Attention in the digital age is a fickle, funny thing. When Kevin Durant drops game-winning buckets in Toronto, Twitter lights up with praise for this season’s likely MVP. If LeBron James has a paltry fourth quarter, the dissenters come out of the woodwork. The Internet gives us instant access to a wider scope of opinions than any time in history, yet our attention has become so focused on moment-to-moment interaction that we have lost sight of the future.
Before he’d ever played a minute for Kansas, Andrew Wiggins was the toast of college basketball. For better or for worse, he was the face for a class that was heralded as the best in a decade, both literally and figuratively.
Magazine covers were just the start–draft sites called him “The Next Franchise Talent.” Scouts wondered if he was “the best prospect since LeBron,” perhaps forgetting the mythology surrounding Greg Oden‘s prep career. Regardless, the hype train was in motion before most basketball fans ever saw him play.
By any reasonable standards, Wiggins had a successful freshman season. Leading the Big 12 champion Jayhawks in scoring at 17.1, while averaging 5.9 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 1.2 steals a game, he showed off a mix of otherworldly athleticism, defensive prowess and effective shooting. At his best, he’s been positively electric–the 41-point performance against West Virginia on March 8 was probably the best individual performance of the season, and a standout of the last 15 years statistically.
Andrew Wiggins is the only D-I player in last 15 seasons with at least 5 steals and 4 blocks in a 40-point game.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 8, 2014
But it’s the lows, and there have been plenty of them, that many are focused on. Bowing out in the second round to 10th-seeded Stanford is one thing–Tim Duncan met the exact same fate during his senior year at Wake Forest. Doing it anonymously is another. Four points on six shots is inexplicable for a player with his talent, particularly in a do-or-die game.
Fans have been conditioned to seek out the alpha dogs, the go-to scorers, and from this perspective Wiggins leaves much to be desired. On his “off” days, he looks content to simply be a part of the team, drifting around the perimeter, waiting until his teammates see fit to get him the ball. He blends in, something you could never accuse most prep stars of.
Sports followers only have so much time in the day, so we rely on top 10 plays and slimmed-down summaries to build the stories we can’t manage to ourselves. That starts with fans, but extends to beat writers, insiders, even executives, who rely on incomplete data no matter how hard they work. Combined with the cynical nature of the Internet generation, always told something is “The Next Big Thing” (shout out to Samsung), and public failure has never been so potent.
When Michael Jordan repeatedly fell at the hands of the Bad Boys Pistons, there were questions about whether a pure scorer could ever lead a championship team, but they were isolated to newspapers, chats in barbershops, and discussions among diehards. They were mere whispers compared to the shouting that takes place today from anyone with WiFi.
Because of this dynamic, the ratio between having an opinion and being qualified to say it has never been more distorted. There’s a lower price of admission to be able to share what you think, and it has diluted the discourse immensely. Even people who live, breathe and think basketball are prone to falling into the trap, sharing their thoughts without a solid base of information to draw from.
Sorry, not seeing what all the fuss is about with Andrew Wiggins.
— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) March 23, 2014
Can I make a Wiggins NBA comparison based on 2.5 games I've seen him? Oh wait, I can because this is MY twitter account. Nicolas Batum.
— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) March 23, 2014
Things like this rain down on a 19-year-old kid from Ontario so frequently that they have become white noise. It’s not as important to be right as it is to be among the quickest and loudest to offer an opinion–call it the Skip Bayless corollary. What we say gets swallowed up so quickly by the masses that there’s hardly time to remember it.
This reveals the contradictions deep inside us. Wiggins is asked to handle the media with poise and grace, then told to be a killer, to rip out the heart of his opponents. Fans fetishize the idea of leadership and a team playing as a unit, then scoff at Wiggins making the smart, simple play, instead of forcing a low-percentage shot from midrange. He is everything we love and everything we loathe at the same time, a walking contradiction that frustrates and tempts the most rational among us.
The 35 games he’s played at Kansas–less than half of an NBA season–are a brief window through which to judge a young man who hopes to make his living playing basketball. Paul George, a player with whom he’s often compared, was a consensus top-three player in December before careening off a cliff once the calendar turned to 2014. Success comes and goes in every profession. Writers turn in subpar articles, business deals fall through, and a scientist’s theories are debunked by new research.
These aren’t indictments of their work; They’re failures that all of us go through. People desperately want to believe that the athletes they spend time and money following can be perfect, that these muscle-bound warriors are avatars with better genetics. The truth is they’re humans like you and I, flawed and prone to mistakes.
His game is imperfect, his dribbling ability suspect, wiry frame making it difficult to score in traffic. But critique is not interchangeable with conjecture, and ignorance is no excuse for half-baked opinions. It’s within reason that Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and the rest of this vaunted freshman class will ultimately fail, but let’s find out with ample time and information, rather than rushing to be the first snowflake to fall.
Wiggins’ roller coaster year has taught those who paid attention a lot about his game. But there’s a larger lesson about us, and the way we process the failings of teenagers like him. As much as we pretend we have all the answers, most of us are just stumbling through dark corridors, searching for a guiding light. Picking Andrew Wiggins apart only indicates that he’s the brightest one we can find.
What is your take from the freshman season of Andrew Wiggins?
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