NEW YORK — Barclays Center seems to agree with Andrew Wiggins.
The first time he was here, back in June, the Cleveland Cavaliers made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft and, just as important, he earned top marks in the unofficial rookie fashion show. For his second trip, in November, after the blockbuster trade that made him a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, he scored 17 points on 12 shots and grabbed four rebounds in a road win over the Brooklyn Nets.
And now, in his third visit, he won the first Most Valuable Player award of a career that gets brighter by the day.
Wiggins scored 22 points in 23 minutes on 8-for-11 shooting, adding six rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal to lead the World team to a 121-112 win over the USA in Friday's rebooted international incident of a Rising Stars Challenge. After receiving his MVP trophy from TNT's Rachel Nichols — a trophy that his Timberwolves teammate-turned-Friday night adversary Zach LaVine dutifully polished to begin their shared postgame media availability — Wiggins made a point of shouting out his home and native land:
Wiggins took top honors in a breezy but balanced contest that saw 13 first- and second-year players score in double figures, thanks in large part to impressive finishes like this finish of a long-distance alley-oop from Atlanta Hawks point guard Dennis Schröder:
... and this nice-and-easy reverse 360 throwdown on the break:
For quite a while, though, his Wolves teammate LaVine matched him step for step, sending a charge through the somewhat laconic Barclays crowd by throwing this slick yo-yo-style cut dribble in the paint and finishing with a flourish:
"In practice, you know, we go at each other just the same we did out there," said LaVine, who tied Victor Oladipo for the U.S. team lead with 22 points, hitting nine of his 11 attempts, including a pair of triples, to go with four rebounds, two assists and a steal in 21 minutes. "One day, he might have — if we scrimmage, he might have 20; one day I might have 20 [...] It goes up and down like that. But we compete like we did out there in practice every day."
LaVine's weekend is just getting started, as he'll be back under the bright lights on Saturday night to compete in the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest. According to Wiggins, we should be ready for something special.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
"You guys are in for a surprise. Trust me — it's going to be crazy," he said, smiling ear to ear. "I can't say nothing [about what LaVine's got planned]. Just know: I almost fainted. I never seen a dunk like that. I've never witnessed it live before in my life."
No pressure, Zach.
U.S. forward Shabazz Muhammad (10 points, five rebounds, one assist, one block) and World center Gorgui Dieng (14 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals, one block) also acquitted themselves well on a night that indicated just how much young talent Flip Saunders and company have to work with in Minneapolis.
"Me and Zach, Shabazz, AB [Anthony Bennett] and Gorgui, Glenn [Robinson III], we're growing better every day," Wiggins said after the game. "We're getting better as a unit every day."
"It just shows the future [...] It shows us rising."
"Rising" was, of course, the order of the day in a game typically dominated by alley-oop flushes and unmolested drives through the paint. One player who didn't get the "no defense" memo, though, was Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
[Slideshow: Best photos from the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game]
The 7-foot-2 Frenchman has made a name for himself in the early stages of this season as a shot-swatting menace. (It's a pretty great name, too: "The Stifle Tower.") He brought his penchant for rim protection to bear on Friday, much to the chagrin of Philadelphia 76ers big man Nerlens Noel, before turning defense into offense:
... and even, at one point in the early going, doing it all himself by taking the ball the length of the floor for a slam:
Clearly, everybody else did get the no-defense memo.
LaVine and Jazz point guard Trey Burke kept the U.S. in it during the final few minutes, but the World pulled away late thanks to strong play from Wiggins and Gobert. They sealed the deal by grabbing a loose ball after Gobert blocked an attempt by Nets big man Mason Plumlee, racing down the court and hammering home a surprisingly heavy dunk past the day-late-and-dollar-short defense of the Detroit Pistons' Kentavious Caldwell-Pope:
Chicago Bulls power forward Nikola Mirotic chipped in 16 points and made four of six 3-pointers for the World. Nets swingman Bojan Bogdanovic added 16 points in 17 1/2 minutes on his home court. Burke finished with 17 points and four assists for the U.S.
In the end, though, Barclays belonged to Wiggins, the young Wolf who's slowly but surely learning how to hunt for himself, and who made a major impression on the two mean coaching on Friday night.
"What a fantastic talent," said Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Kenny Atkinson, who led the World team. "He's so versatile. Athletic, obviously. Can shoot. I mean, he has a world of talent, and it's exciting. When you coach an athlete like that, a first pick, it's like, 'Wow.' [...] You know, we're in the NBA every day, and we see a lot of talented players. But sometimes you can see the guys that really can surprise you. And he's one of those guys."
"I think we've got rearrange this game," said Alvin Gentry of the Golden State Warriors, who coached Team USA. "I think it should be North American against the World. Then that way, we get Canada. If we get Canada, we have Wiggins on our team."
2015 NBA All-Star Game coverage from Yahoo Sports:
- - - - - - -