Aaron Wiggins’ path from two-way player to indispensable part of the Thunder

Aaron Wiggins’ path from two-way player to indispensable part of the Thunder

His teammates razz Wiggins about being ‘good at everything,’ but that feels more like telling the truth than poking fun.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| May 9, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

May 9, 2024, 6:00am CDT

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OKLAHOMA CITY — The ribbing and the gigging that Aaron Wiggins gets from his Thunder teammates isn’t just good natured.

It’s actually confidence boosting.

“You’re good at everything,” they chide. “Everything!”

It’s meant to poke fun at something Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said easier this season about the reserve forward who might be behind only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams in terms of fan approval.

“What is Aaron Wiggins good at?” Daigneault was asked.

“Everything,” Daigneault answered.

Wiggins did nothing to prove his serious coach or his joking teammates wrong Tuesday night.

In a game the Thunder took a dominating 1-0 lead over the Mavericks in their Western Conference semifinal, Wiggins came off the bench and stuffed the stat sheet. He scored 16 points, grabbed five rebounds, dished two assists, blocked a shot and had a steal. He threw in some smothering team defense, too.

All that averaging only 5.8 points in the first round against the Pelicans.

“That just shows you the confidence he has in himself,” fellow reserve Jaylin Williams said of Wiggins’ Game 1 performance. “Every day, he’s putting in the work. He’s working on those layups. He’s working on his shots. He’s working on his game.”

Wiggins is as good an example of a self-made player as you’ll find in the NBA. 

Coming out to Maryland in 2021, he was drafted 55th overall. He started as a two-way player who spent time with the Blue, but he has turned himself into an essential part of the Thunder. 

It starts with his energy — his engine not only never runs out of gas but also never slows down — but it extends to his savvy. He does the small things. Making the right cut. Diving for loose balls. 

“I just think he’s a great example of somebody that’s grown inside of the culture of the organization, the system,” Daigneault said. “His damage is done through the system of play, so when we’re playing the way we want to play, he’s right in the middle of that.”

That was the case Tuesday night. 

Wiggins didn’t play at all in the first quarter, but when he came in at the start of the second quarter, he immediately found his spots. The left corner for an open three when Cason Wallace swung the ball to him. The right wing for another open three after Josh Giddey chased down a long rebound. The baseline for a cutting layup on a nifty dump down by Jalen Williams. 

All that came within the first four minutes Wiggins was on the floor.

“You look at his stuff (Tuesday) night,” Daigneault said, “he’s shooting open threes, he’s driving close-outs and getting fouled, he’s cutting — two of his baskets came on cuts — all that stuff is system stuff. That’s stuff that he’s been growing in for as long as he’s been here. 

“A great example of somebody that has really committed to the way we try to play and he’s excelled at that and now become an incredible factor for us.”

Wiggins ended up playing 23 minutes.

More wouldn’t have been a bad thing.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” Wallace said of Wiggins. “Earlier this year, he wasn’t playing that many minutes. Some games, he didn’t play.

“Now, we’re deep in the season, we’re in the playoffs and he’s getting big minutes, having a huge impact on that team. So that just shows how tough of a person he is, mentally and physically.”

That toughness was particularly on display late in the first half when the Mavericks’ defense collapsed hard on Gilgeous-Alexander as he drove the baseline. A couple of defenders seemed to have SGA boxed in, but when he did one of those never-ending pivot-foot spins, he caught a glimpse of a teammate charging hard down the lane.

It was Wiggins.

SGA shoveled the ball to Wiggins, who dribbled, spun off a defender and hit a tough 10-foot turnaround jumper.

“Felt good,” Wiggins said of having such a big role in the offense. “Glad they went in. It was a good spark for my confidence.”

In the end, Wiggins hit three 3-pointers, more than Luka Doncic (one) and just as many as Kyrie Irving.

Wiggins only had two threes combined in the four games against the Pelicans, and he had just three games in the regular season where he splashed three or more shots from behind the arc.

Was it any different hitting them in the playoffs?

“Feels the same physically,” he said with a little wry smile, “but obviously, the crowd behind it, the whole arena just kind of erupts every shot that goes in. That’s huge. It makes the game a little bit more fun and intense.”

The lion’s share of the credit for what Wiggins did Tuesday goes to him, but there’s something to be said for the way Daigneault and his coaches use their bench. Sometimes, the Thunder’s substitution patterns have befuddled outsiders. Why is this guy or that guy playing? How can they play so many guys? Doesn’t the bench have to shorten in the playoffs?

Daigneault believes the cost of shortening the bench could be way higher than the benefit.

“We want a large menu,” he said. “There’s nothing more intimidating when you go against another team that has a large menu, when they have a lot of different options, when they can play it a lot of different ways. It’s not easy to prepare for. 

“We want to try to be that type of team.”

To do that, Daigneault and Co. have expanded their comfort zone and gone against convention. It hasn’t always worked, but because they can’t know how a playoff series is going to unfold, they feel like they know not only what works but also what levers they have available to pull.

Continuing to play so many players in the playoffs gives guys a chance to have a big night like Wiggins did Tuesday.

“It’s unfair to a guy to need them and go to him in a big spot when you have to dust them off to get them there,” Daigneault said. “Trying to keep everybody engaged. Trying to keep everybody ready. Give everybody a chance.”

“Wiggins is a great example. He was huge for us. I didn’t go into the game knowing that that was going to be the case. … So, if you cut (the rotation) down to seven, maybe you’re not playing him on a given night.”

Not playing Aaron Wiggins?

That seems downright foolish.

He would be a starter on many teams in the NBA. Sometimes, it feels like he should be a starter for the Thunder. But even if he doesn’t start, he always seems to do something big.

“He does everything,” Wallace said, “and it does it at a high level.”

What is Aaron Wiggins good at?

No joke, it’s everything.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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