The Canadian Jordan, Andrew Wiggins the great hope north of border
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- The potential of Andrew Wiggins, the Canadian basketball phenom considered the best high school-aged player in the world, is layered in hyperbole.
Recruiting analyst Tom Konchalski says that Wiggins can be the "Michael Jordan of Canada." Former Canadian national team coach Leo Rautins says that Wiggins has the potential to be an NBA All-Star and, perhaps, someday battle for MVP. Steve Konchalski, Tom's brother and a long-time fixture with the Canadian national team, says that Wiggins can be the best player the country has ever produced.
Wiggins, a senior at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, is choosing between Florida State, Kentucky, UNC and Kansas and is said to be leaning toward Florida State. The son of a former NBA player and a Canadian Olympic sprinter, no one will question the 6-foot-8 Wiggins' genes or athleticism.
But Wiggins must carry with him the burden of a country's basketball hopes, its legacy of underachieving players and a reputation for only playing hard when necessary.
"When the big games come, I show up," Wiggins said. "I'm more than ready to play. When we play a team I know we're going to blow out or anything like that, I'm not as motivated."
In order for Wiggins to exploit his potential and live up to his No. 1 ranking, he must outrace a country's reputation for producing can't-miss prospects that miss.
And with Wiggins, there are warning signs. Wiggins has attended three schools in the past four years. His college recruitment is being run by his father, Mitchell, an unemployed former NBA guard best remembered for a two-year suspension for testing positive for cocaine. Andrew Wiggins' work ethic and motor have yet to catch up to his athleticism and raw ability. That leaves the question of whether he'll coast on talent to a solid NBA career or tap into his vast potential and emerge as an elite player and Canadian icon.
In the past few years, more highly-touted Canadians have fizzled than sizzled in the states, victims of bad advice, fly-by-night prep schools and a lack of preparation on and off the court.
"If you look at the failure list, it's mind boggling," said Rautins, Canada's coach from 2005 to 2011. "Kids put in wrong situations. Kids academically put in bad situations. You see all these kids with potential, and it just went out the window. That was my fight, to change that. And sometimes I felt like I was peeing in the wind."
This winter, Tom Konchalski saw Wiggins miss a bank shot runner on the right side of the lane and dart across the paint to tip in his own miss with his left hand. When coaches break down Wiggins' game, they talk breathlessly about his second jump, the fast twitch leap that allows him to rebound immediately after he's landed.
His genetic credentials are impeccable. Mitchell Wiggins played in the NBA for six seasons and played professionally for nearly 15. Marita Payne-Wiggins won two silver medals for Canada in the 1984 Olympics. Andrew Wiggins flashes sprinter speed in the open floor, boasts a 44-inch vertical and his dunking ability has made him a YouTube sensation. His Go-Go Gadget arms and quick feet give him the tools to become an elite-level NBA defender.
"If you were doing a test tube baby and putting together a genetically made baby, he'd be the perfect genetically made baby," said Mike George, co-founder of the CIA Bounce AAU program.
College coaches expect Wiggins to be a one-and-done player and he's the favorite for top pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
One head coach projected Wiggins as an NBA All-Star and said he has a bigger upside than Tracy McGrady. An assistant coach said that Wiggins could have a "Durant-like impact" if he attends Florida State.
Another assistant coach summed up Wiggins this way: "He has the highest ceiling I've seen in high school for a long time. Once he figures out how to play with a motor all the time, I think he'll be an NBA All-Star. I'm not saying he doesn't play hard, but he knows he's good enough to turn it on and off."
The consensus from those around Wiggins is that he's unfailingly polite, humble and always willing to deflect attention to his teammates. He also gets paralyzed by discussions of his recruitment and is annoyed by the amount of coverage his college choice is getting. Huntington Prep Coach Rob Fulford said that Wiggins won't even discuss his recruitment with him and says that a strong sports information department will be necessary when Wiggins gets to college.
"He just hates it," Fulford said of the attention. "His PR people are going to have to be really good."
He added: "He's a different kid. He really is. When I say he doesn't like media attention, he doesn't like media attention."
Multiple people around Wiggins hinted that there's a chance he'd choose Florida State, where both his parents attended, for a more low key college experience. Fulford said that Huntington Prep played six games in the state of Kentucky this year and drew nearly 35,000 people total in those games.
"We played in North Carolina, we had seven or eight people in Carolina shirts," Fulford said, noting that North Carolina and Kansas are also suitors for Wiggins. "We're in Kentucky and we've sold out three 6,000 seat gyms. They're crazy. They're crazy in a good way. They show how much they want you. It's overwhelming. He just hates attention."
In a lot of aspects, Wiggins is like most 17-year olds, including being happiest while playing video games by himself.
"There's sometimes I like it and sometimes I don't like it," Wiggins told SI.com in a brief interview. "It's really self-explanatory."
He added about the attention: "It's not that I don't like it, there's just a lot of it."
There's always a hesitation to anoint Canadian basketball stars. And there's enough in Wiggins' brief career to give pause. Agents estimate that Wiggins could be worth $400 million in salary and endorsements, as he could be the first pre-ordained Canadian basketball star. (Steve Nash, the most well-known Canadian player, was a lightly-recruited unknown when he went to Santa Clara.)
As a proud Canadian with a strong affinity for the national team, Wiggins could become perhaps the country's brightest non-hockey sports star. "He can be a brand," said Tom Konchalski.
But there's already questions as to how the brand has been handled. Just three years ago, Wiggins spent two months at a school in North Carolina run by Ro Russell, the controversial Canadian AAU coach.
"The bottom line is that he was with me in North Carolina for a couple of months," Russell said of Wiggins. "That's all I have to say about the situation. I have no time for calls for people to do dumb investigative reports."
In a 45-minute documentary on a television show called the
At least two players there under Russell, Texas commit Kevin Thomas and Kansas commit Braeden Anderson, did not qualify academically after attending Russell's school. "Not even close," said a school official of the transcripts from Russell's school.
When asked about those two players, Russell referred back to
The principal at Christian Faith Center Academy, Gloria McKain, declined comment on the extent of the school's involvement with Russell. According to the NCAA, Christian Faith Center Academy is under an "extended evaluation period to determine if it meets the academic requirements for NCAA cleared status."
How such a talented player potentially could be sent to such a volatile situation epitomizes the futility of Canadian basketball for years. Fulford said that Wiggins is on track to qualify.
"He's fine," Fulford said. "He took his PSAT and scored a couple points over. He's in good shape."
Wiggins returned home from North Carolina and attended most of his ninth-grade year at Vaughan Secondary School in Toronto. He didn't play for his school team that year, working out mostly with his father. Mitchell Wiggins said he didn't have a job -- "I'm interviewing to be your assistant," he said -- and avoided specific questions about his history with drugs other than to say he's "been clean for a long time."
As for sending Andrew to Russell's prep school, Wiggins said his son ended up a better player for the experience.
"On reflection, there's things you can say or not say," Wiggins said. "All I'm about is hopefully kids learn from that situation and just do their homework so the kids can have the best opportunity to live their dreams."
Andrew Wiggins played his 10th grade year for Vaughan Secondary coach Gus Gymnopoulos, who said that Wiggins spoke little about his time in North Carolina. Gymnopoulos said that Wiggins was a joy to coach, constantly propped up his teammates and deflected attention.
"It's unbelievable for a kid with so much hype to not want any of it," Gymnopoulos said.
After Wiggins returned to Canada, his association with Russell dwindled. Wiggins began playing AAU ball for the CIA Bounce program, which has taken control of Canada's top players as Russell's influence has waned. For years, Russell controlled most of the top players in Canada to questionable results. The list of high-profile Canadian busts includes Theo Davis (Gonzaga and Binghamton), Olu Famutimi (Arkansas) and Duane John (Missouri and New Mexico State), many of the highest-ranked players the country produced. Even players like UConn's Denham Brown, who had a decent college career, failed to live up to Russell's billing as the most complete player to ever come out of Canada.
Some Canadians that Russell mentored, like Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, ended up as first-round NBA draft picks, though Joseph is in the D-League. Myck Kabongo's career at Texas, however, has been derailed by illicit agent involvement.
The 6-11 Davis serves as the archetype for a Russell bust, as he was shuttled around to different high schools, including the infamous diploma mill Lutheran Christian Academy, and never came close to tapping his potential. Yet as the failures piled up, Russell maintained a stranglehold on the top talent.
"How can that happen?" said Nolan Shulman, a Canadian recruiting analyst who ran the service Flagrant Foul. "It's unbelievable. He can sell raw chicken to a vegetarian."
Russell last surfaced at Kingdom Prep in Georgia, where school officials said he lasted less than three weeks. Background checks came back and the school decided against hiring Russell.
The reputation of Canadian basketball has begun to transform in the last year, however. Instead of underachieving, many Canadian players are exceeding expectations. There are countless examples this year, including Anthony Bennett at UNLV, Kevin Pangos and Kelly Olynyk at Gonzaga, Nik Stauskas at Michigan, Dyshawn Pierre at Dayton and Olivier Hanlan at Boston College.
Shulman gave "not as many sketchy prep schools" as one reason for the Canadians succeeding, as there was a pattern of kids getting underwhelming education and basketball training at fly-by-night schools.
"No question these last couple groups of kids have exceeded expectations," Shulman said. "They've absolutely been better than people expected."
Will Wiggins end up meeting or exceeding his lofty expectations? While it's hard when he's already being anointed a future NBA All-Star, there's debate as to whether he possesses the killer instinct and love of the game to become an elite NBA player. Rowan Barrett, the Canadian national team executive, said that often times Wiggins' demeanor belies his intensity.
"A lot of the game really comes easily to him," Barrett said. "You're wondering how intense he is. The reality is that he is extremely competitive. He always answers the call."
Wiggins has struggled on the court lately, something that's been attributed to everything from a case of bronchitis to apathy to the pressure of his school choice.
"I don't believe that at all," Shulman said of the pressure. "I think it's the lack of competition that has him disinterested. He is driven by competition. When it isn't there he turns his effort off and goes through the motions."
Wiggins has played in a pair of international competitions for Canada's junior national teams and is considered a key part of the country's national team efforts going forward. Mitchel Wiggins could end up with a job at Canada Basketball, although Barrett said "there's nothing in place for him at this point." That hiring could help increase the chances of Andrew's participation for years to come.
The Canadian national team is coming off an era in which it had spotty participation from its best youth players. The hope is that Wiggins and a young nucleus of players like Thompson, Joseph, Bennett, Kabongo, Andrew Nicholson and Robert Sacre can launch Canada up in the national rankings.
Canada hasn't qualified for the Olympics since 2000, and its national team is ranked No. 26 in the FIBA rankings behind Tunisia, Iran and Venezuela. In the 2010 World Championships, Canada lost to Lebanon, which has little basketball heritage and a population of about 4 million people. (For perspective, the greater Toronto area has a bigger population).
Steve Konchalski, who has been involved with the national team on and off since 1973, said that now Canada's top five or six players can compete with the top players from the United States. The Canadians simply lack the depth of talent. And when he spoke of Wiggins' future, Konchalski could well have been talking about the future of Canadian basketball itself.
"He's not there yet," he said. "The scary part is that there's a lot of room for improvement."