PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — It is in Andrew Wiggins’ nature to hold things in, to measure his words, to offer a window into his thoughts or emotions about as often has he cuts his hair.
Which is to say: Once every couple of months or so.
So when Wiggins, Kansas’ 6-foot-8 freshman star, does say something, especially about himself, the words tend to reverberate. Last Friday, in the minutes after Kansas’ 88-58 victory over Towson, Wiggins offered this: “I think my defense is underrated.”
An hour earlier, the Jayhawks had been finishing up an easy victory when Towson senior Jerrelle Benimon, a 6-foot-8 forward, started to get hot against Kansas’ front court. Wiggins was interested in seeing if he could stop Benimon. And Kansas coach Bill Self was interested in teaching his forwards a lesson.
So for a few possessions, Wiggins left his usual defensive assignment on the perimeter and took on Benimon. He didn’t score again.
“(We wanted) to show our big guys that he was guardable,” Self said. “Because certainly none of our big guys guarded him worth a flip.”
If there is an area of the game where the generally quiet Wiggins isn’t shy about displaying a little swagger, it’s on the defensive end. In the Kansas’ victory over Duke at the Champions Classic, Wiggins pleaded with Self to let him guard Duke freshman star Jabari Parker. Self wouldn’t budge. So Wiggins switched onto Parker on his own in the second half. Moments later, Wiggins tipped one of Parker’s jump shots, a key play in the final minutes.
“That’s one of the reasons he’s such a hot prospect, because of his versatility,” Kansas forward Tarik Black said, “You’re talking about a guy that’s 6-8, has length, has size and has athletic ability out of this world. That just adds to his potential.”
If defense were simply a matter of physical tools, Wiggins might already be the best in the country. He is quick enough to guard opposing point guards, long enough to bother opposing centers. He is so quick off the floor that a high school coach who knew Wiggins once described him as an “octopus with a 40-inch vertical (leap).”
The question is whether Wiggins can develop into a lock-down defender in his one year in college. And if he becomes one, how would people know? In the past few years, advanced metrics have allowed basketball observers and coaches to better judge the value of a player’s offense. But the individual value of a defensive player can still be tough to assess.
“I think you look at it from a total perspective,” Self said. “Does he play to the scouting report? Is his length such that he can allow (himself) to play contain a little bit and still contest shots? That’s where Andrew is really good.”
In other words, Wiggins is long enough to give himself a cushion while guarding the ball. Opposing players can’t drive around him, and they still can’t shoot over him.
Self can talk about the finer points of defense for hours. For nine of his 10 years at Kansas, the Jayhawks have ranked in the top 10 in the country in field-goal percentage defense. Kansas has never let opponents shoot 40 percent for a season.
Still, the Jayhawks have done it in different ways. Self says Mario Chalmers was a below-average on-ball defender who was extraordinary at stepping into passing lanes. Another former stopper, Travis Releford, could lock onto a particular player and shut him down.
“I think Andrew maybe can become that when he gets a little bit more aware of how to take shortcuts and play angles, and maybe gets a little bit more physical,” Self said. “I think he can become a guy that we could put on the other team’s best player the last 10 minutes, regardless of position.”
That role would be fine with Wiggins. In the moments after Kansas’ victory over Towson, he was asked if he intentionally had switched onto Benimon for a few possessions.
“Yeah,” Wiggins said. “He was scoring. I just wanted to see how I’d do on him.”