Before Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and the Lakers had 18,000 fans packed into Thomas & Mack Arena in Las Vegas, the first sign that Summer League had grown into something far bigger than before was the opening night matchup in 2014 between the Bucks and the Cavs.
Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker came into the NBA as incredibly hyped prospects and the league, as it usually does, scheduled the top two picks to meet in Summer League action on the first night of games in the tiny Cox Pavilion. The result was madness. Fans crammed into the stands to get a glimpse of the pair, media were standing five deep on the baselines as there wasn’t enough seating for the demand. It was a signal that Summer League was suddenly big business, but it also was supposed to be the start of two great NBA careers.
Five summers later and Wiggins and Parker have taken decidedly different paths to where they are now, but both have been disappointments on the floor to varying degrees. Parker battled injuries in Milwaukee and eventually signed a bloated contract with the Bulls to go home to Chicago, where his offensive skills simply couldn’t mask his defensive apathy. Parker was traded to the Wizards and signed a modest two-year, $13 million deal (with a second year player option) with the Hawks this summer.
Wiggins was traded shortly after that Summer League debut to the Timberwolves for Kevin Love after LeBron James chose to return to Cleveland, and has been in Minnesota ever since, inking a max extension two years ago. That contract has looked like an albatross since pen was put to paper, as through five years of his career he had never evolved beyond being a volume shooting, low-efficiency scorer — a stark contrast to his highly efficient teammate and fellow former top pick Karl-Anthony Towns.
And yet, despite five years of frustration caused by uneven and inefficient play, both are off to the best starts of their respective careers this season. Wiggins seems to be flourishing under Ryan Saunders, freed from the reign of Tom Thibodeau whose grating style never fit well with the young Canadian. Parker is having similar success in Atlanta under Lloyd Pierce and playing alongside Trae Young, as both top picks in the 2014 Draft are making a real-time argument for the importance of fit and comfort for success in the NBA.
We’ll start with Wiggins, who is posting career bests in just about every major statistical category this year. He’s averaging 25.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.1 blocks per game, all of which are career bests. His 1.5 turnovers per game are the lowest mark of his career, and the deeper you dive into what he’s doing this year, the more optimistic you get. Wiggins, long one of the worst offenders in terms of shooting long two-pointers (aka, the least efficient shot in basketball), has suddenly eschewed those looks for better ones this season in Saunders’ offense.
His three-point rate is the highest of his career (31.4 percent of his shots compared to 28.8 percent last year, per Basketball-Reference) and he’s taking fewer shots from 10 feet to the three-point line (20.3 percent) than at any point previously — last year was his lowest at 30.3 percent, surely assisted by Saunders taking over midseason. He’s still not shooting threes particularly well (33.8 percent) but his two-point field goal percentage of 53.5 percent is, by far, a career-best because he’s settling far less and taking more shots inside 10 feet than at any previous point of his career — and, because he’s more judicious with the long-two shot selection, he’s making way more of those when he does take them because even those are better looks.
Beyond just the shooting, Wiggins is doing just about everything better on the offensive end. His assist percentage (16.7) is by far the best of his career (previous best 10.9) and that goes along with a 6.1 turnover percentage that is also a massive improvement over a career mark of 9.8. The result of this for the Timberwolves has been a 6-4 start to the season, as Towns finally has the running mate in Wiggins everyone hoped the pair could be. Skepticism surrounding Wiggins won’t fade away after just 10 games, but this isn’t just a fluky uptick in efficiency buoyed by career-best shooting from deep in a small sample size, as he’s still shooting right around his career average from three. It’s a legitimate shift in shot selection that’s leading to a jump in efficiency, coupled with the best work he’s ever done in facilitating and protecting the basketball.
In Atlanta, a similar story is unfolding with Parker, albeit on a bit of a smaller scale. Parker is having one of his worst three-point shooting starts to his career at 27.8 percent from deep, but is still posting a career-best in eFG% and TS% on the backs of a robust 70 percent mark from two-point range. The reason? He, to an even greater degree than Wiggins, has removed the long two from his arsenal and is taking 43.1 percent of his shot attempts from inside three feet, where he’s making an absurd 86.3 percent of his attempts (24.1 percent of his field goal attempts on the year are dunks, by far a career high). Only 7.7 percent of Parker’s attempts this season are coming from 10 feet to the three-point line, and while he’s shooting the three ball poorly, it’s still a better shot and the expectation is that he’ll hit more of those as the season progresses.
The result of this has been the most efficient start to a season of his career and the second-best start overall from a raw production standpoint at 17.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Parker isn’t asked to do as much as a playmaker as Wiggins, so his peripheral numbers aren’t as impressive, and while his defensive effort seems improved, there are still significant weaknesses there, particularly in pick-and-roll coverage. However, for a player that had become a punchline for many, it’s a great start to the season that may see him reclaim some of his value for next summer — as it stands now, it’d be stunning if he picked up his player option.
The top of the 2014 NBA Draft was supposed to change the NBA. However, Joel Embiid has been the only one to live up to the All-Star billing of that class to this point and for most, Wiggins and Parker have been significant disappointments. This season, though, they’re flourishing and serve as walking examples of the importance of fit to a young player’s success.
It helps that both have struggled and seem to have recognized a need to listen to new approaches, but they also needed a coach to believe in them before fully buying in. Given the dramatic shift both have made in their offensive approach, it would seem they’ve found that in Saunders and Pierce, and the results speak for themselves early this season.
(All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference)