Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves bosses bond over

MINNEAPOLIS—The first time Gersson Rosas met Andrew Wiggins after taking over as Timberwolves president, Rosas immediately went to pick up Wiggins’ daughter, Amyah. Wiggins wasn’t sure how the interaction would go.

“She lets people pick her up, but … she’s better with women,” Wiggins said. “With guys, she’s more skeptical.”

Not knowing this, Rosas charged ahead. Wiggins watched closely. Amyah seemed OK. No crying or anything. A success.

“Gersson just picked her right up and she was cool with it,” said Wiggins, the Thornhill native.

When recalling that moment recently, Rosas couldn’t help but crack up.

“I got a lot of credibility from him off of that,” Rosas said.

The relationship has grown from there.

When Rosas took over, he made it clear what he and coach Ryan Saunders expected of Wiggins. Over and over again, interview after interview they would say the team needed more from a player on a maximum contract. Meanwhile, off-court chatter often focused on whether the Wolves would try to find a trade partner — anyone, even at a cost — to take Wiggins off their hands.

Instead, the Wolves seem to have managed to make an even better trade: The old Wiggins for the new one — a player who early this season is averaging career-highs in points, assists, rebounds and three-point attempts, as well as several key efficiency markers.

Getting Wiggins to buy in to what they were selling and getting him to revamp his game was going to be harder than just simply telling him to take fewer mid-range jump shots. They had to connect with Wiggins. From his years as an assistant coach, Saunders already had a strong foundation with Wiggins, but now he was the head coach and had to hold Wiggins to account. Rosas, who has three-year-old twins, had to forge a relationship. All three made their connection stronger since the spring.

They did it by sharing their bond as fathers.

“It’s definitely something that has helped all of our relationships,” Saunders said, “when you have a common interest that is family.”

Saunders was one of the first people Wiggins told when he and his girlfriend, former Notre Dame basketball player Mychal Johnson, were expecting their first child, Amyah, who was born in October 2018. Less than a year later, Wiggins was one of the first people Saunders told when he and his wife, Hayley, were expecting their first, Lucas, born in June.

It put the 24-year-old Wiggins in the position of being able to pass on some advice to Saunders on how to handle that first year.

His biggest piece of advice: get something called a Doona.

“It’s like a car seat-stroller, all in one,” Wiggins said. “It’s a life saver, and he tells me he uses it every day.”

Said Saunders: “It’s unbelievable. Have you Googled it? … I’ve gotten more compliments and comments when I take it out. Andrew did help me with that.”

The other helpful hint Wiggins gave Saunders was how to manage his sleep. Basically, Saunders said, Wiggins told him there’s nothing you can do about it.

“He just says, ‘Oh it gets better,’” Saunders said. “And the teething. We do, we talk about all that. It is pretty cool when you think about it that you can share those moments with somebody that you do care about.”

Wiggins and Saunders have done that for each other the majority of the time they have been here. Wiggins said they became close during Saunders’ second year. That was the year Flip Saunders — Ryan’s dad and Wiggins’ rookie-year coach — died just before the season started, in October 2015.

“As a young guy, you talk to the assistant coach,” Wiggins said. “Sometimes you’re not going to want to go straight to the head coach, but you want to talk to the assistant coach and Ryan was that guy for me. He’d always sit down, listen to me. Always check up on me.

“I trust Ryan. I’ve been with Ryan for a long time. Ryan has helped me through a lot — a whole six years here. He’s helped me a lot.”

Saunders said there were a lot of late nights and extra hours spent in the gym from the start. That helped them grow closer, especially before and after Flip’s death.

“We spent a lot of time together,” Saunders said. “You can’t help but build a relationship. But trust has to go both ways too and that developed over time.”

That’s what Rosas had to do upon taking the job — build trust with Wiggins and the rest of the team. To do that, he wanted to connect with Wiggins on a personal level before trying to convince him to revamp how he plays in the effort to become more efficient.

“I’ve been a longtime believer in relationships, and it doesn’t mean things are always rah-rah,” Rosas said. “My belief is rules without relationship equals rebellion. If you don’t have a relationship, it’s hard for players to believe in what you value because they’re not going to understand the value that they bring.”

Rosas has tried to build a familial atmosphere around the Wolves, encouraging players to bring their families around when they feel like it. Right away, Rosas saw how much fatherhood means to Wiggins.

“I have not seen him more excited about anything in life than his child,” Rosas said. “The glow in his eyes, his response — when he is with his daughter and with his girlfriend, it’s like a totally different guy. It’s awesome to watch because you see him come alive.”

With twins at home, Rosas said it was “natural” for him to want to bond with not just Wiggins but his young daughter. So during that initial meeting, that’s why Rosas went in to pick her up and spent time just chatting with everybody.

“I think when (Wiggins) saw that, it really lowered the guard that this is not just business,” Rosas said. “This is just not a transaction. This is a relationship, and it’s a personal bond that I care about him and I care about his family and I want him to be successful for himself and for them.”

It seemed to have the intended effect.

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“He was very straightforward and he’s not really the type of guy to beat around the bush or anything like that. And when I met him, he was great …” Wiggins said. “Now whenever we see each other, we always ask about our kids.”

Eventually there would have to be some basketball talk, and there was on multiple occasions. One of the most notable chats Rosas, Wiggins and Saunders had was on a team trip to the Bahamas, where they got a table in a jazz lounge and started drinking wine — much to the chagrin of the mothers taking care of the children back home.

Rosas said the chat was about “50-50” family talk and basketball.

“He felt so comfortable in that environment and he was very open,” Rosas said. “He said, ‘Hey, I care about this organization. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I want to be successful here. I want our organization to be successful.’ When he opened that door, it was the opportunity Ryan and I needed to say, OK, well if we’re aligned in terms of our goals and objectives, these are the things that not only you and this whole roster has to do.”

So now they could bring up ideas such as effective field-goal percentage, eliminating mid-range jump shots, taking more threes and taking the ball to the basket, how to operate in this new style of play in order to maximize both personal and team success. It was all on the table. But it didn’t come in the form of a directive, Wiggins said.

“They just said, ‘Try. We want you to try,’” Wiggins said. “They know when someone is playing some way for a long time, it’s hard to change but I have a willingness to try — because I trust those guys. They said they could help me a lot.”

Added Saunders: “Gersson has a way of presenting information that it can’t help but make you believe. … I think that was a good way of framing it.”

The changes were evident from the beginning of the season. Wiggins is driving more, he is taking more threes, he has become a primary ballhandler and he has cut back on those cringeworthy long twos. This year, 59.3 per cent of his field goal attempts have come either at the rim or from three-point range, up from 48 per cent in his first five seasons. As a result, his effective field-goal percentage (which takes into account that threes are worth more than twos) is a career-best .507.

He’s a big reason the Wolves were above .500 for most of the early part of the season and remain on the fringes of the top eight in the Western Conference even after a just-completed 0-4 road trip.

His numbers might fluctuate, but how Wiggins is arriving at them isn’t. He is striving to be a more efficient player. Some nights he succeeds better than others. It helps that he is having fun playing basketball again.

A wide smile is one of Wiggins’ most notable features. It comes out more frequently now, especially around his daughter.

Centre Gorgui Dieng is Wiggins’ longest-tenured teammate. The change is evident to him.

“Wiggs is a very laid-back person. Very cool. Doesn’t talk much. But you can tell he has a happy family,” Dieng said. “He’s smiling all the time when he’s with his daughter. I think that says a lot about him. He’s just a great person.”

Wiggins has been happy to share that joy with Saunders in their chats about fatherhood.

“I told him what a blessing it is,” Wiggins said. “It’s a lot of work, and we have amazing girlfriends and wives. They do a lot of the work and a lot of the sacrifice.”

In Wiggins’ case, Johnson also helps with the basketball from time to time and will have some conversations with Saunders about hoops, not just their families.

“She has been a great support to him and I know she pushes him,” Saunders said. “Obviously having a daughter, it changes your outlook on a lot of things and he’s getting better and better.”

The credit for that largely goes to Wiggins, Rosas said.

“Ryan has put him in a position to be successful. I’ve supported him as much as I can, but at the end of the day, he has to do it and he has to believe in it and buy into it,” Rosas said.

That turned out to be possible thanks to family.

TORONTO STAR