LAWRENCE — The flight to Madrid dragged on for nearly half a day, cramped and mind-numbing. Then came the three-hour bus ride. By the time the Canadian teenagers had arrived at the basketball gym in Spain, they were jetlagged from the transatlantic travel and stiff from the claustrophobic journey across the Spanish countryside.
Roy Rana, the coach of the Canadian U-17 national team, had modest expectations for this pre-tournament matchup with Spain before the official start of the 2010 World Championships in Hamburg, Germany. If his boys could break a sweat and survive the day, that would be fine.
But as a quiet and lithe 15-year-old walked into the gym, Rana sensed a different vibe from the youngest kid on the team. Andrew Wiggins was playing in his first international event for his home country, and he wasn’t about to slough through a game on the world stage.
“That first game,” Rana says, “Andrew went up and blocked two shots. Not by blocking them, but by actually grabbing them with two hands out of the air. I’d never seen it done once, and he did it twice in one game.”
For basketball men like Rana, who doubles as the coach at Ryerson University in Toronto, this story serves as something of an introduction to the Wiggins they watched grow up.
“When the biggest stage comes,” Rana says, “he always arrives.”
But for those that have watched Wiggins in his freshman season at Kansas, leading the Jayhawks to a 10th straight Big 12 championship, the big-game reputation can feel closer to a loaded compliment. If Wiggins can rise to the occasion, playing his most beautiful basketball against the most high-profile opponents, why doesn’t he turn it on more?
“I don’t think his mind-set has ever been to be a scorer,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “I think his mind-set is to fit in.”
Two days before the start of the Big 12 Tournament, Self stood in Allen Fieldhouse, his Jayhawks’ season at a crossroads. Freshman Joel Embiid will likely be out until the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament because of a stress fracture in his back. On Thursday, his Jayhawks will open the conference tournament at the Sprint Center, a precursor to the most defining weeks of the year.
The stage will only get bigger in the coming weeks, and for those that know Wiggins, they say that suits him. For as fantastic as Wiggins’ freshman season has been thus far — 16.8 points per game, Big 12 freshman of the year honors, myriad KU records — Self is still hoping Wiggins can take one final step before his one-year college career ends.
Four days ago, Wiggins scored 41 points while Embiid sat out in a loss at West Virginia. Maybe it was a sign.
“You know he’s got it in him,” Self said. “He’s proved that.”
In the eight years since the NBA instituted the current age-limit rule, begetting an era of one-and-done stars, 12 college freshmen have been selected in the top three of the NBA Draft.
The list is an eclectic mix of guards, forwards and centers — Kentucky’s John Wall, K-State’s Michael Beasley, Ohio State’s Greg Oden, and so on.
The legacies these players left in March is even more of a crapshoot. Four of the top-end one-and-done players advanced to the Final Four. Four played to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Four cashed out in the opening rounds.
There is no predictive model to glean from the one-and-dones that came before Wiggins, but there is a lesson: Even for players that play in college just one season, a college career can be made in March.
Brief history lesson: When the NCAA Tournament began in March 2008, then Memphis guard Derrick Rose had recorded a solid freshman season, averaging 13 points and more than four assists per game. His draft stock was also secure. He was a first-round talent.
But six games later, it all changed. Rose averaged 21 points and six assists during the Tigers’ run to an NCAA title game loss to Kansas, cementing himself as the eventual No. 1 pick in the draft.
History will look back fonder on Rose’s year at Memphis, than say, Bradley Beal’s solid freshman year at Florida in 2012. And the theme aligns with how Self likes to look at March success.
“You can have a great season winning the conference,” Self says, “But in order to have a special season, you need to do it when the stakes are the highest.”
The end is coming soon now, no matter how much Andrew Wiggins tries to slow down time. The stages are getting bigger, too — no matter how much Wiggins would like to squash his “plays great when it matters” rep.
“I play every game like its my last,” Wiggins says.
Still, there’s more to accomplish. The Jayhawks have won sixth of the last eight Big 12 tournament titles, so they can add to the haul this week in Kansas City. They can also solidify themselves as a solid No. 2 seed with Embiid on the shelf.
But for Wiggins, the next few weeks will come with a senior’s urgency. Most Kansas freshmen get to experience March for the first time, knowing that they’ll be back. Wiggins won’t.
So in the days after Wiggins scorched West Virginia for 41 points, Self wanted to impart another message before the Big 12 tournament began. But in this case, Self wanted to talk about wind sprints.
During practices, Self says, Wiggins will run past his teammates during the first round of running. But when the last sprint comes around, he will slow up just slightly, letting another teammate win.
For Self, the lesson is simple: If you prove you can win once, why not do it all the time?
“That’s kind of what I told Andrew,” Self says. “He’s shown us he can do it, regardless of the point production, or the energy level and things like that.
“So anything less than that I think would be unsatisfactory.”