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Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins shows why he was the No. 1 pick

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We throw the word “bust” so easily. Do you know who was a bust? Michael Olowokandi was a dud. LaRue Martin was a dud. Kwame Brown was a dud. Want to widen the playing field a bit and include the NFL? JaMarcus Russell was a dud. Tim Couch was a dud. Sam Bradford was a failure.

Andrew Wiggins?

He owns an NBA Rookie of the Year trophy. He has averaged more than 20 points per game in the NBA in three different seasons. He has started an All-Star Game. By any measure, a player who racks up that kind of run should avoid seeing his name and “bust” him in the same sentence.

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Such is the burden of extraordinary talent and being selected No. 1 overall in a draft. Hell, before playing a college game in Kansas, he’d been given an impossible-to-live-up nickname in honor of both his homeland and a certain player whose precocious skill set hinted at his talent: Maple Jordan.

Jimmy Butler, a teammate of Wiggins’s at Minnesota and as exacting a judge as any, once said, “Wiggs has more God-given ability than any player in the league right now.”

So anything, anything Wiggins did, there was always a caveat. There was always a feeling that he could do more. There was a belief that he was a stats freak, a guy who will score you a ton of points in loss after loss. He was dubbed the worst rebounder in the NBA. He was accused of leading the league in empty minutes.

Andrew Wiggins makes a layup during the Warriors' Game 5 win over the Celtics.
Andrew Wiggins makes a layup during the Warriors’ Game 5 win over the Celtics.
USA TODAY Sports

And now, he’s 48 minutes away from one of the great redemption stories in NBA history, perhaps 48 minutes away from accepting the Bill Russell Trophy as NBA Finals MVP if the Warriors can beat the Celtics in Game 6 on Thursday night. in Boston or in Game 7 on Sunday in San Francisco.

While it might take a glut of cold-blooded, clear-eyed voters to deny Steph Curry the MVP award for a fourth time if the Warriors pull that off, the fact that Wiggins is as prominent in the conversation as he is is what tells the story. more convincing. of these Finals. He’s averaging 18.4 points and 9.4 rebounds, but more specifically, in the two biggest games of the season — and of his life — he had 17 points and 16 rebounds in Game 4 and followed that up with 26 and 13 in Game 5, helping serve out Golden State from a hole two games to one and push the Warriors to the brink of a title.

“It doesn’t get any bigger than this,” Wiggins said after Game 5, and he said it with a satisfaction that lets you know: He’s heard the whispers. He knows what people say about him. And he knows that when it mattered most, he raised his game.

“I think it’s a reminder that for almost every player in the NBA, circumstance is everything,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “You need to find the right place, the right teammates, that kind of thing. Wiggs has fit in perfectly.”

It’s not often you see a No. 1 overall pick endure the kind of humility Wiggins has absorbed — and remember, this is his eighth season in the league — and then take a quantum leap forward.

Really, the only example that feels remotely similar is Jim Plunkett, who was No. 1 in the 1971 NFL Draft, had some early speed in New England (runner-up for Offensive Rookie of the Year) and then was left out. off the grid for seven years. Then, impossibly enough, he reemerged as a star with the Raiders, leading them to victories in Super Bowls XV and XVIII, and completely recalibrating the record of his career.

The prelude to Wiggins’ stellar turnaround wasn’t as stark as Plunkett’s, but his development as an essential cog in a championship engine is just as unlikely. The Warriors baffled much of the league when they traded D’Angelo Russell and some minor players for Wiggins and a couple of picks. They called the exchange a lot of things, except for what it turned out to be: the missing ingredient.

“He’s accepted the challenge of consistency and what he’s capable of doing on both ends of the floor,” Curry said. “We’ve embraced him since day 1. We try to paint a picture of what his skill set can do for us to reach the highest level.”

That plateau is well within reach now. And somehow, improbably, impossible, Andrew Wiggins has provided just the right push to get them there. Once a bust, now a boost. Who saw it coming, except maybe Maple Jordan himself?

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