Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins starting to score defensively, too

Andrew Wiggins poked away a Paul George pass on Wednesday night and started up the floor in transition. Once Wiggins got the ball, he made his move, driving past Raymond Felton and finishing over George at the rim.Andrew Wiggins steal and score

That’s the Wiggins the Timberwolves need, and the one they’re starting to see on a more regular basis.

Not only did Wiggins score in Minnesota’s win over Oklahoma City, contributing 19 points on an efficient 8-for-15 shooting performance, but he defended, holding George — an All-NBA talent — to 13 points on 5-for-14 shooting.

“I thought we got great contributions from Wigg,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I thought his all-around game was terrific.”

It came on the heels of a 25-point performance against Cleveland, in a game where Wiggins also grabbed six rebounds, after which Thibodeau said, “Andrew is really doing a lot of things out there for us — his rebounding has really improved, his playmaking, his scoring, the energy, he’s doing a lot of really good things, and that’s been key for us.”

The Timberwolves have received contributions from just about everyone of late, but it’s no coincidence that this current 10-game stretch, which has featured their best basketball of the season with the Wolves outscoring opponents by an NBA-best 11.7 points per 100 possessions, has coincided with Wiggins picking up his play on both ends of the floor, particularly defensively.

“Andrew is really coming on, so when your young guys develop and get better, it helps everybody,” Thibodeau said. “When you start to see the blocked shots, the rebounds and the floor game, the scoring has always been there, he’s a very gifted scorer, so that part, but it’s all the other things that are starting to come.

“He’s making plays, he’s blocking shots, he’s getting deflections, he’s doing a lot of things that are impacting winning.”

That’s been a struggle throughout Wiggins’ career. Yes, he can score, but can he do the other stuff? Those questions became even more pertinent when the Wolves acquired the likes of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford this offseason. Those moves lifted some of the scoring burden off Wiggins shoulders, which meant Wiggins — who signed a max extension this fall that will come into effect next season — got the chance to, and had to, impact the game in other ways.

“We have a whole new team this year,” Wiggins said, “so you just have to find your spots, find what you need to do to help the team win.”

That was an adjustment for Wiggins, who seemed to be wading through the rough transitional waters for the first couple months of the season. His shot wasn’t falling, and he wasn’t finding many other ways to be effective. That’s changed over the past couple of weeks, as Wiggins has brought a new energy to the floor, especially on the defensive end.

Over the first 33 games of the season, opponents were shooting 47 percent from the floor against Wiggins and 38 percent on shots outside the restricted area. In the 10 games since Christmas, those numbers have dropped to 45 percent from the floor and 33 percent outside the restricted area, suggesting Wiggins is doing a better job contesting shots.

Wiggins matched a career high with three blocks in Minnesota’s win over New Orleans on Saturday, and he’s been more active with his hands, too. Wiggins tallied 1.5 deflections per game over the first 33 games of the season, but is recording two a game over the Wolves’ past 10 contests. For that, partial credit belongs to Thibodeau.

“You hear him (talking about hand activity) every day, even when you’re doing it, so you still hear it,” Wiggins said. “Even when you do it right, you have to do it even better than what you did.”

Wiggins’ scoring average (17.8 points) is far lower than it’s been the past couple of seasons, when he was option No. 1 or No. 1-B. But, on this team, he’ll be judged by how he does everything else.

“One thing about Andrew, he’s a great talent, but he’s not selfish, he’s not a guy that’s always like, ‘Look at me, give me the ball, I want to score,’ ” Taj Gibson said. “He’s just taking his time, knowing what we need him to do. He can score 20 or better almost any given night, but he understands the team concept and trying to go far, but late in the game, when we need a big-time bucket and somebody to go score, it’s either him or Jimmy. We have a lot of confidence in him, and he knows that.”

Gibson said Wiggins has won the Wolves a couple games with big plays late that had to do with his defense or hand activity. Gibson noted those plays often go unnoticed because “that’s just today’s world.”

“But he’s one of those teammates that you love to play with,” Gibson said. “Because he’s still open-minded, he’s real hungry.”

Said Karl-Anthony Towns: “Wigg is getting better every single day. What Wiggs brings this team I think is underappreciated, especially by (the media). When we know we have Wigg on our team and we see him on the court, we feel we have a great chance of winning and we know he is going to bring it.

“I think he gets a lot of backlash that’s not worthy of him. I think he does a lot of great things that doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet. That’s why he’s so vital to our team.”

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