ST. LOUIS – Andrew Wiggins started his college basketball career at Kansas as a marked man. And an overhyped kid.
Sports Illustrated, one of the most respected publications in American literary history, put Wiggins on its Oct. 14 cover with the caption, “The Freshman – From Wilt . . . To Manning . . . To Wiggins.”
Live up to that, why don’t you, Andrew? The bar was set too high and I’m surprised Kansas coach Bill Self allowed such lofty comparisons to be made.
Wilt Chamberlain? Danny Manning?
They’re the two most iconic players in KU history. And the last I checked, hype is just hype. As much as Wiggins had been proclaimed to be the best high school player since LeBron James, whatever happened to proving one’s self?
But Self said Thursday, on the eve of KU’s NCAA Tournament opener against Eastern Kentucky, that he had nothing to do with the SI cover.
“To be honest, I didn’t play a role in that at all,” Self said. “Nobody ever from SI consulted with me saying, ‘Would this be OK?’ ”
It’s all worked out. Slowly but surely, the 6-foot-6 Wiggins has become the player who at least resembles the one depicted by the hype machine. But there have been growing pains as Wiggins has acclimated himself to college basketball and the change of life it brings.
I expected Self to be critical of the early magazine cover. And to some degree, he was. But he definitely saw a silver lining to the treatment of Wiggins before he had even taken a shot at Kansas.
“I actually thought it was very cool,” Self said. “I thought it was a great picture and that kind of stuff. Yes, it was totally unfair to Andrew, but not unfair from anybody trying to hurt him. Just that there is no way you can be that.”
Inside the magazine, Wiggins was shown lacing up one of his basketball sneakers while seated next to a super-imposed Chamberlain, who was doing the same in a picture from the KU vault more than 60 years ago.
Andrew’s brother, Nick, a senior at Wichita State, said he wasn’t taken aback by the comparison or the magazine’s portrayal of his baby brother.
“It wasn’t a problem for me,” Nick Wiggins said. “The way Andrew felt about it was that he wasn’t crazy about doing all the media stuff before the season. He wanted the season to start and to play his first game at least before it all happened.
“I felt like that put a lot of extra pressure on him, but he’s never been the type to let the pressure overwhelm him. He always handles it well, especially for somebody who just turned 19 in February. It’s amazing to see how it has all played out.”
With October having turned to March, Wiggins is playing his best basketball of the season, even if his team is not. The Jayhawks have lost two of three and three of five going into Friday’s game.
Wiggins, though, is averaging 31 points in the past three games. He’s one of just a handful of players nationally capable of putting a team on his back and taking it on a wild three-week run.
Wiggins is averaging 17.4 points overall and shooting 45 percent. He also averages six rebounds and has been a surprisingly good defensive player, often drawing the toughest wing assignment.
“I do think Andrew has a flare for the moment,” Self said. “That doesn’t guarantee playing great or anything like that (against Eastern Kentucky), but it gives me a lot of confidence that he will be very aggressive.”
Wiggins has come out of a shell as the season has progressed. He spent some time acquiescing to teammates while he was trying to figure out what playing college basketball was all about. But he’s been through 33 games now. The gloves are off.
“I think we’ve been trying to pull that aggressiveness out of him for a while,” Self said. “But looking back, I think it’s gone at exactly the perfect pace. There’s no way he could have lived up to the hype, so if he had put pressure on himself that he had to score or do this and that, it would not have been good for him or for us.
“Instead, he’s kept a very even-keel approach. Not too high, not too low the whole year.”
And the preseason hype, it turns out, didn’t overburden Wiggins.
“I did think this – I thought it would help prepare him for the pressure that’s going to be before him,” Self said. “Because if he didn’t get hit between the eyes early on, he wouldn’t have been prepared for the course of the season.”
Self said everybody who played against Wiggins early was motivated to bring him down a notch or two. In that way, he thinks the hype helped Wiggins’ resolve.
“I didn’t think he would be as prepared to handle that unless he went through some stuff,” Self said. “At the time, I thought, ‘Geez, this is too much for him.’ But looking back now, he can handle it. So I didn’t think it was bad at all.”