Andrew Wiggins Isn't the New LeBron James (Yet)

The highly touted Kansas freshman has been compared to NBA greats, but he has yet to play a college game—and other, less-hyped recruits may prove more valuable.
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AP / Nam Y. Huh; Bill Haber

Andrew Wiggins, the University of Kansas’s freshman small forward, may be the most ballyhooed young basketball player since LeBron James.

A near-consensus preseason pick for Naismith Player of the Year, he was 2013’s Naismith Prep Player of the Year, Gatorade Player of the Year, and Mr. Basketball USA (unusually enough for a kid from Canada). After a fierce recruiting war between Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas, Wiggins chose the Jayhawks, and was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated along with KU legends Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning. In their latest issue, GQ referenced the "'Canadian LeBron' hype" around Wiggins and compared him to Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant. Wiggins was even said to be in line for a LeBron-like shoe endorsement deal—some $180 million over 10 years—though according to other sources, that may not be true.

The son of former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins and former Olympic sprinter Marita Payne-Wiggins, Wiggins is deft with a dribble, with a killer first step. His vertical leap is freakish. He jams likes a barbarian. Better yet, the 6'8" Wiggins loves to bank off glass. It's gratifying to see a young player with such a fine sense of the game's subtle geometry.

But here’s some perspective: As a high school senior, Wiggins averaged 23.4 points per game. That’s the same as Durant, but it's also roughly the same as guys like Zach Randolph and Darius Miles. Both Randolph and Miles made the NBA, sure. But neither came close to meeting the expectations they set coming out of high school. And  to even talk about Wiggins’s NBA potential is wildly premature—he has yet to play a single minute of college ball. For now, hold off getting too excited about Wiggins. Other, less-heralded freshman can, and likely will, prove more valuable assets to their college teams—and eventually turn out to be better pros. 

It's entirely possible, for example, that Wiggins won’t end up Naismith Player of the Year. Even from this too-early-to-tell standpoint, it’s easy to imagine that honor going to Doug McDermott at Creighton or Louisville’s Russ Smith. Wiggins also may not be the country's best incoming freshman. Jabari Parker at Duke, the last “new LeBron,” may end up filling that role. Or it may be Julius Randle at Kentucky: At 6'9'' and 248 pounds, he can post up but still square to the basket and hit jumpers. Randle may end up a 'tweener in the NBA, but he's a match-up nightmare in the SEC.

Wiggins may not even be the best player in the Big 12: Consider Marcus Smart, a sophomore guard at Oklahoma State, who recently had a few things to say about Wigginsmania. "A lot of people are saying he's the best player in college basketball,” Smart told USA Today. "They are saying he is the best college player there is and he's not even played a game yet. It's all talk. He still has to put his shorts on one leg at a time like I do.” True. And after he puts on those shorts, Smart will likely be more valuable to his team. Wiggins might be a better athlete. But Smart, who averaged 15.4 PPG as a freshman, will likely be almost as much of a scoring threat as Wiggins. Moreover, given that Smart plays point guard, he'll almost certainly have more assists, grab more steals, and play a bigger role in executing his team's offense. 

Wiggins may not even be the most valuable freshman on his own team. New Jayhawk Joel Embiid was projected as the nation's top incoming center, but hasn't received a tenth of the attention Wiggins has. Yet Embiid could end up a better player, in college and beyond.

There's the rub. The hype around Wiggins says more about what fans want to see than what it takes to win basketball games. Fans like flash, fancy dribbling, and monster dunks. Winning games, though, requires more. Winning requires free throws, defense, and execution of an offensive game plan that exploits match-ups to create open shots. That's one reason why some great college players become such average pros—think Tyler Hansbrough and Jimmer Fredette. The combination of size, talent, and good coaching in college helped them exploit match-up problems that just don't exist in the NBA.

Yes, Wiggins is a rare athlete. But Embiid is something equally rare: a 7-footer with grace. He can dunk, of course, but he can dribble and hit jumpers, too. Better yet, he's still raw. A native of Cameroon, Embiid didn't even pick up a basketball until he was 16. That means he has huge room to improve, in terms of his mechanics and understanding of the game. Given KU's history of turning average big men into lottery picks (see: Jeff Withey), Embiid will not only be a nightmare match-up for defenses in the Big 12, he's also more likely to be an NBA stalwart in the future.

Wiggins is a tremendous talent. But KU has had tons of those—Ben McLemore and Josh Selby, for instance. Wiggins should be an excellent college player on a great Kansas team. But he's not the second coming of Wilt, Danny, or Durant, let alone LeBron or Kobe. At least, not yet. In fact, it's Embiid who’s likely to create bigger mismatches at more spots on the floor. No, Embiid didn't win a ton of high school awards. He only averaged 13.0 points PPG his senior season. He wasn't on the cover of SI or hyped in GQ, and he won't get a $150 million shoe deal. He'll just help his team win basketball games—in college or the pros.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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