Teammates say KU’s Wiggins a master at capturing the lob

03/19/2014 7:31 AM

08/06/2014 10:25 AM

The scar sweeps across the middle of his forehead, cutting a line to the tip of his right eyebrow.

The story behind the mark, Andrew Wiggins says, is not as exciting as you might expect. He was in the third grade. He tripped in the hallway at school. He needed stitches, but can’t even recall the number.

“I can’t remember,” Wiggins says.

Whether or not Wiggins is downplaying the story — it’s hard to tell. But standing just a few feet away, the scar is the first thing you notice, the true-to-life version of Harry Potter’s lightning scar.

No, Andrew Wiggins is not a wizard — though, of course, he might be playing for them next year if the NBA lottery breaks right. No, he does not possess any super-natural powers, despite what we hear about his 40-inch vertical and 7-foot wingspan.

But if there’s one thing that Wiggins does better than any player in college basketball — better than anyone in the NCAA Tournament field — his teammates will tell you the following secret.

You can throw the worst alley-oop pass in the world, and Wiggins will still catch it. It’s pretty nice, actually.

“Anywhere away from the rim,” freshman teammate Wayne Selden says. “He’ll go get it.”

On Friday, No. 2 seed Kansas will open the NCAA Tournament against No. 15 Eastern Kentucky in St. Louis. Wiggins, a 6-foot-8 freshman wing, will suit up for his one and only NCAA Tournament run. And the Jayhawks’ season will ultimately be judged by how long the run lasts.

But before the pressure of the tournament sets in, the following must be said. You’ve never enjoyed the pleasures of throwing an alley-oop … until you’ve been teammates with Wiggins.

“He makes next-level plays,” freshman guard Frank Mason says.

In basketball terms, there are certain rules about throwing alley-oops, guidelines that are usually followed. If you aim for the corner of the backboard, adding a little arch to the pass, the ball should usually be in the right spot.

Well, it should be … unless you’re throwing an alley-oop to Wiggins. Then, Selden says, you follow different rules. You have to throw it much higher.

“If I throw it to the top of the backboard,” Selden says. “I just have faith.”

The origins of the alley-oop go back more than a half-century, the name being a rough translation of the French phrase: “Allez hop!”

To go up!

But Wiggins’ own alley-oop origins began during childhood pick-up games at the Dufferin Clark Community Centre in his hometown of Vaughan, Ontario. Sometimes his older brother Nick, a senior at Wichita State, would be the one doing the passing. Other times, it would be his oldest brother, Mitch Jr.

“If you can believe this,” says Gus Gymnopoulos, the Wiggins brothers’ coach at Vaughan Secondary School, “Mitch Jr. is actually the most athletic of all the brothers.”

So there was competition in the Wiggins household. But Andrew soon grew plenty fond of the lob. If you can jump out of the gym, you might as well jump over your opponents.

So fast forward to last year, when Wiggins made his official visit to Kansas in early March. KU coach Bill Self knew that Wiggins would want to play in an offense where lobs and alley-oops were a constant, so he designed the game plan to make the Jayhawks’ system appear as attractive as possible. At every opportunity, Kansas would run a lob play to then freshman star Ben McLemore.

For the most part, the plan worked.

“As long as they can throw it up somewhere,” Wiggins says now, “I’ll throw it down.”

So now Kansas will try to unleash its lob game on the NCAA Tournament field. And its opponents will presumably try to stop it. During last week’s Big 12 tournament, Wiggins finished two violent alley-oops in a victory over Oklahoma State. But the lobs were largely taken away in a 94-83 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals.

For the most part, Self just wants Wiggins to continue to be aggressive on offense as the tournament begins. With freshman center Joel Embiid on the sideline, Wiggins has averaged 25.5 points in Kansas’ last four games, and teammates have seen their leading scorer shift into a higher gear.

“He’s just making plays that a top draft pick would make in a college basketball game,” Mason says. “Every play he’s been making, it’s big.”

Added sophomore forward Jamari Traylor: “He’s most dangerous when he’s attacking the rim.”

All season long, Self says, he’s pushed Wiggins to be more aggressive, to impact basketball games in different ways. Now he’s starting to see it. For now, Self can’t know how Wiggins will react during his first run in the NCAA Tournament. He’s still just a freshman. The lobs are nice, but they are still just a piece of his offensive game.

But Self is hopeful. So is the rest of the Kansas locker room. At some point in the last few weeks, Wiggins seemed to realize how dominant he could be. And now, there’s only one thing left to do.

Allez Hop!

“It’s a much bigger stage and brighter stage,” Self says, “And to see how he’ll react to those type of things will be interesting. But all evidence points to that he is really poised and ready to be aggressive and play at a high level.”

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