For all the frustration Andrew Wiggins has caused multiple Minnesota Timberwolves coaches and their fanbase since he was drafted in 2014, this season has been the best of his career so far.
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The team has faced a number of challenges - injuries to team leaders Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins - and this has resulted in a disappointing record. With no Golden State Warriors in the mix this season, many in Minnesota had hoped it would open up a playoff spot for the Timberwolves, but so far it has been a frustrating season.
There are signs of hope: Rookie Jarrett Culver is on six straight games of double-digit scoring, Robert Covington is looking healthy and scary defensively, and the aforementioned health struggles.
Towns is set to return this week and despite his name featuring in trade rumours, it's highly unlikely the Timberwolves will come close to sending away the franchise's best player since Kevin Garnett.
His appearance on the roster will help a team that is currently 15-22, especially as the team's remaining schedule this season is the second toughest in the NBA, according to Tankathon.com.
Wiggins only returned three games ago, and he has improved with each one. Against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday, he scored 23 points and dished out eight assists against a key team in the same battle for that eighth spot in the playoffs.
While missing six games so far this season, the small forward has shown that he is improving in line with the rather large and controversial five-year maximum salary he signed ahead of last season. Averages of 24 points, five rebounds and three assists are all up this year, but nobody ever questioned Wiggins' ability to put up those numbers when he looked Timberwolves' owner Glen Taylor in the eye and promised to get better before signing the contract.
The only part of Wiggins that has come under scrutiny is consistency, but so far this season that has not been an issue. Last year, his highest scoring output was 40 points when he played 37 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His worst performance came against the Chicago Bulls - not exactly a defensive powerhouse - when he went 0 of 12 to score 0 points in 28 minutes.
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In 2019-20 so far, the forward has matched last year's single-game points total of 40, but he is yet to score fewer than 15.
Minnesota will need a big game out of Wiggins on Saturday. The Timberwolves have the 22nd worst offense in the league so far this season, which is not unexpected given that the team's two highest scorers have missed a combined 19 games, but their defense is only middle of the road. Meanwhile, they will be going up against the second best offense in the NBA: the Houston Rockets.
Led by James Harden, the Rockets have one of the greatest single offensive weapons in the history of basketball. The plays, 103 possession per game, good for second in the NBA, and scores 118 points, 38 of which come from one player.
However, good defensive teams have been able to figure Harden out in recent weeks. Many have had success sending two players at Harden as he brings the ball up the floor, and then relying on the three remaining defenders to guard Houston's four offensive players.
The Timberwolves have a few options to challenge Harden. Robert Covington might be the best one-on-one defender in the league, Treveon Graham is growing into becoming a strong defensive player, and Josh Okogie is another good option. However, when these teams last played in November, the likes of Graham, Covington and even Jake Layman all had stints guarding Harden by themselves, and the Rocket scored 49.
Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders will not want a repeat of that 20-point loss, so his team will need a change of tactic on the defensive end. But one thing Minnesota didn't have in their last contest against Houston was Wiggins.
Since returning from injury, the Canadian had two games scoring 15 points and one of 23. It is often considered a dangerous time in the first few games back from injury for any player, but if the Timberwolves want to keep their playoff hopes alive, the time for Wiggins to be hesitant is over.
Without Towns for a few more games, the team needs someone to push the ball, create plays and keep the scoreboard ticking. They will need strong, consistent play throughout these games from Wiggins if Minnesota stands a chance of keeping playoff hopes alive.
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