LAWRENCE, Kan. — The story that will accompany Andrew Wiggins’ first game at Kansas, an impromptu exhibition during coach Bill Self’s summer camp, has already taken on a decidedly Paul Bunyan-esque quality.
Those who were in the gym last week, and the thousands of people who have seen video of the game, know the real story. But when is reality as much fun as folklore? And the play Wiggins made in the first couple of minutes, against current and former Jayhawks, lends itself to a tall tale.
What’s fact is that Wiggins, the top high school prospect in the country, the odds-on No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft — the next LeBron James, as he’s been called — found himself in the open court with the ball in his hands and only NBA center Cole Aldrich standing in his way.
From there, the folk-hero version goes like this: Wiggins elevated from beyond the 3-point arc, posed midair for a couple of photos, autographed the ball and then slammed it down.
The truth: Aldrich stepped aside and watched as Wiggins effortlessly dunked it.
Either way, the play was enough to send Jayhawks fans into a tizzy, light up Internet message boards and burnish the almost mythical aura that already accompanies the 6-foot-7 swingman.
“I let loose of all my nerves,” Wiggins said afterward, “so I felt good after that dunk. I just let my game come to me. That’s what happened. That’s what the fans wanted to see.”
They’ll want to see plenty more of it this season.
Wiggins is arguably the most talented player to arrive in Kansas since Danny Manning in the ’80s, and Self wonders whether anybody has created as much hysteria since Wilt Chamberlain.
He has prototypical NBA size and athletic ability, a game already far more advanced than that of his peers, and an uncanny ability to make the most difficult plays seem pedestrian. He also has the unmistakable swagger, modest though he may be, of a player who simply knows that he’s good.
It’s little surprise that autograph seekers already have descended on Lawrence, hoping to snag Wiggins’ John Hancock on a ball or a photo four months before his first real game.
“It’s kind of weird to me because we’ve recruited other good players before, but we’ve never had anybody with this kind of attention,” Self said. “I kind of feel for him. He’s going to have to be able to tell people no, and we have to make it easier for him.”
Good luck with that.
There are only a handful of college basketball programs in the country that can rival Kansas for pure passion, not to mention history or success. There are five banners hanging in the end zone of Allen Fieldhouse to represent the Jayhawks’ national championships, and dozens more herald more modest triumphs such as conference titles. Students often camp out for days in advance of a big game, and the raucous environment is one of the most intimidating in college sports.
It was the environment that in part helped convince Wiggins to pick Kansas over a list of suitors that included North Carolina and Kentucky, a couple more tradition-drenched blue bloods.
“Everyone here is really loving, friendly, so it’s good,” Wiggins said. “I’m getting to know people. They’ve been showing me around, so I’ve been comfortable.”
Wiggins’ comfort level could be critical to the Jayhawks’ success this season.
They lost all five starters from last year’s team to graduation or the draft, and return just a couple of reserves who played meaningful minutes. Self restocked with a recruiting class that included five-star recruit Wayne Selden and several other high-profile targets, but the low-key announcement that Wiggins would join them stole every headline across the state.
It also turned some heads in the Big 12.
“He brings so much athleticism to any place he plays,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who often saw Wiggins play just up the road from Morgantown at Huntington Prep last season. “When everybody says you’re the best player in the country, you’re obviously pretty good.”
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said Wiggins was “as advertised,” while Texas coach Rick Barnes let slip that even as a ninth-grader, the lanky forward’s game resembled that of Kevin Durant.
“Believe the hype. He’s that good a player, a special player,” Barnes said. “I think it speaks volumes about our league with the kind of players we’ve had come in through the years. He’s another one. He is a terrific, terrific talent and a very, very special player.”
Evidently, rival coaches aren’t afraid to build upon Wiggins’ near-superhero status.
Self has been busy trying to tamp down those out-of-this-world expectations, pointing out whenever possible that Wiggins is just a freshman. But while he argues that
Wiggins is “going to go through ups and downs like everybody else” in one breath, he adds in the next that “he’s as talented as any player in the country, because from a raw athletic ability standpoint, he can do some things that I’ve never had a player be able to do physically.”
So far, Wiggins has handled the attention with aplomb.
He refused to make his signing news conference into a televised event.
He’s often said that he prefers to keep a close inner circle of friends and family — his brother, Nick Wiggins, plays just down the road at Wichita State. And he comes off as unfailingly polite and quietly unassuming when a camera is stuck in his face, answering questions directly and succinctly.
When asked whether all the expectations might be too much, Wiggins just shakes his head.
“It’s an experience I can enjoy,” he said. “A lot of former players always say that college was their greatest basketball experience, all the fans and going to school and being on campus. It’s just a great vibe. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
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