SAN FRANCISCO — Overrated. Disappointing. Flat-out bad. Plenty of adjectives have been used to describe the NBA career of Andrew Wiggins thus far, but very few of them are complimentary. When he was traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Golden State Warriors in a swap for D’Angelo Russell before Thursday’s deadline, think pieces abounded about how Golden State had squandered the asset they picked up in the Kevin Durant sign-and-trade because they cashed it in for Wiggins.
But that’s the great thing about trades. We can debate who won the deal. We can say a team should have held out for more. But ultimately, the deal is done. We can’t go back. All we can do is look forward.
That’s the sentiment that Golden State coach Steve Kerr expressed before Wiggins’ Warriors debut on Saturday night, a closer-than-expected 125-120 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Forget what he’s done up until this point — this is a new beginning for the former No. 1 overall draft pick whom the Cavaliers traded before he even played a game for them.
“It’s a fresh start. It’s a restart for him,” Kerr said before the game. “For a guy who’s the No. 1 pick in the draft, the expectations are really high. But if you think about it, there are very few players in the league who can just go in and change the fortunes of a franchise — not many at all.”
The atmosphere was a bit off at Chase Center because the Lakers were in town — they generally have a strong fan presence in the Bay, and even more so in a game in which the Warriors’ roster essentially consisted of G League players and guys on 10-day contracts. But still, those Warriors fans in attendance gave Wiggins a rousing ovation when he was introduced.
“This whole thing didn’t really feel real until they announced my name, then it’s just like, ‘Whoa, I’m here,'” Wiggins said after the game. “Just seeing the crowd and seeing everyone excited for me, just embracing me as one of their own, it was a great feeling.”
Wiggins played about as well as expected given that everything was so new. He stopped several times during his pre-game shootaround so assistant coach Aaron Miles could explain his new routine, and Kerr said he trimmed down the playbook considerably to simplify things for his new forward. Even in a whirlwind, however, Wiggins put together a strong game. After a missing a long, contested two-pointer — the very shot that led to so much criticism in Minnesota — on his first attempt, Wiggins finished the game with 24 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range.
It’s also strange because the team Wiggins played with in his first game is nothing like the team he was brought in to augment. He was clearly the Warriors’ most accomplished offensive player on Saturday, but if all goes well, next season he’ll be third, maybe even fourth on the list. So it was fitting that his first basket as a Warrior was a corner three — a shot that will likely be available countless times once he’s surrounded by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
“We’re gonna ask [Wiggins] to play a role, to play alongside a group of players who have been really successful, and to slide into a role that’s kind of cut out for him, to be honest, at that small forward spot,” Kerr said. ” … It all looks good, you know, the puzzle looks good. But now it’s our job and it’s Andrew’s job to try to make this work.”
There’s also the defensive side, where Wiggins has struggled throughout his career despite having the size and length of a prototypical wing stopper. While the Warriors aren’t asking their new acquisition to be a superstar on offense, they’re going to need him to at least become an above-average defender if they’re going to re-enter the NBA title conversation next season. There have also been questions about whether Wiggins’ basketball IQ is high enough to keep up with the Warriors’ read-and-react system that was so successful over the past five seasons.
“He’s one of those people who you could consider a professional scorer, but on the defensive end I was happy that he kind of caught on a little bit with what we were trying to do, just as far as the switching and the drops and things like that,” said Warriors center Marquese Chriss, who finished the game with a season-high 26 points and nine rebounds. “He was playing hard and he was doing his job well.”
Wiggins guarded LeBron James and Anthony Davis on different occasions on Saturday night, holding his own while collecting five steals, which he hadn’t done since 2016, his second year in the NBA. A one-game sample size means nothing, but the effort was certainly there from Wiggins — a characteristic that’s been questioned since his days as the nation’s top high school recruit.
“It’s just great to have a player who we could put on LeBron, and at least match up physically,” Kerr said after the game. “It’s the hardest position to guard these days in the NBA, so to have a guy who’s 6-8 and athletic and knows the league well, understands how to play, it’s great.”
Wiggins flashed all of his tantalizing tools in his Warriors debut. The question is whether the Warriors’ culture and coaching staff can summon the tremendous potential that everyone seems to think lies within. They’re banking that they can, and they’ll use the remaining two months of the season to see what kind of impact the Golden State environment can truly have.
It’s telling that, despite the Warriors sitting at 12-41 — the worst record in the NBA — Wiggins still felt the power of the championship pride in his new surroundings.
“We lost a lot in Minnesota. So coming here, being part of a winning team, a winning culture, it’s different,” Wiggins said. “Losing’s never fun. Being here, you can tell by everyone’s attitude, approach, everything that’s everywhere, they’re winners. That’s something I’ve wanted my whole career, and I’m here.”