by Luke Winn
Last May, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self was attending his daughter Lauren's graduation from KU's school of education. The ceremony was held in legendary Allen Fieldhouse, and the dean, Rick Ginsberg, had asked the grads to submit, on index cards, their most embarrassing moments and greatest regrets. Among the statements he read aloud was, "Not being around to see Andrew Wiggins play for the Jayhawks."
Dang! Self thought when he heard that. Even if it might be a joke ... even if the 18-year-old Wiggins, who had signed with Kansas four days earlier, was the Number 1 prospect in the class of 2013 ... and even if he's the likely Number 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, the kid hasn't even made a basket at Kansas!
The 6′ 8″, 200-pound Wiggins grew up outside Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He played at Huntington (West Virginia) Prep last season, where he won honors that included Gatorade's Male High School Athlete of the Year. He was college basketball's Number 1 recruit. And for Jayhawks fans, he can't hit the court soon enough.
In June, Wiggins emerged from a gate at Kansas City International Airport to find 15 fans waiting for his autograph. They had figured out his travel itinerary on an internet message board. One 21-year-old journalism major from Southeast Missouri State had a blue KU jersey with Wiggins's number 22 — even before Wiggins had received his own. Four days later, Wiggins made his first semi-public basket at KU, a soaring fast-break dunk just a few seconds into a scrimmage in front of grade-school-aged campers. The play was on YouTube within hours.
The hysteria has only increased. Students have been Twitter-stalking Wiggins. At the start of the fall semester, three people tweeted about being in his first fall class, and four tweeted about being in his second one, including a photo of the back of Wiggins's head and the Raptors hat on his lap. There were other tweets about successfully telling him a joke, walking near him in a fire drill and delivering him a late-night pizza.
"I'm used to the attention by now," Wiggins says. But if you think he basks in it, consider that he tried to hold his college decision ceremony without any media present. His Facebook page says he's "Just [an] average kid trying to make it." It's an endearing line, but still: C'mon!
"I used to be an average kid, when I put that up," he insists. "But that ... was a while ago."
Wiggins may have been an average kid. That was before media members started calling him the "best prospect since Kevin Durant" or the "best prospect since LeBron" or "the next Tracy McGrady." As Self says, Wiggins is an "athletic freak," thanks largely to his parents, who met when they lived in the same Florida State dorm in 1980 and later married. His father, Mitchell, was a 6′ 4″ guard who played six seasons in the NBA, and his mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins, won silver medals as a member of Canada's 4 × 100 and 4 × 400 relay teams in the '84 Olympics.
Wiggins has a 44-inch vertical leap and can cover more ground, more explosively, with his one- or two-dribble moves to the rim than anyone else in college and most NBA players. He has the tools to be a lockdown defender. Kansas video coordinator Jeff Forbes has Wiggins studying video of Durant's scoring possessions. He says that while Wiggins is soft-spoken, "he picks up things really fast. He immediately noticed how fluid Durant's footwork was coming off screens and how he reads defenses." But Wiggins does have a tendency to coast. During a recent workout Self had to yell, "Come on, Wiggs! Let's see if you're the best player on the floor!" because he spent 20 minutes blending in. Self had told Wiggins when he arrived in June that "if you handle this right, you could potentially have everything you ever dreamed of, and go down as one of the most loved athletes to ever come through this university."
Next In Line
To Wiggins, Kansas basketball did not exist before 2008, when he watched Mario Chalmers hit his miracle three against Memphis in the national title game. Wiggins did not follow college basketball — he was a Raptors fan. So on the subject of KU history he is starting at rock and chalk. "But I'm learning," he says.
If not for the NBA's age minimum, Wiggins would already be a pro. He watched June's draft with his Kansas teammates at Self's house. Wiggins saw a childhood friend, fellow Toronto-area product Anthony Bennett, go Number 1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then, in a live interview, Bennett said Wiggins would be next year's top choice. ESPN's talking heads soon took to discussing his future. Wiggins had kept his college-commitment ceremony off TV, but he could not control that talk of NBA teams tanking next season to try to secure the top pick in the 2014 draft. Wiggins tries not to think about it.
The weekend before, Wiggins had flown back to Kansas City after a visit to Toronto. On a connecting flight out of Charlotte, he had the joy of being seated next to the rare Kansas fan who did not know who he was. Debbie Yarnell, a law-firm secretary from St. Joseph, Missouri, had overheard someone asking the boy in the black warmup suit a Kansas question at the gate. So she asked a few questions of her own on the plane, before getting his autograph on her boarding pass. Did he go to Kansas? Did he play basketball there? Where was he from? How did he get on KU's radar out of Toronto?
Who else recruited him? What year was he going to be? And finally, "With the whole redshirt rule, which I don't understand, and Kansas being such a good program, do you think you'll get to play?"
To serious fans, this was a silly question. The partners at Yarnell's firm, both KU boosters, had a huge laugh when they heard about it. But for Wiggins, who participated in this whole exchange without even offering his last name, was it any sillier than being asked if he can live up to a label of Best Since LeBron? Wiggins liked Yarnell's question because it had nothing to do with hype or draft stock or surefire Hall of Famers. Do you think you'll get to play?
The top freshman in college basketball broke into what Yarnell described as a beautiful grin, and then assured her, "I'll get to play."
Photos: AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, JEFF JACOBSEN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Expect Greatness from Andrew Wiggins