Grange on Hoop Summit: Wiggins has work to do

Canadian hoops phenom Andrew Wiggins. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

PORTLAND — The easy part is over. Andrew Wiggins played his final high school game against the best in the world and came out on top.

It wasn’t always pretty, but Wiggins led the World Team at the Nike Hoop Summit to uncharted territory as a collection of 11 of the best U-20 players from nine different countries defeated a star-studded lineup of American teenagers 112-98.

For Wiggins it’s another nice entry on a rapidly deepening basketball CV; the World team entered the game with a 4-11 record and had never won in back-to-back years until Vaughan, Ontario’s finest export was in the lineup.

That it came with Roy Rana – the head coach at Ryerson University and Wiggins’ coach with the Canadian national team program for the past three years – made it that much sweeter. That it was another win over the USA while wearing a jersey with ‘Canada’ across his chest was a bonus.

“It means a lot, it’s never been done and it means even more because I have a Canadian coach with me … so it’s a special thing we can cherish and it’s a special opportunity to be here and play against the best,” said Wiggins who finished with 17 points, 9 rebounds and four assists, though he struggled with his shot and finished 6-of-16 from the floor. Wiggins was the most valuable player in the game last year as he led the World team with 20 points and seven rebounds.

“It’s great to make Canada proud,” said Wiggins, who is expected to lead Canada’s entry at the U-20 World championships this summer. “They support me through my ups and downs. They’re always going to be there and never turn their back on me.”

The game concludes his high school career and was the last of the three all-star games he’s played this month, in Chicago, Brooklyn and now Portland. He hasn’t been home to Huntington, West Virginia where he’s still got school work to finish, for nearly two weeks. As for home – Toronto – he hasn’t been there since February.

It’s worth remembering that while Wiggins probably should be playing professionally and would be if the NBA didn’t require incoming players to be at least one year removed from high school before entering the draft, he’s still a young man with young man-like concerns.

He’s backed up on his homework, but feels confident he can catch up: “I’m a smart kid,” he says.

But of a greater immediate concern is he’s backed up on simply being a kid. Wiggins is a lot of things, most of them very rare and thus highly prized: with the pedigree of his father, Mitch Wiggins, an accomplished NBA player and his mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins, twice an Olympic medalist in track and field for Canada, the six-foot-eight forward has every single element of athletic potential that project to a long and ridiculously prosperous professional career.

But he also has, at the core, a lot of attributes that are entirely common for someone his age: he’s a bit shy in the spotlight and not always eager to be there. His first love is playing Call of Duty. It’s not clear he views basketball as a craft that has to be mastered. You get the sense that for all his talent, it’s still a game for him, not quite a career path.

The biggest smile he flashed all week was when he was asked about his plans for next week, when his three-week tour through the post-season all-star circuit will finally be behind him. His life’s been such a whirlwind that he’s not quite sure what season it is. With his national team commitments approaching in the summer and college after that, the next couple of months are his offseason. It might be April but it’s summer to him.

“I’m looking forward to shutting down for a couple of days, getting some rest, getting some ‘me’ time and just chilling with my friends and cherish the last few days I have of summer before it all gets crazy,” he said. “I’ve been travelling for like three weeks straight so I’m just looking forward to being able to relax and watch TV for hours for hours and lay in my bed for hours and just be me.”

What ‘me’ is will change soon enough, one suspects. The Hoop Summit is one of the best attended events on the calendar for NBA talent evaluators. Every practice of the week is watched closely by representatives of every team. They’re not allowed to speak on the record about players that are still in high school, but in off-the-record conversations the view of Wiggins was pretty consistent:

His physical tools are second to none – speed, quickness, agility, size, body control and leaping ability – he’s elite in every element; as rare as anyone on the planet. But he has a tendency to coast at times and there’s some doubt if he has yet figured out what it means to be as good as he can be.

“There’s no doubt he’s the No.1 athlete,” one NBA executive said. “But he may not be the No.1 player.”

His pure basketball skills need the kind of polish that only comes with very specific practice and attention to detail. There’s a minor hitch in his shooting motion; he lacks bullet-proof confidence with his ball handling. In Saturday’s game he flashed his world-class lateral quickness to swallow up Julius Randle for the U.S. on one possession, Randle being one of a handful of players who will likely challenge Wiggins as the top pick in the 2014 draft. On the next possession he barely waved at a ball in the paint while the World team was playing zone. It wasn’t technically his man but the U.S.A. scored while he stood watching, essentially. Offensively, he drifts in and out at times. He settles for three-pointers when he could easily drive to the rim.

On the plus side he’s remarkably unselfish. His willingness to share the ball and defer to the team concept was undoubtedly a factor in the World Team moving the ball so fluidly and willingly. There’s a lot to be said for being a world-class talent but having a working-class sense of entitlement.

And he sounds like he knows he’s got some work to do:

“Playing against the best I get to see what they do that makes them elite,” he says. “Some are better than me at different things, some are better shooters, some are better dribblers. I’m just trying to learn from my opponents so I can be better at different things and be a better player at all different aspects of the game.”

The next five to 10 years of his career will be determined by how quickly and how completely Wiggins embraces the working-class side of skill development and growth. If he accepts what it takes to become a star and everything that comes with it, there is literally no limit to what he can achieve.

He’ll achieve a lot in any case – he’s that gifted — but the burden of his ability is that he’ll always be measured according to what his ceiling is, rather than the floor, and the ceiling is very high.

As of now, essentially, Wiggins will be entering an adult basketball world. His next step is to choose which of the four top-flight NCAA schools he’ll be attending next season – the list is down to Florida State, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. After that it is almost certain he’ll declare for the NBA draft.

Like most players his age there are gaps, flaws and rough spots. Polishing a diamond takes time and Wiggins has some, to be sure; he’s yet to graduate from high school after all.

But unlike most kids his age, Wiggins will be entering the grown-up world very shortly and with everyone watching – the NBA, the saying goes, stands for No Boys Allowed — and at that point basketball, which comes easily to him, will become that much harder. It will become a job.

Here’s hoping he enjoys his ‘me’ time while he still can.

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