The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the early surprises of this NBA season, and a good deal of the credit goes to the clutch play of Andrew Wiggins.
Yes, that Andrew Wiggins. The same guy who was booed by frustrated Timberwolves fans last season for his lack of late-game heroics.
The forward from Vaughan, Ont., has often been accused at times of squandering his massive potential and settling into a mediocre role as an inefficient volume shooter. But just maybe, this is the season that the version of Wiggins many expected to see when he was drafted first overall in 2014 finally emerges.
After a sluggish start to the season, Wiggins has averaged 30.6 points, four rebounds and 4.6 assists over his last five games, connecting on 51.3 per cent of his field goals and 39.4 per cent of his three-pointers.
Perhaps what has been most impressive has been his play with the game on the line.
Eight of his 33 points in Minnesota's 120-114 win over Detroit on Monday came in the final 2:02 of regulation, starting with a three-pointer out of a timeout that answered an earlier three by Detroit's Tony Snell and put the Timberwolves up by eight.
That performance came three days after a masterclass game against Golden State. Wiggins had 40 points — including the game-tying shot at the fourth-quarter buzzer and a game-sealing three-pointer in overtime — to go along with seven assists, five rebounds and three blocks as the Timberwolves downed the Warriors 125-119.
Wiggins single-handedly took over late in the fourth quarter of a 116-109 win over Miami on Oct. 27. He scored 11 consecutive points down the stretch, including three consecutive three-pointers, to turn a two-point deficit into a nine-point lead.
In 10 games this season, Wiggins is averaging 8.6 points in the fourth quarter, seventh-highest in the league heading into Wednesday's games.
"Every good thing that happens to Andrew, Andrew deserves, because Andrew does work hard," head coach Ryan Saunders said after the win against Detroit. "He had a different mindset this summer. We had a conversation, so all the credit goes to him for buying in and really delivering for us."
Fairly or unfairly, Wiggins has been questioned on whether he has the heart to go with his unquestionable talent ever since he was in high school. Despite getting his NBA career off to a good start, winning rookie of the year honours in 2014-15, Wiggins has faced his fair share of ignominy in Minneapolis over recent seasons. In the leadup to this season, he was left off ESPN's list of the NBA's top 100 players.
Perhaps the nadir of Wiggins' time in Minnesota came last December, when he was booed by the Target Center faithful after missing three late free throws in a 123-120 overtime loss to Atlanta.
Now a player reportedly called "soft" by former teammate Jimmy Butler has helped Minnesota to an early 6-4 record in the tough Western Conference and is earning praise from fellow Timberwolves.
"We believe in him," forward Robert Covington said. "This coaching staff, this organization believes in him. Now he's starting to see it, he's starting to feel it. He's just going out there, he's being comfortable. Not hesitating."
One of Wiggins' big performances of late came in a 137-121 road loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Wiggins had 30 points, just shy of the 31 scored by Memphis guard Dillon Brooks of Mississauga, Ont. It marked the first time in NBA history that two Canadian players hit the 30-point mark in the same game.
For good measure, Memphis rookie Brandon Clarke, a Vancouver native, hit all seven of his field goal attempts and scored 18 points.
MONTREAL MACHINE — With Serge Ibaka out for the foreseeable future with a high ankle sprain, the Toronto Raptors have been forced to give inexperienced big man Chris Boucher extended minutes. So far, the Raptors must love what they have seen from the 26-year-old Montrealer. Boucher had 15 points and three blocks — including one apiece on superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, in Toronto's road win Sunday over the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I'm going to remember this forever," Boucher said after the game. "I always wanted to play against (James and Davis), and to get a win makes it even better."
Boucher added 13 points, six rebounds and two blocks, including a monstrous two-handed stuffing of Montrezl Harrell in Toronto's hard-fought loss to the L.A.Clippers on Monday. The Raptors will need more quality minutes from Boucher, and the rest of the Raptors bench, while dealing with injuries to Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby.
NO. 6 BACK IN THE 6IX — Sacramento guard Cory Joseph of Pickering, Ont., received a nice video tribute when the Kings visited the Toronto Raptors last week. Joseph, who honoured his hometown area by wearing No. 6 when he played in Toronto, was honoured both for his time with the Raptors and his contributions to Canada's national team. Joseph was one of only two NBA players to suit up for Canada at the recent World Cup in China. After the tribute he went on to have arguably his best game of the season so far, with 10 points, four rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block in 18 minutes of action.
VETERAN AP-PEEL — Veteran Tristan Thompson came out ahead of rookie RJ Barrett in a showdown of two NBA players from the Region of Peel in the Greater Toronto Area. Brampton's Thompson had nine points, nine rebounds and was a game-high plus-33 as his Cleveland Cavaliers beat Barrett's New York Knicks 108-87. Barrett, from Mississauga, struggled with nine points, one assist and three turnovers.
CHECKING IN — Rookie Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker scored 13 points in 16 minutes against his hometown team in New Orleans' 122-104 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Friday. ... Denver guard Jamal Murray of Kitchener, Ont., is averaging 19.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.2 steals over his last five games. ... Miami forward/centre Kelly Olynyk was questionable heading into the Heat's game against Detroit on Tuesday. Then the big man from Kamloops, B.C., came off the bench and put up 13 points, including three three-pointers on four attempts, and five assists in a 117-108 Heat victory.
KEEP AN EYE ON — Boucher will be counted on to continue his recent strong play when the Raptors end their five-game road trip with a visit to Dallas on Saturday. He may find himself matched up with the Mavericks' Toronto-born centre Dwight Powell.
CanaDunks is a weekly notebook on Canadians in the NBA.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2019.
Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press