MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Andrew Wiggins sat down on a black leather couch, his navy blue tuxedo jacket and bow tie bunching up at the neck as his 6-foot-8 frame plopped down for a break.
The first rookie of the year in Minnesota Timberwolves history was sitting in a no-frills room in the back alleys of Target Center with cinder block walls and empty lockers that house the WNBA’s Lynx in the summer. There is nothing fancy about the 25-year-old building that is home to an NBA franchise that has gotten so many things wrong over the last decade.
In Wiggins, the hope is that the Timberwolves finally got something right in a big way. And as difficult as his first season was for the team on the court, as hopeless as it has seemed at times for the team’s fans during an 11-year playoff drought, Wiggins said he feels like he got it right by landing here as well.
“I hope I’m here forever,” Wiggins told The Associated Press on Thursday after collecting his rookie of the year award. “I hope. It would be nice.”
That’s a startling revelation for a 20-year-old Canadian who showed signs of being one of the league’s next big stars during a superb rookie season. The Timberwolves haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004. They’ve botched draft picks, free-agent signings, trades, hires and firings over the years and suffered an array of season-derailing injuries that led some to joke that franchise was cursed.
But that was all before Wiggins arrived. The cerebral kid who has been in the basketball spotlight since he was a 14-year-old prodigy playing in the Toronto area looks around and sees a roster stocked with young talent, a coaching staff he can relate to, a front office that understands the needs that must be filled and a community that has embraced him as a potential savior.
“I don’t believe there’s any curse or nothing like that,” Wiggins said. “We just needed the right pieces. I feel like now we’ve got them. We’ve got a nice young core.”
Wiggins is the headliner, a dynamic talent who quickly laid to rest any concerns about his competitive spirit after coming to the Timberwolves last summer in the trade that sent disgruntled star Kevin Love to Cleveland. He averaged 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds while playing all 82 games and got better as the season went on.
He received 110 of 130 first-place votes and had 604 points. Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic finished second with 14 first-place votes and 335 points and Philadelphia’s Nerlens Noel was third.
“When I first came here a couple years ago, I met with (owner Glen Taylor) and said the No. 1 thing we had to do to build a franchise and develop that culture was to get a game-changing type player,” coach and team president Flip Saunders said. “A player that was a two-way type player that could play offense, could play defense. Last year, Aug. 23, when we traded for Andrew Wiggins we got that type of player. And we were ready and set to go.”
The Timberwolves started the summer in an incredibly difficult position, with Love wanting to be traded and fans bracing for yet another in a seemingly endless line of rebuilding projects. Then something unfamiliar happened — a stroke of luck in their favor.
After a good freshman season at Kansas, Wiggins was drafted No. 1 overall last June by the Cavaliers. Not long after, LeBron James decided to leave Miami and return home to Cleveland, and he pushed hard for the Cavaliers to bring in Love, the three-time All-Star and his teammate from the London Olympics.
The Cavaliers sent Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to Minnesota in a three-team deal that netted them Love.
“We hit a home run in this trade,” Timberwolves GM Milt Newton told The AP. “The talent level is undeniable. The talent level is one that he can be a perennial All-Star for years and years to come. He is the cornerstone that when we put a better surrounding cast, and that is our job, he can take us to that level.”
The Wolves went an NBA-worst 16-66 this season as veterans Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin went down with significant injuries. That thrust Wiggins into a featured role, and he flourished. He won the first four Western Conference rookie of the month awards and scored 23.3 points, had 3.5 assists and took 10 free throws per game in the final month of the season while playing nearly 40 minutes per night.
And while Toronto Raptors fans have already started pining for their hometown hero to one day return, it appears that the Timberwolves and the Twin Cities have made a good first impression.
“It’s been great up here,” Wiggins said. “Everybody’s been showing me love. It’s not too busy up here. It’s perfect. It’s cold, just like Toronto. I’m used to it. I couldn’t really ask for nothing more up here. I like it up here.”