HUNTINGTON, W.Va. --- In the summer of 2002, I was among the slew of reporters who descended upon Sonny Vaccaro’s ABCD Camp in North Jersey to cover a news conference staged for a teenage basketball player who was not playing. As hundreds of college basketball coaches evaluated talented prospects from across the nation, LeBron James, a rising high school senior sidelined by injury, told us all in that news conference what it meant to be LeBron James.
Asked where he got his “King James” shirt, he said, “God gave it to me.” Asked how he would handle not being an immediate star in the NBA, he and his mom scoffed. Added James: “I’m not amazed by y’all. I’m amazed by myself.”
Andrew Wiggins is the anti-LeBron.
After spending a few days with Wiggins at Huntington Prep and the 5,000-square-foot house he calls home until he graduates early in spring of 2013, this much is evident: In an industry marred by hyperbole and over-the-top bravado, here’s a 17-year-old who has no idea how good he is.
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Wiggins, a junior arguably as talented as any high school prospect the past five years, has decided to reclassify and play college basketball in the 2013-14 season. He will be a welcome addition to the college game, if only for one season.
In terms of demeanor, the 6-foot-8 small forward comes across as a mix of Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, two guys who let their games speak loudest. Wiggins admires Durant not just because he is an irrepressible offensive force, but also because he is averse to the spotlight and doesn’t embrace all the trappings of stardom. “He is very humble,” Wiggins said. “Not the loudest guy, but on the court he shows he is special.”
In an age when families of top prospects often orchestrate how a list of “finalist schools” will be released to the media, Wiggins didn’t even know all the schools recruiting him, much less have a formal list of finalists. “Whoever wants to recruit me can recruit me,” he said. “I’ll look into them.”
When Wiggins finally decides on a college, his high school coach Rob Fulford said that he wouldn’t be surprised if Wiggins simply sent him a brief text message with the choice. And if demand was too great not to stage a news conference, he believes Wiggins may simply stand in front of the camera, say the school name, drop the microphone and walk away.
One of the best influences on Wiggins is his girlfriend, Mychal Johnson, a highly regarded basketball prospect in her own right. Johnson told me one of the reasons she likes Wiggins so much is because he is unassuming.
“There are some people, they are good but not at as high a level as he is, and you can tell that they really love themselves,” Johnson said. “When I first met him, he was so shy and humble I didn’t know people were actually like that when they are as good as he is.”
Make no mistake, Wiggins is supremely confident in his ability – he told me he solidified his reputation as the nation’s best player this summer – but it doesn’t come across as arrogance. When I asked him about how he would fare against Durant in a head-to-head matchup now, his face lit up with a genuine smile while contemplating playing one of his idols. No LeBron-like scoff.
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“Obviously he’s the man,” Wiggins said. “He will get his. I think I’ll get a couple buckets.”
Wiggins’ father, Mitchell, told me his son gets those characteristics from Andrew’s mom, Marita Payne-Wiggins, a quiet former track athlete who won two Olympic silver medals for Canada in 1984.
“Andrew is very comfortable in who he is,” said Mitchell Wiggins, who played in the NBA and overseas.
Andrew Wiggins said he also followed his dad’s advice about staying grounded and humble. Mitchell Wiggins endured a turbulent professional career. In 1987, at the age of 27, he was banned from the NBA for 2 ½ years for using cocaine.
“Through my ups and downs,” Mitchell Wiggins said, “he is very proud of his dad because I came out on the other side.”
As Evan Daniels, the national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, told me, Wiggins needs to get stronger, and he needs to further refine his jump shot. Those closest to Wiggins know that the biggest question is whether he will develop the work ethic to match that of players like Durant and Rose.
“He works,” Fulford told me. “He doesn’t work extra.”
Wiggins is trying to change that, even though he at times gets bored even while playing against future Division I college basketball players. His coaches have to nudge him or find various ways to motivate him. Fulford said Wiggins doesn’t grasp yet that every single person who comes to watch their team play wants to see him shine, wants to see some of the highlights that those around the Huntington Prep program rave about.
Craig Hinchman, one of the team’s host parents and a basketball fanatic, said when he watches Wiggins practice he at times has to look around him and ask, “Did you see that” There was the time when Wiggins converted such a resounding dunk in a game that it was if everything paused until one coach yelled, “It’s only two points! Keep playing!”
Dave Meddings, a Huntington Prep assistant coach, said players think he misses on purpose in practice just because he knows he can jump up so fast and high to follow up his misses with dunks before his teammates can come close to grabbing the ball.
And Luke Thomas, the 13-year-old son of Scott and Lesley Thomas – Wiggins’ host guardians – has the clearest description of Wiggins’ talents: “He does not jump. He flies.”
But if Wiggins is destined to be a top pick in the 2014 NBA draft – after he spends a year at Kentucky, Florida State or another college – he doesn’t act like it, and neither does his dad. Sure, he’ll sign autographs and elevate his game to play the best. But unlike another high school phenom a decade ago, neither Wiggins nor his family is ready to crown him just yet.
“He’s not the best athlete in the family,” Mitchell Wiggins said. “But he’s not bad.”