Is this the moment Andrew Wiggins sheds his reputation?

Game 2 of the Golden State Warriors‘ second-round series with the Memphis Grizzlies — an affair already speckled with bad blood — was an unmitigated disaster.

Yes, the Good Guys folded in crunch time, which was of course a regular season specialty of these Warriors, but worst of all, they lost Gary Payton II to a dirty play by Grizzlies bad boy and Andre Iguodala’s biggest hater, aka Dillon Brooks. Whether you subscribe to Steve Kerr’s opinion that the “code” of basketball has been sullied by Brooks’ flagrant foul or not, the result is dire. Payton was by far Golden State’s best chance at slowing Ja Morant down, not to mention a fan favorite with the heart of a hero.

the Death Lineup looks dead The rotation is paper-thin. memphis sideline reporters are outing themselves ace cops. It’s hard to tell who the giant is and who the giant killer is in this series. It’s going to be the sort of series that is bad for one’s health, in no small part because it may all come down to … Andrew Wiggins.

On Feb. 7, 2020, the Dubs and Minnesota Timberwolves swapped damaged goods, flipping D’Angelo Russell for Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins had worn out his welcome in the Land of 10,000 Lakes but was hardly a traditional “bust,” despite failing to live up to his selection of him as the first overall pick. He was still young and athletic and (squint your eyes) filled the hollowed-out wound left by Kevin Durant’s departure far better than a jittery gunner like D’Angelo Russell. Sure, Wiggins would be making $27,504,630 (and ticking up every year!) to be the fourth-best player (maybe?) on the roster, but the Warriors also pilfered a first-round pick that eventually transformed into Jonathan Kuminga, and you know how we feel about Kuminga, folks. But 2020 feels like decades ago, because at that point in time there was no way we could comprehend an ongoing global pandemic or that Andrew Wiggins would start an All-Star Game. That’s the guy we need to step up right now. The guy who — let’s be real — shouldn’t have been an All-Star starter (or probably even an All-Star reserve), but he was good enough that you could make that case, statistically, emotionally, without getting laughed out of the bar.

Obviously, the outcome of this series (and season) shouldn’t rest all or even mostly on the shoulders of Andrew Wiggins. To beat the Grizzlies, the salty, persistent Grizzlies, an unruly mob of youths led by the NBA’s most electric executioner, the Warriors will need magisterial performances from Steph Curry and Draymond Green. They’ll need Klay Thompson to not play as angry (or horny) and to remember he’s been there before. They’ll need Jordan Poole to play like a deranged slithery sicko with no conscience (not so worried about this) and hope his defensive fundamentals can endure this trial by fire (slightly more worrisome). It would be unfair, not to mention unlikely, to think or expect that Wiggins is the answer. But for Golden State to take back the momentum in this series, he can’t be a relentless question mark — his earned career reputation — either.

Who is Wiggins to this team, now and going forward? Is he a glorified placeholder chilling until the Bridge to the Future is completed? A highly paid strange new model of glue-guy? The King of Rebounds? The man who finally takes away Ja Morant’s left? It’s anybody’s guess game to game. He exists on an erratic, frustrating, occasionally fascinating pendulum. That’s the Andrew Wiggins Special.

In classic Wiggins fashion, he’s been both impressive and on autopilot this series. He’s been more than willing to get in the mud, but the free throws remain an ongoing hitch and the long-twos still call him like a siren’s song. Two games in and Golden State has yet to produce a reasonable facsimile of a quality offensive outing. The days of firing on all cylinders are a thing of the hazy past. Now, in an even hazier present, it’s a matter of which cylinder happens to have the hot hand. Wiggins hasn’t forced the issue, which is in general probably wise, but the man is still extremely capable of bursts of buckets, and unfortunately, this incarnation of the team could use a burst from an unexpected source every now and then. Otto Porter Jr. has lost his shooting touch (still fighting though, love you Otto). Nemanja Bjelica can’t really get on the court. Kuminga is doing his work on training-wheels minutes.

Wiggins? He can score. It isn’t always pretty or efficient, but he can score. That’s his thing about him, before it was n’t. But the talking point that accompanied the trade has always been heard loud and clear: Don’t worry, Authentic Fans, we only brought him here to be a complementary player, not a star. Wiggins seems well-liked and is viewed (for now) as part of the core in a way that Kelly Oubre never was and James Wiseman hasn’t yet had the chance to be, but he’s still for all intents and purposes a highly paid complementary player. An adjunct professor with no chance of tenure. The conventional wisdom forged in Minnesota is essentially that without three future hall of famers surrounding him, Wiggins is empty calories. Sound and fury signifying fairly decent stats. The 1-3 pecking order in Golden State is set in stone, and in the relatively short time he’s been here, Wiggins has likely already been lapped by Poole’s ascension.

No matter — the rest of this series is clearly the most that’s ever been asked of Wiggins as an NBA player. He might be Golden State’s fifth-best player, but he’s also the exact guy on the roster who can maximize the most out of his sometimes slumbering potential (there’s that heartbreaking word again). He possesses a dangerous enough array of tricks as a fourth option on offense to punish an aggressive Grizzlies defense that is dedicated to smothering even the struggling versions of Curry, Thompson and Poole. To make things as onerous as possible, he’ll have to unleash his offensive spark from him while at the same time being next in line to the psychological slaughterhouse that is trying to slow down the spectacle and spite of Morant. This is a Hallmark movie rise-to-the-occasion moment for the bouncy Canadian we’re all rooting for. The past is not the future. Everyone gets the chance to break away from their reputation. The crucible playoff churns out unlikely heroes and redemption stories every year. We Believe, as the old saying goes.

The Bay Area desperately wants to love (or at least defend his honor with a straight face) Wiggins. He’s, at the moment, one of us, and he’s shown us, sporadically but clearly, his value of him. He’s proven he can consistently affect the outcome of tight games and force big moments on the margins. It’s not exactly a problem with his engine, though it often feels that way for long stretches. The effort is naked for the world to see. The hustle, the dunks down the gullet, taking it up a notch on defense. His rebounding from him in the playoffs has been incredible. The ideal version of Wiggins should be a no-brainer positive force, a potential fringe 16-Game Player in the making. Just when you mentally write him off or relegate him to your fifth-or-so most important player, he reliably snakes into frame and comes up big, sometimes huge. And the flip side of this is, of course, that when you count on him, when you expect him to do what he so clearly can, he’ll stumble, he’ll drift, he’ll meet the situation with imperfect intensity. That’s just being human in a league (and a team) that’s basically conditioned us to expect superhumans 100% (or at least 90%) of the time. He’s not Kevin Durant. He’s not even Harrison Barnes, who, say what you will about Harry B, was a crucial head of a Hydra that won 73 regular season games.

Wiggins came to the bay with baggage, but amazingly still has the chance to leave with hardware. But first, the upstarts who OK Boomer-ed the Warriors in Game 2 have to be put down. And so, this is the critical juncture in which Wiggins must elegantly fuse his two disparate trajectories, gritty workhorse and explosive hunter of buckets. At this tipping point, at the paramount moment of both his season and his career, with the guys above him struggling and the guys below him not exactly difference-makers (no offense, Nemanja Bjelica!) perhaps we all knew it was always leading up to this: that Andrew Christian Wiggins of Thornhill, Ontario, the Thinking Man’s Underachiever, might just be the thin line between triumph and dishonor, between the extension of a dynasty, and the nail in its coffin. Just like they drew it up.

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