By Lori Ewing
THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO _ The spotlight follows Andrew Wiggins like a shadow these days.
But the 20-year-old insists he’s grown accustomed to the hype and hoopla that comes with being both the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick and Canada’s biggest basketball star.
It’s obvious in the way he’s been playing.
“When you’re thought of as the face of the franchise, that’s a huge responsibility,” said Sam Mitchell, an assistant with Minnesota.
“It’s tough, especially when you’re 19. He goes at his pace, he doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low, it’s amazing how he takes it. I can’t tell you how he feels inside, but from what I’ve seen and how he reacts and how he plays, it just doesn’t faze him. . . . he understands all the hoopla, but he puts it in a box and sets it to the side at 7 o’clock, and he goes out and plays.”
Wiggins had 15 in the Timberwolves’ 105-100 loss to the Toronto Raptors, his first NBA appearance at the Air Canada Centre derailed by some early foul trouble.
Wiggins had received a warm ovation when he was introduced in Minnesota’s starting lineup. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was even in attendance, posing for a pre-game photo with the young star from Vaughan, Ont.
Barely a year ago, Wiggins sat courtside at the ACC as a fan to watch the Raptors battle Brooklyn in the playoffs.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Wiggins said, on the events of the past year. “Great opportunity to play in the NBA. It’s an honour to be back home and play where I grew up at.”
He’s averaging 15.7 points a night and has won all four rookie of the month awards thus far, blowing away pre-season expectations of the young Canadian and putting him on pace to win rookie of the year honours _ his goal for the season. He has shone in the biggest games, putting up 27 points against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him first overall only to turn around and trade him to Minnesota.
Wednesday morning, Wiggins was surrounded by more than 30 members of the media after the Timberwolves’ shootaround. He wasn’t flustered, evident in his wide smile.
“You get used to it,” he said, on the media horde.
What has been tough to get used to is the NBA’s heavy workload.
“This is the time of year where you feel it, with all the games played, especially with the injuries we’ve had. I’ve been taking care of my body, eating right, staying with the rhythm I’m in,” he said. “It’s really hard. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
Wednesday night marked Game No. 67 for Wiggins.
“It’s a grind,” said Mitchell, who stepped in as Minnesota’s head coach Wednesday night when Flip Saunders missed the game for personal reasons. “Andrew played, what, 30-plus games (in college)? We did that in two months. And so this is three (college) seasons all rolled into one for him, and for him to have not missed a game tells you a lot about his makeup. . . he hasn’t needed a game off. It’s a huge thing if he can play 82 games this year.”
“I tried to go yesterday, but it just wasn’t working,” said Bennett, from Brampton, Ont. “It’s been disappointing not to play the whole month. . . But coming back home, a lot of family, friends, fans in Toronto, it’s just always depressing.”
Bennett hasn’t been surprised by how well Wiggins has handled his rookie season.
“Wiggins, he’s just been a real killer since I met him. That’s way back, Team Canada, AAU (Amateur Athletic Union youth league),” Bennett said. “He just has something special about him. This year, he showed it out. Hopefully he gets rookie of the year.”
The T’Wolves brought Kevin Garnett back to Minnesota, acquiring him in a trade in February. The 38-year-old has been a perfect mentor for the young Wiggins, knowing well what it feels like to be a teenage star on basketball’s biggest stage.
“It has been (surreal). He’s a living legend, he’s one of the great, one of the best to ever do it,” Wiggins said on playing with Garnett.
Added Mitchell: “Kevin’s got a unique experience. He came into the league at 19 years old, with a lot of expectations, so as coaches we can’t tell Andrew how that feels. Kevin lived it. He went through all of this, and he can tell Andrew what it’s like, and about the responsibility that comes when you’re being touted as the face of a franchise. . . because how many people in the NBA can relate to what Andrew’s going through, better than Kevin Garnett?”