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August 17, 2010

Wiggins: Is next great baller from Canada?

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In many ways, he's like a lot of other budding basketball stars.

He is the son of a former NBA player. He is big enough - and good enough - to compete with those much older than he is. He is being sought by some of the top college programs in the country, even though he still hasn't started high school. And he is the star of a viral video that shows him overwhelming kids his own age.

But if you're looking for the player some consider the next basketball prodigy, you'll have to go somewhere unusual to find him: Canada.

That's right. The land of Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby may be producing the next great basketball player.

His name is Andrew Wiggins.

"I can definitely understand why people say that," Ro Russell, founder and coach of AAU powerhouse Grassroots Canada, said. "The things he does sometimes make you want to say that and then you have to check yourself and try to look at it from a neutral stance. But the potential is definitely there for him to be one of the best ever - and not just from Canada."

Canada? Really?

Granted, the country did produce two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash. But after that: basically marginal big men such as Bill Wennington of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Jamaal Magloire of Toronto.

Wiggins, the son of former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins, appears to be on another level already.

The 15-year-old soon-to-be high school freshman from Toronto hasn't officially played a high school game, but he is already garnering interest from the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Florida State. The 6-foot-6 guard was playing competitive basketball by the third grade, dunking by the seventh grade and spent the last two summers competing against elite players - most at least two years his senior - while playing for Grassroots Canada and the Canadian Cadet Men's National Team.

"He's a really, really special athlete," said Roy Rana, who coached Wiggins and Team Canada at the FIBA U17 World Championship and the Nike Global Challenge this summer. "He's pretty impressive for a kid his age. Even though he's two, three, four years younger than everybody else, he certainly doesn't seem out of place."

Rivals.com national basketball analyst Jerry Meyer, who saw Wiggins play at the Global Challenge, agreed with the assessment.

"He is a great young talent with top-shelf athleticism and tons of potential," he said.

It's too soon to judge the class of 2014, but Meyer already senses Wiggins will be near the top of the list when that time comes.

"He does have the look of a Top 10 prospect and could conceivably be right at the top in the class," he said.

He'll likely have to come to the United States first.

******

Wiggins has made a splash in international competition, but permanent play in the U.S. appears to still be another year away.

Wiggins was primed to make the jump to the United States this season to play at Creedmoor (N.C.) Christian Faith Center Academy (where Russell is now head coach and associate athletic director). However, after careful consideration, the Wiggins' family temporarily went against the grain when they recently decided that having Andrew stay in Toronto (where he'll attend Vaughan Secondary School) for at least another year was in his best interests.

"My dad wants me to make sure I don't go to the States until I'm ready," Wiggins said. "He says I'll be more ready after I turn 16, so that's probably when I'll go. Canada doesn't have as much competition obviously, but my dad helps me with training and I'll have all my family around me for another year so it'll be nice."

The move southward is all but inevitable for most top-tier Canadian athletes eager to both prove their mettle and to catch the eye of NCAA recruiters.

"You can dominate in Canada, but the true litmus test doesn't come until you do it in America," Russell said. "You get more exposure and more validity being a top prospect in the U.S. When you have Canadian prospects that are that caliber of player, they basically have to [attend high school in the U.S.] because they won't get the development and competition they need up in Canada."

Or the exposure.

Where Sid 'The Kid' Crosby was causing a salivation pandemic across Canada soon after he learned to lace his own skates, Wiggins is still largely unknown even in Toronto. He'd be all but obscure if a short video clip - showing a high-flying 13-year-old Wiggins annihilating his competition - hadn't made the viral rounds last year.

"If it wasn't for that video, he probably would have virtually no exposure outside of Canada," Russell said. "Even in Canada, you don't get any press. There's a huge difference in how they market and expose top athletes [in hockey] as opposed to basketball."

His talent is undisputed but his age, Wiggins insists, is all but irrelevant.

"At the top level, there are a lot of great players that are different ages," Wiggins said. "Just because I'm 15 doesn't mean I don't have to work as hard as the older guys and I think just because you're younger doesn't mean you can't try to be just as good as older players."

Of course, he hasn't always been quite so matter-of-fact about battling against more experienced opponents. Wiggins was initially tentative when Russell first nudged the then 13-year-old wunderkind into action with the 16U and 17U Grassroots Canada teams.

"He was kind of nervous and wasn't really sure if he wanted to play with the big boys," Russell recalled. "But his confidence has grown so much. Now he relishes playing against the high-caliber elite players. He wants to play against the top talent."

******

Wiggins already has shown he can compete with the best.

At the U17 World Championship in July, the soft-spoken Wiggins averaged 8.1 points and 3.2 rebounds in helping Canada to the bronze medal. Along the way, he rang up 20 points against a USA team laden with high-profile seniors such as Rivals No. 1 Mike Gilchrist of Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick, No. 6 Bradley Beal of St. Louis (Mo.) Chaminade and No. 7 James McAdoo of Norfolk (Va.) Norfolk Christian.

"He's way past where I was at that [age] by far," said 17-year-old Canadian teammate Anthony Bennett, a 2012 prospect being courted by the likes of Duke and Connecticut. "He's good. He rarely makes mistakes but if he does, he makes up for it on the other end. If he keeps working at it, I really think he can make it."

By "it," Bennett means the NBA. But while Wiggins is well ahead of most players his age, a lot can happen in the four years between now and when he becomes age-eligible for the NBA.

Just ask Jeremy Tyler.

In 2008, Tyler was Rivals' top-ranked prospect for the class of 2010 with some armchair experts already penciling him in as the top pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Two years later, Tyler is a high-school dropout waiting to turn 19 while he wanders the wilderness of international basketball, having gone from can't-miss success story to apprehensive cautionary tale. Camp Wiggins is determined to ensure Andrew doesn't suffer a similar fate.

"It's always tough when a kid that age is touted to be something special because it's hard to live up to that billing and it puts a lot of added pressure on their shoulders," Rana said. "He's got a long way to go but he is a great kid, he's got great character, a good work ethic, he's very coachable and he's got a great family support system so I'm really optimistic. All the indications are that he's going to continue to get better and hopefully fulfill all that potential."

The effort to keep Wiggins anchored starts with his parents, Mitchell Wiggins and Marita Payne-Wiggins, who met while both were standout athletes at Florida State. Marita was a two-time silver medalist for Canada at the 1984 Summer Olympics while Mitchell spent six years with the Bulls, Rockets and 76ers - and several more seasons playing in Greece, France and the Philippines - but his NBA career was effectively derailed in 1987 when he failed a drug test and was hit with a two-year suspension.

Mitchell Wiggins is now the primary guardian of his son's fledgling career, offering Andrew steady guidance about basketball and life in an effort to help his son succeed on the court while avoiding some of his mistakes away from it.

"He's just being a father," Russell - a long-time family acquaintance - says. "He's a basketball guy and he knows his way around the game because he's been there and done that. He just wants what's best for his son."

******

Beneath the panting superlatives and feverish analysis of 'talent,' 'potential' and 'upside' is a 15-year-old kid susceptible to homesickness who listens to Styles P on his iPod before games and roots 'sometimes' for his hometown Toronto Raptors but is more partial to cheering for his favorite player, Kevin Durant.

On the surface, he's not much different than your average teenager. He likes listening to music and hanging out with friends. He carries himself with quiet confidence even though his eyes occasionally confide Bambi-on-ice wonderment. He smiles shyly when someone pays him a compliment and he measures his words like he's being charged by the syllable.

"You kind of forget how young he is because he's so good," Russell said. "You take for granted what these elite players have to go through every day with all the pressure and expectations. He's still a homebody, still very much a mama's boy, and I think his family just doesn't want to get caught up in the hype and jump into that realm until Andrew is ready."

On the court, Wiggins certainly appears capable. He had a strong showing at the recent Nike Global Challenge, averaging 8.3 points and 4.6 rebounds a game against some of the top NCAA recruits around. But between flashes of brilliance - including an emphatic dunk that put the exclamation point on Canada's win over France in the third-place game - it was clear that he is still a work-in-progress.

"From a skill set perspective, he's got a lot of work to do," Rana said. "He needs to get stronger, his jump shot needs to improve and he needs to work on his ball-handling, but if he continues to improve I think the sky's the limit for him."

Wiggins isn't in any particular hurry to test those limits. The freshman phenom knows the scholarship offers - if not the hyperventilated NBA prognostications - will inevitably come. And, in due course, he'll be ready to meet them head-on.

"It's a long time away," Wiggins said. "I still have a lot of developing to do. I still have a lot to learn."

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