Andrew Wiggins has been silencing critics ever since trade to Warriors

Andrew Wiggins has been silencing critics ever since trade to Warriors

PHOENIX -- For much of his career, Andrew Wiggins has simultaneously fought and triggered the criticisms of poor effort and sub-par defense, triggering a label of "bust" for the former first-round pick. 

In his first five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was among the worst defenders in the league, drawing the ire of former teammates, wearing out his welcome in the Midwest. 

The reputation followed him to Golden State, where even a change of address couldn't erase his mistakes. At his new gig, he's betting a new environment will unlock his game. Twenty-seven points, five assists and four rebounds later, he momentarily silenced those pundits in a 112-106 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. 

"Any time you enter a new chapter in life, you want to do better," Wiggins said following the defeat. "You never want to go back to how stuff was before. This is a blessing."

At the moment, Wiggins is taking advantage of the opportunity. Against the Suns, he showed potential. Six minutes into the game, he hit a 3-pointer in front of Golden State's bench, giving the Warriors a two-point lead. A minute later, he found Marquese Chriss on an alley-oop pass. More vital, he finished with a career-high four blocks, hounding Devin Booker much of night, impressing coaches along the way. 

"He's a great weapon to have," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "And we're still learning how to use him and what he's comfortable with and how to use him and experiment." 

"It's a great challenge and it's only going to make me better," Wiggins added. "Guarding the best guys in the league and seeing their tendencies. It's only going to make me better so I love it. 

Over his last three games, he has been tasked with guarding the opposition's best player, showing his two-way potential. In Saturday's loss to the Lakers, he scored 24 points, helping limit All-Star forward LeBron James to just 7-of-17 shooting from the field. Two nights later, he scored 14 of his 18 points in the third quarter, helping the Warriors cut a 21-point deficit to five. 

Wiggins' activity was only seen in spurts during his Minnesota tenure. Picked No. 1 overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, he was expected to lead the Timberwolves back to contention. However, his calm demeanor and propensity to disappear in games all but erased his annual average of nearly 20 points per game. Paired with fellow No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns, the duo was known more for unfulfilled potential than wins. All the while, Wiggins was one of the worst defenders in the league. 

The trade to Golden State has also provided a welcomed change for Wiggins on the offensive end. No longer subjected to heavy isolation offense, he's now asked to cut in the Warriors' motion offense -- a change the 24-year old has enjoyed. 

"It's been great," Wiggins said. "I feel like I've been adapting pretty well and guys have been helping me. But you get easier baskets like this. Basketball is fun, everyone is looking out for each other, unselfishly and everyone is trying to get each other open. So it's a great feeling." 

Wiggins' arrival comes as Golden State is in a period of transition. Hours before Wiggins' on-court outburst, Kerr reiterated that Stephen Curry's return from a broken hand is coming, and he's excited about pairing them together. 

"Once we are fully healthy and we've got a lot of different weapons on the floor, it becomes easier to create space for him and once he gets in space," Kerr said, "he's really explosive getting to the rim and obviously can knock down perimeter shots as well." 

[RELATED: Why Kerr compares Wiggins to puzzle piece for Dubs' future]

For five years, Wiggins has tried to bare the responsibility of carrying a franchise with mixed results. Now, in the midst of his current circumstances, he and his coaches believe he's in the right spot to fulfill his potential.

"He has been a perfect fit," Kerr said. "And he's playing well, but he has got to keep getting better and we've got to keep pushing him." 

Warriors' last 27 games will be critically important for next season

Warriors' last 27 games will be critically important for next season

Editor's note: Grant Liffmann (@grantliffmann) is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.

The Warriors have only 27 games left this season, and for the first time in many years, their offseason will start in mid-April. There will not be much of a vacation for the front office, however, as they will be tasked with reconstructing a championship roster and selecting a high draft pick.

For Warriors fans, speculation over the draft, trade market and free agency will consume most of the spring and early summer. However, in the meantime, there are certain things to watch for during the final stretch of the regular season.

Curry-Draymond-Wigging chemistry

All the talk around the Warriors during the last couple weeks has been about the impressive start to Andrew Wiggins' Warriors career.

While it is just a few games, Wiggins has shown a quick ability to fit right into Steve Kerr's system and buy-in on defense. He probably will only have a couple more weeks to try to learn the nuances before Steph Curry returns. Wiggins never has played with a guard even remotely as talented as Curry, and many assume the fit will be seamless.

However, for a guy who was used to having the ball in his hands for a majority of his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure, Wiggins now will need to fully accept that he will be playing off-the-ball. With Curry at point guard, Kerr has used Draymond Green as the secondary (or many times primary) ball-handler over the last half-decade, and had a lot of success doing so.

Making the transition from being the focal point of an offense to being the third option who often will be standing in the corner is not an easy change. But Wiggins should have over a month to grow accustomed to his new role, before taking another step back when Klay Thompson returns (probably next season).

The Growth of the 2019 Rookie Class

Over the final 27 games of the season, the Warriors' rookies will have plenty of opportunities to show how far they have come since entering the NBA. Eric Paschall burst onto the scene as a skilled scorer, but his adjustment to a new role with the addition of Wiggins and the return of Curry will be something to watch with an eye toward next season.

Jordan Poole has come on of late, even earning himself the starting point guard role. However, his 3-point shooting has still been inconsistent, even after marked improvement from the beginning of the season. As it will for most players on the team, the return of Curry will impact Poole in a positive way, allowing him to find more open space to catch and shoot or to drive and make a play for a teammate. The team is hoping Poole can be a useful rotational piece next season, so they will be watching him closely down the stretch.

Alen Smailagic still is only 19 years old and has had impressive moments as well as glaring gaffes so far in his very limited NBA experience. The roster is very thin in the frontcourt, so Smailagic will definitely see some playing time over the final couple of months. While his unique confidence on offense is quite entertaining, the coaching staff will be more focused on teaching him proper defensive technique so he can find playing time when games finally matter again.

It has been an interesting season for Ky Bowman. After opening eyes throughout the league with his great start, Bowman was sent to Santa Cruz and tasked with adjusting his style of play to better fit his future backup point guard role. In a perfect world, the Warriors see Bowman as a Patrick Beverley-type player who can harass the opposing team on defense, create open shots for his teammates on offense, bring endless hustle and energy and hit an open 3-point shot from time to time. When Curry plays again, Bowman will have the opportunity to show how far he has come in his development.

[RELATED: Warriors' belief in Chriss has resuscitated his NBA career]

Race to the bottom

The Warriors sit on the very bottom of the NBA standings but should start winning more once Curry returns. But do Warriors fans even really want that? The confusion of whether to celebrate a win or wish for a better draft position is putting fans in a predicament.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are not going to win many games going forward and currently sit two wins above the Warriors in the standings. It is realistic to believe the Warriors will surpass them before the season's end. Other bottom-dwellers have some reason for optimism that they could potentially string together a few wins down the stretch.

If finishing with the worst record in the NBA seems unlikely, then fans can root for Warriors wins while still hoping they remain in the bottom three in the league, which would keep them tied for the best chances of landing the top pick in the draft.

Warriors' belief in Marquese Chriss has resuscitated an NBA career

Warriors' belief in Marquese Chriss has resuscitated an NBA career

SAN FRANCISCO – You’re a 2016 NBA lottery pick, selected eighth overall. It’s time to shine. Get your game on and, eventually, fatten your bank account.

Three years and three teams later, you’re on the outskirts of the league.

As days and nights last summer came and went without a phone call or a text message or so much as a July 2nd Happy Birthday greeting, Marquese Chriss concedes that during his 90-day turn as a free agent there were moments when he wondered if that is how his dream would end.

“It sucked, man,” he recalls in an extended recent conversation with NBC Sports Bay Area. “You go into free agency trying to stay as optimistic as possible. I understood that the big names were going to sign in the first three or four days. But a lot was going on, especially with the Kawhi (Leonard) situation. It had a lot of us waiting. People in my position, just trying to find a spot to fill in those last couple roster spots ... it was hard.”

July flips to August, which silently slides toward September. September arrives and roster spots are drying up and, still, not a peep for a 22-year-old forward/center 39 months removed from being a top-10 pick out of the University of Washington.

“I’d be lying,” Chriss says, “if I didn’t admit that I saw certain people signing and thought, ‘Damn, I can do the same thing if I was given an opportunity.’ But I don’t ever want to be that person who knocks somebody else’s hustle. I wish the best for everybody because I want people to wish that for me.”

Not until NBA Media Day, on Sept. 30, as the last of the league’s teams were opening camp, did Chriss feel he could exhale. The Warriors offered a non-guaranteed contract. An invitation to join them in training camp. It was the best deal available, so he jumped on it.

Even the Warriors, in the midst of massive roster overhaul, weren’t so sure he’d make it.

“I heard he was coming to camp, and I just thought, ‘Whatever.’ Honestly, I didn’t think anything of it,” coach Steve Kerr says. “Every year, we bring guys into camp and there are five guys who are going to get cut. I just kind of assumed he’s going to be a camp invite and we’re probably going to cut him.

“But after the first day, I thought, ‘Oh, wait.’’’

Chriss is 6-foot-9, 240 pounds. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan and a 38-inch vertical leap. He still possessed the gifts that convinced the Phoenix Suns to send three players -- including Bogdan Bogdanovic -- and two future second-round draft picks to the Kings for the right to present Chriss with a two-year contract two weeks later. He signed, guaranteeing his first $6 million NBA dollars.

Three years later, Chriss is on his fourth team and carrying the baggage that comes with being abandoned by the Suns after two seasons, traded twice in less than six months -- from Phoenix to Houston, then Houston to Cleveland -- as well as serving an NBA-mandated one-game suspension for his part in an on-court scuffle with Serge Ibaka, who served three games.

He came to the Warriors knowing his career was at a crossroads, hoping it wouldn’t die under a pile of back-page transactions, identifiable mostly by undertones of questionable character.

“It’s people’s perception,” Chriss says. “I can be a loud, outspoken person when I’m playing and the complete opposite when I’m not. I’m chilling. I don’t say much, except to my teammates. But I’m just expressive, and sometimes people take my competitiveness that for anger. As a competitor, when I’m going against somebody who doesn’t want me to win, I take it personally. That’s how I am.

“And I don’t want to change. I just want to be able to channel it in a positive way.”

That’s what Kerr and his staff saw in the first workout. Veteran forward Draymond Green, a three-time All-Star who has a soft spot for fellow firebrands, saw the same attributes. The original gifts. Draymond went to Kerr and urged him to find a way to keep Chriss around.

The lifeline Chriss had grabbed days earlier was about to resuscitate his career.

He also realized he was running out of opportunities.

“I had to become an adult,” Chriss says, taking blame for past mistakes. “Realizing that I had to leave childish acts in the past. I’ll probably still have some lapses where there are signs of immaturity. But I’m continuing to grow. I’m growing up and I understand that I can’t take this opportunity for granted.”

Flashing an ability to do most of the things everything required of the current generation of NBA centers -- rebound, protect the rim, set screens and provide a lob threat -- Chriss made the final roster. The Warriors chose to keep him instead of small forward Alfonzo McKinnie.

That small sip of job security lasted about 11 weeks.

The Warriors lurched into 2020 with a roster they hadn’t imagined. They knew Klay Thompson, rehabilitating his surgically repaired left ACL, wouldn’t be available. They lost Steph Curry in the second week of the season; he’d miss at least three months, maybe four. The absence of both backcourt starters forced a reliance on Damion Lee and Ky Bowman, guards operating under the 45-day limit imposed on two-way contracts.

They were running out of NBA days, and the Warriors needed them. Someone with a standard contract would have to go. Chriss, with his non-guaranteed deal, was the obvious choice. It didn’t matter that he generally played well, or that one week earlier there had been a blip of temper that resulted in a gratuitous shove of Mavericks star Luka Doncic. The Warriors wanted Chriss, but they needed Lee because he was their starting shooting guard.

On Jan. 7 in Sacramento, a short ride from the Elk Grove neighborhood where Chriss grew up, he was waived in a meeting with director of operations Jonnie West and Kerr.

“Having to do that sucks,” Chriss says. “But I had no animosity. I understood the business of it. I knew when I came here, that the Warriors had money limitations (due to being hard-capped). I still came. I understood they would have to make some hard business choices, so I was emotionally prepared for that. I didn’t take it personally or think of it as a demotion or anything like that.”

Back on the market again, Chriss this time didn’t stare at his phone. He was hoping it wouldn’t ring. That he would clear waivers and re-sign with the Warriors once the roster smoke cleared.

Eight days later, he was back in a Warriors jersey after signing a two-way contract. He essentially traded places with Lee, except Chriss’ prorated 45-day clock was starting at zero. He wouldn’t need to use many such days, as 10 days later the Warriors traded starting center Willie Cauley-Stein.

Within two weeks of Willie’s departure to Dallas, “Quese” received a standard, guaranteed contract for the remainder of this season and all of 2020-21.

“It’s been a strange road, with the twist of cutting him and keeping our fingers crossed that nobody would claim him,” Kerr says.

“It worked out for us. And it’s working out for him. We’re a good match.”

Chriss was five days past his 19th birthday when he signed his contract with the Suns. He had no idea that he was aligning with a franchise whose defining characteristic was dysfunction. Owner Robert Sarver, ill-tempered and a compulsive meddler, presided over a revolving door of coaches and general managers.

As a teenage rookie, Chriss should have been learning the way of the league. Instead, he played in all 82 games, with 75 starts. He made 49 starts in his second season, after which he was shipped to the Rockets. He lasted 16 games before Houston shoved him to the Cavaliers, with whom he played 27 games before becoming a free agent last July.

It was the Houston experience, however, that stays with Chriss.

“Maybe I needed to go to Houston to grow, mentally,” he says. “It made me understand what I’m capable of doing, and that’s it’s not always about me. I took responsibility and had to grow up, become emotionally mature and keep believing an opportunity would come.”

Knowing the NBA has a long list of players who fail to impress as teenagers, with some losing the quest while others eventually find a place to evolve and thrive, the Warriors took it from there. Their front office and coaching staff have seen enough to place a measure of faith in Chriss’ upward trajectory.

“He’s been a great young guy,” Kerr says. “Talented. Smart. A great teammate. I love coaching him. I think he’s a long-term piece for us here.”

Chriss brightens at the mention of his current place in the league.

“Here, they instill confidence in their players,” he says. “Obviously, that confidence comes from winning and them knowing what they’re capable of doing. When a championship organization has faith in you, it says a lot. I think it’s given me the kind of confidence in myself that I haven’t had in a while. They know what success looks like. For them to want me to be a part of that, I’m thankful.”

[RELATED: Draymond vociferously defends Wiggins' defensive potential]

If Chriss is driven by anything it is the notion that he doesn’t belong -- and that several previous employers drew that conclusion. He’s not a finished product, but he’s already giving the Warriors the kind of production that can make him a fixture.

Who knew that the Warriors would find a potential starting center discarded by the Suns, Rockets and Cavaliers?

“The question, at least I don’t think, was never about my ability or skill,” Chriss says. “People tried to question my motor and my attitude, or saying I wasn’t willing to be coached. If anybody here talks about it, I think you’d see it’s the opposite.

“There was a false narrative written on me early, and I’m trying to rewrite it. It’s taken me four years to try to correct that.”

Chriss has been a Warrior for less than five months but insists this is the most stable and structured NBA environment he has known. He turns 23 in July, so there should be plenty of career ahead. This might not be his last stop in the league, but it’s the one he needs now.