Is Andrew Wiggins blossoming as a playmaker?

Andrew Wiggins is having a banner year, by his standards, in 2019-20. He’s still below average from an efficiency perspective, but there are signs that he’s turning the corner as a player who might actually affect winning in a positive way in the future. Rather than being an inefficient gunner with essentially no other skills on either end of the floor, Wiggins’ efficiency and playmaking numbers are up, to the point that he’s been a plus on offense for the first time since he signed his max extension in the summer of 2017. Just how real is Wiggins’ improvement? What’s so different this year?

At this point in the season, it’s more useful to look at usage numbers than efficiency numbers, as one or two good games can have an outsized effect on a player’s percentages. That said, Wiggins’ playmaking is the most noticeable change in his game through ten games. We’re still early enough in the season that any improvement could just be a statistical blip, but there are signs that point to him having a larger role in Ryan Saunders’ offense, both as a scorer and creator. His usage is up to right about his career high and his assist rate has skyrocketed as well. This has come with a significant dip in his turnover numbers, which is a rare double – it’s not often a player can significantly increase their assists without a coinciding rise in turnovers.

Wiggins has nearly always been a low-turnover player, but that’s not abnormal for a player who passed as little as he has over the years. As a shoot-first-and-shoot-always gunner, he has far fewer opportunities to turn the ball over, leading to a strong turnover rate but one of the league’s worst assist rates every year since he was drafted in 2014. This year, however, he’s slashed his turnover numbers to an elite level and has upped his playmaking across the board, a development which, if it holds, could indicate that he’s a more well-rounded player than he’s ever been before.

So, has Wiggins actually improved as a playmaker? Assists and turnovers are such a small portion of a player’s overall playmaking profile that they can be misleading, particularly just ten games into the new season.

Wiggins’ Synergy playtype usage stats reveal how the Timberwolves have been deploying him this season: he’s running more pick-and-roll and more isolations than in previous seasons, with a corresponding dip in spot-up usage and a near disappearance of his post-ups, all of which hints at a larger force behind Wiggins’ improvement in all areas.

Not only are we seeing an increased pick-and-roll and isolation usage out of Wiggins this season, but he’s passing out of those opportunities more often than he ever has in the past. After hovering around 34 percent the three years prior to this one, he’s passing out of 40 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions, per Synergy. Isolations show a similar pattern – he’s passing out of 20 percent of his isolation possessions, up from 13 percent each of the last two years. These aren’t overwhelmingly great numbers, but they both represent a marked increase over where he’s been in the past. It may not seem like much to pass out on a few more possessions over previous years, particularly in the pick-and-roll department, but if his overall usage and pass percentage keep up throughout the year, he’ll have added significantly to Minnesota’s offensive output. Passes out of pick-and-roll regularly score better than the ball handler shooting themselves, so Wiggins’ increased passing in these situations may be an important development.

Playmaking doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Wiggins is obviously reliant on his teammates to make shots in order to generate assists, but it goes further than that. A team with gummed-up spacing is going to naturally have fewer opportunities to notch playmaking statistics, whereas a team with modern philosophies will see their players’ assist totals spike, particularly if they handle the ball as much as Wiggins does. There isn’t one publicly-available statistic to measure this, but cobbling together a few different stats and watching film reveals that Wiggins’ improvement as a playmaker may be a natural consequence of Saunders’ more modern offensive strategy.

Saunders has brought a 5-out system in his first full year in charge of the club as head coach after years of the Timberwolves being mired in Tom Thibodeau’s antiquated offense. Karl-Anthony Towns is having an MVP-caliber year behind some of Saunders’ new tactics, the most important of which is having Towns spend more time on the perimeter. In ball screen situations, Towns is popping to the perimeter significantly more often than he is rolling to the rim – for every roll to the rim, Towns is popping three times. His improved three-point shot has made him one of the best pick-and-pop big men in the league and he draws a lot of defensive attention when he sets a ball screen for Wiggins or one of the other Minnesota ball handlers.

In turn, Wiggins has both more room to operate and easier passes to make. Fitting a pocket pass between two defenders or throwing the ball over the top of a trap to Towns on the roll is much more difficult than the pick-and-pop passes he’s making this year. Passes to a popping Towns are inherently less risky but have similar upside to a difficult pocket pass – if Towns makes the jumper, then Wiggins is still credited with the assist, but there’s a far smaller chance that he’s going to turn the ball over in that scenario.

A cursory look at Minnesota’s offense through ten games shows just how often Wiggins is making this particular pass to Towns. Against the Denver Nuggets on November 10, Wiggins and Towns finished a possession with pick-and-pop no fewer than seven times:

There’s nothing absolutely definitive about this, but the film shows that Minnesota’s modern offense has created safer passing opportunities for Wiggins. He’s a better (and more willing, which may be most important) passer this year and is making more advanced passes as well as looking off defenders to find the open shooter on the perimeter:

So who gets the credit for Wiggins’ improvement? Is Saunders putting Wiggins in better situations to succeed with the same limited skillset or has he made genuine developments as a creator?

The answer, as with the answer to most complex NBA questions, lies somewhere in the unknowable middle. My instinct is that Wiggins’ improved numbers have a lot more to do with Saunders’ system than some sort of massive leap he’s made as an on-ball creator, but he surely deserves significant credit for fitting into the new world order in Minnesota. Whether it’s the system or Wiggins’ own improvement, the Timberwolves are certainly happy to see him playing a more modern and efficient game.