Why Not Wiggins?
Perhaps I have an affinity for under the radar role players, but after seeing how Aaron Wiggins has played thus far this season with the playing time he's been afforded, I felt the need to write a piece demanding even more run for the second year player out of Maryland. Wiggins is one of the Thunder's best players and is a perfect complimentary piece next to the superstar ball handlers that exist in Oklahoma City and across the NBA. He deserves his flowers and more minutes than he is getting, and I hope I can clarify the value he possesses to winning basketball in this piece.
OKC is 8-1 when Wiggins is in the starting lineup. I don't think this is necessarily a coincidence; Aaron Wiggins is an elite level connective role player who deserves more minutes than he's been receiving. As of this writing, OKC has played 49 games, and Wiggins has appeared in just 38. He has yet to miss a game due to injury or illness, but rather these 11 missed games are simply DNPs. I understand that a new guard was added to the rotation in the offseason (Jalen Williams) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been healthy nearly all year, but Wiggins' minutes have decreased from 24 per game his rookie year to 18 per game in 2022-23 despite his overall game improving. I admire his ability to stay ready and contribute whenever his name is called, but he deserves more consistent playing time. Allow me to make my case.
Efficient and scalable
You may look at Wiggins' raw numbers and ask yourself why he needs a whole article written about him. Six points and 1.5 assists per game is nothing to write home about, but keep in mind he's doing this in only 18 minutes of action. He doesn't attempt a lot of shots--just about 10 per 36--because he is aware of his limitations (in fact, I would like him to shoot more, particularly more three pointers). 84.4 percent of his shot attempts come at the rim or from three, per PBPStats, a number that ranks 32nd in the NBA among players with at least 600 minutes. On the season, Wiggins has a 60% True Shooting percentage, which is four percent above the league average. This is a big leap from last year where he had a 55.6% TS, two percent below league average in 2021-22.
Here are Wiggins' numbers when he gets starter level minutes on the season, per NBA.com.
Aaron Wiggins as a starter (8 games):
- 30 minutes per game
- 11.3 points per game
- 62.8% TS
- +8.6 plus/minus
Aaron Wiggins as a reserve (30 games):
- 15.1 minutes per game
- 5.2 points per game
- 58.7% TS
- -1.4 plus/minus
The efficiency and productivity that Wiggins has demonstrated so far has been scalable to a larger role with increased minutes. He isn't just putting these numbers up in a limited sample off the bench, but has also been great when getting 30+ minutes in an individual game.
I don't really know why he doesn't play more minutes. One theory is that the Thunder don't have a lot invested in him (salary wise or draft capital wise) and are willing to give other players more chances to prove themselves. I just find his whole season a bit strange with his minute allocation, because it cannot be explained by poor play. I mean, the Thunder are 12-5 when he plays 20+ minutes in a game. I've looked at these games and while some of that ratio can be explained by him receiving more minutes in semi blowout (like the recent game versus the Pacers), most of those instances have come during legit and competitive games.
The Thunder are +2.4 per 100 possessions with Wiggins on the floor this season according to PBPStats. That number may seem solid yet unremarkable, but keep in mind that nearly half of his minutes have come without Shai on the court and alongside other bench players. In the 360 minutes that he and SGA have shared the floor together, OKC has a +7 net rating and a 119 offensive rating--an elite number. The combo of Shai and Lu Dort (the primary starter over him) only have a +0.4 net rating in 1,166 minutes this season, with a 114.7 offensive rating. Do I think Wiggins is just as good as Dort? It's honestly tough to say. Wiggins' success has just come in a much smaller sample than Dort, so I won't be definitive. But I think Wiggins' connective passing, three additional inches of height and wingspan, efficient jump shooting and rim finishing, and solid defense makes it a legitimate debate despite the assumed consensus (that Dort is significantly better) from other Thunder fans.
All the little things
If I could describe Wiggins' game in one sentence, it's that he's not flashy but does all the little things at a high level. He moves without the ball well, makes the extra pass, fights for loose balls and rebounds, screens well for a guard, and makes quick and efficient decisions with the basketball. His assist to usage rate, a statistic from CleaningTheGlass that provides better context than raw assist rate, is 0.80, a number that ranks in the league's 83rd percentile. When he catches the ball, he's immediately either driving to the rim for a finish, driving to kick, or making the extra pass to find the open shooter. He finishes well at the basket, shooting 67% at the rim per PBPStats with the highest at-rim frequency on the team (49% of his shots come there). A good amount of his shots are assisted, but that's perfectly fine for the player archetype Wiggins fills considering he is a fantastic cutter and off-ball mover.
Wiggins' cutting might be his best NBA skill. He is incredible at finding the soft spots in the defense by using a variety of different and timely cuts. He cuts on 14 percent of his plays this year, ranking in the 69th percentile amongst his peers. On those cuts, he is averaging 1.47 PPP, which ranks in the 82nd percentile. It certainly helps when you have players like Shai, Josh Giddey, and Kenrich Williams that capable of finding you, but Wiggins is great at playing off of these heady passers.
His ability to find the open space within a defense is tremendous. It's not a shock that when Wiggins is on the floor that Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, and Williams each see between one and two more assists per 100 possessions.
One thing that separates Wiggins apart from some of the other lower usage role players across the NBA and on Oklahoma City's roster is his ability to handle the basketball and play off of created advantages. He is no lead bench initiator, but he is a very quick decision maker off the catch and can use his handle to attack closeouts for to generate his own offense or distribute to his teammates. When receiving the ball on a swing around the perimeter, it is almost jarring how quickly Wiggins starts to attack and drive towards the basket.
There is no real way to quantify quick decision making, but Wiggins would have to be in OKC's top three if there were. He's very aggressive off the catch, immediately looking to penetrate the defense when he receives the ball. He keeps the ball moving and is willing to make the extra pass for a more efficient opportunity.
How many players on OKC are attacking closeouts like this or creating these shots for others? This is where his assist to usage rate really shines. He doesn't possess the ball that often, but when he does, he makes the most of it. Wiggins is great at finding his open teammates and making the right read when it is available. For a 6'6 wing role player, his passing and handling ability is a clear positive and valuable offensive dynamic that allows him to fit seamlessly next to anyone without hogging up any negative usage.
Albeit it's been in a rather small sample (67 attempts), Wiggins has been a much more efficient shooter this season. He is up to 38.8 percent from three and 81 percent from the line, around an eight percent increase in both categories. On catch-and-shoot threes, he's hitting a stellar 40.6 percent on 64 attempts per NBA stats. And last but not least, he's in the 86th percentile in unguarded C&S jumpers.
It's a shame Wiggins hasn't had more movement opportunities thus far in his career considering he was second in the NCAA in points off of screens in his final season at Maryland. Running some of the same actions Isaiah Joe gets would be interesting to see for Wiggins at the very least--get him running off of pindowns or DHOs, and see what he can do with his shooting or aggressive slashing style.
Room to grow
It's been all praise for Wiggins above, but I'm not at all saying he is a perfect player. I would love for him to become more aggressive in hunting his shot, specifically from the three-point line. He appears to be a good shooter but still doesn't take threes at a considerable volume to really scare opponents. I would like to see the Thunder staff try to leverage his shooting more, assuming he is a good enough shooter to do so. In addition, his turnover rate has eclipsed his usage rate so far this season, which isn't ideal. The handle is nice, but it becomes rather loose on occasion and has led to 12 lost ball turnovers on the year.
I don't know what the future is for Aaron Wiggins on this team. His minutes have decreased despite him being better than he was last year and better than quite a few guys playing over him. He is 24, older than usual for a second year player, but he's a very valuable and inexpensive piece with room to continue growing his game. Are players like Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo, Royce O'Neale, Caleb Martin, and Josh Richardson really better than Wiggins in a vacuum? They are all older and signed to larger deals than Wiggins. Meanwhile he is sitting on the bench getting inconsistent minutes on a solid OKC team, a team for which he should be considered a member of their young nucleus. It's very possible his ceiling is around 18 minutes per game off the bench for the next contending Thunder team. But I'd like to see those minutes increase this season so he can continue developing and possibly blossom into something even better.