this summer. But due to his enormous contract — which has often outpaced his on-court production — moving on from the 6-foot-8 Canadian guard/forward proved to be too daunting a task.

But I believe Andrew “Maple Jordan” Wiggins will be the most improved player in the NBA.

No, I’m not a Wiggins apologist, nor am I the mayor of Wiggins Island. Like many Timberwolves fans, I’m actually highly critical of Wiggins — and I don’t quite know how to feel about that statement, either. But to put it simply, if there was a year for Wiggins to make the leap we all know he can, it’s this upcoming season.

While he’s been mostly criticized for his lack of energy, suspect defense and questionable shot selection, all of which are fair claims, Wiggins’ career merits some level of context.

Entering his sixth NBA season, Wiggins will have played for four different coaches: the late Flip Saunders; former Timberwolves legend Sam Mitchell; Tom Thibodeau, who was fired halfway through last season; and now Ryan Saunders, son of Flip, who took over the team in the wake of Thibodeau’s departure.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers
Coach Ryan Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves (right) celebrates a lead with Andrew Wiggins during a win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Jan. 24, 2019 in Los Angeles.
Harry How | Getty Images

Remember: Wiggins is still only 24.

Under Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell, the Timberwolves were expected to be rebuilding. It wasn’t pretty basketball, but Wiggins impressed — showing off the scoring chops and athleticism that made him such a tantalizing prospect. Of course, neither of those seasons ended with more than 30 wins.

In Thibodeau’s first season, Wiggins had his best season to date, scoring 23.6 points per game on 48.5 percent from the field, while making 35 percent of his three-pointers. He even made some small progress on the defensive end.

In his second year at the helm, Thibodeau traded guard Zach Lavine for veteran and All-Star Jimmy Butler. We all know how this ended. The Wolves clinched their first playoff berth in 13 years, but soon afterwards the team imploded. Butler demanded a trade, and only after humiliating the franchise was his wish granted.

When Butler joined the team, Wiggins sacrificed touches to the senior player, and his averages and engagement in the game weren’t the same. For the first time since his rookie season, Wiggins scored less than 20 points per game, and analysts questioned if Wiggins would ever figure it out.

Insert Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas.

For the first time in over a decade, the Timberwolves have a legitimate front under Saunders and Rosas. Every move Rosas has made, from his front office to the coaching staff, has been made with development in mind. He’s brought over accomplished assistant coaches who have been credited for the growth of star-level players like Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and D’Angelo Russell.

With a full season under Ryan Saunders, who has been supportive of Wiggins over the years, we’ll finally see if Wiggins has what it takes to be an All-Star level talent.

In the 2019 Summer League, we saw glimpses of what the Timberwolves could look like this season: more ball movement that should lead to more three-point shots, quicker fast breaks, and switching on defense, making it easier to deal with the versatility in today’s NBA.

Recently, the Timberwolves added a new shot chart inside their practice facility to fully implement their three-over-two-points philosophy, which hopefully will limit Wiggins’ love affair with the long-range two (aka the most inefficient shot in the NBA).

This summer, Wiggins has been in the Twin Cities for most of the offseason, working out with teammates and the coaching staff. Here he is demonstrating an improved handle and shooting mechanics in an exhibition game against fellow NBA stars:

With the Rosas regime embracing player development and modernizing the game, Andrew Wiggins stands to make major strides in his game. If the Timberwolves intend to challenge for a playoff spot in a historically deep Western Conference, they’ll need Wiggins to make that leap.

MPR News producer Jeffrey Bissoy is co-host of the NBA podcast "The Come Up."