Inside the process of Aaron Wiggins’ decision to stay in the NBA Draft

Fly, check-in, rest, eat, watch basketball, sleep, COVID-19 testing, workout, play basketball, run to the airport, repeat.

The past three weeks have been a blur for Maryland wingman Aaron Wiggins. Save for the COVID-19 testing, and it’s a routine he has dreamed of as a child.

“It’s always been a dream to become an NBA basketball player,” Wiggins told Empire Sports Media on Wednesday before he was picked up by a Phoenix Suns staff to take him to his eighth NBA pre-Draft workout.

Aside from the Suns, Wiggins has already worked out with the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets and the Toronto Raptors. Michael Whitaker of Next Sports told Empire Sports Media that his client is scheduled to have nine more workouts before the NBA Draft on July 29.

Usually, the pre-draft workout he attended has about six prospects go on through drills and scrimmages. Depending on the team, they usually take them out to dinner the night before the workout. If not, he settles with room service back in the hotel.

Wiggins announced on Tuesday that he would forego his remaining college eligibility to try his luck in this year’s NBA Draft. While he could have returned to a stronger Maryland team with a reloaded roster ready to go on a deep run in the NCAA tournament next year, Wiggins felt it was the right time to make the big jump.

“I just really went with my gut [feel],” Wiggins said. “I made the decision, and I’m happy with the decision I made. My family has my back. My coach (Mark Turgeon) understands, and I thought the time was right.”

The positive feedback he received in those workouts and his strong showing in both the G League Elite Camp and the Draft Combine have factored into his decision. He sought advice from his friend and high school teammate Jaylen Hoard (Oklahoma City’s two-way player) and former Terrapins Kevin Huerter and Bruno Fernando, who play for the Hawks. Then he sat down with his parents, listened to his adviser, and talked to his college coach.

“I’ve got different perspectives and opinions on the entire process, so I think I’ve done a pretty good job of handling all of it. I appreciate all those advice,” Wiggins said.

The 22-year old guard finished his junior season with the Terrapins on a strong note, averaging 18.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game, and shot 40.3% from three-point range over his final 10 games. He saved his best for last when he exploded for a career-high 27 points against Alabama in the second round of the NCAA tournament. In that game, he showcased his full package hitting 11 of 17 shots, including 5 of 8 from deep aside from collecting six rebounds, three assists, and two steals.

Wiggin’s game is as diverse as his personality.

“He’s very talented,” Keith Gatlin, Wiggins’ high school coach, said in a phone interview. “He did acting and he was in the choir. [Aaron] was a very diverse young man.”

Serena Wiggins, a high school teacher, made sure Aaron and his four siblings grew up well-rounded. All of Serena’s kids played at least two instruments. A young Aaron Wiggins took piano and trombone.

But basketball remained a big part of his childhood despite having other extra-curricular activities.

“I have been playing basketball since I can hold a basketball,” Wiggins said.

He grew up idolizing the late Kobe Bryant though he never met him in person. Inspired by Bryant’s scoring instincts and forged by his musical and acting activities, showmanship and performing on the big stage became second nature to him. 

In his final two years in high school, Wiggins played in the state championship with Wesleyan Christian Academy after his transfer from Grimsley High. He was named to the All-State selection and capped off his senior year with a co-MVP trophy in the SC30 Selected Showcase, the Stephen Curry-branded all-star event in California featuring some of the country’s best juniors and seniors. Wiggins went 6-for-10 from 3-point range, scoring 20 points to help his team to a blowout win.

“I didn’t realize that [NBA] was a goal that I can really reach until maybe in high school when I started to get Division I offers,” Wiggins said.

By the time he transferred to Wesleyan from Grimsley, he was already a 6-5 guard. Gatlin, who was the all-time assists leader in Maryland playing alongside the late Len Bias, knew from the start that Wiggins has the makings of an NBA player.

“When I first got him, he had NBA size, and he can shoot it. I thought he has a prototypical body of an NBA player,” Gatlin said. “He was already skilled.”

What convinced Gatlin that Wiggins is made for the NBA was a summer workout with former Knick Dennis Smith, Jr. and his former Wesleyan players — current Knick Theo Pinson and Montay Brandon, who played for Florida State.

“You knew right there once he got the strength and the speed of the game that he’s going to be a really elite player,” Gatlin said of Wiggins.

But what separated Wiggins from his peers is his great character which led to his basketball rise.

“He worked hard on his game and in the weight room. He just put in the work with his ball-handling and shooting,” Gatlin said. “What I liked most about him is he has the desire to get better.”

A four-star recruit in Maryland, Wiggins was a starter from Day One until Turgeon decided to switch him up with Eric Ayala that paid huge dividends. He ended the season as the top reserve averaging 8.3 points, and shot 41 percent of his 3s in 23.5 minutes. In the following season, he was named the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 10.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in the Terrapins’ Big Ten title run.

A player of lesser character would have taken the demotion differently. But Wiggins accepted it and embraced the role.

“It worked out pretty well because I ended up winning the Sixth Man of the Year, and we ended up the Big Ten champions. It worked out well for the greater good of the team,” Wiggins said. “I understood that it’s for the betterment of the team.”

That right mindset is what he intends to bring to the next level, knowing that he will need to work his way up again.

“I’m a guy that accepts the role that makes the team better. Whatever is necessary for the team. Whatever the coach believes, I am willing to be that guy and step into that role. I’m a guy who listens and does everything the right way,” he said.

Last season, Wiggins graduated from his bench role and returned to the Terrapins’ starting lineup. He was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Ayala. He averaged 14.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.1 steals while shooting 36 percent from deep on a 25.3 percent usage rate.

As the season went deep, Wiggins emerged as the Terrapins’ best player.

“It was definitely a factor for me in stepping foot and going through the process. I think I finish really strongly, and I’ve earned the opportunity to be able to go into the whole deal,” Wiggins said.

Like his high school and college trajectory, Wiggins gradually improved his draft stock from the G League Elite Camp to the Draft Combine. His strong play has generated buzz among scouts and league executives who watched him in the scrimmages.

Needles to say, the feedback he received was so good that emboldened him to decide to keep his name in the Draft.

“Teams have liked me. They love my athleticism, my ability to guard on the defensive end, and everything I bring on offense. They really seem to like what I can bring to their team regarding my positive energy and my talent. I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback and great information,” Wiggins said.

He is also scheduled to attend the massive workout to be co-hosted by the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves this weekend with the same mission.

“My goal is to just continue to prove to the teams that I have a lot more to offer than just what they were able to see when I was with the University of Maryland. I think I was just labeled as a sharpshooter, as a one-dimensional type of player,” Wiggins said.

In between pre-Draft workouts, he squeezes in a packed training schedule in Maryland, which includes watching and breaking down films of his past games and continue to polish his all-around game. On the court, h said his main focus is on improving his ball-handling, his ability to come off ball-screens and make the right reads, whether to create a shot for himself or make a play for his teammates and his shooting. He also keeps tabs on the NBA playoffs to choose and pick some stuff he wants to add to his game.

While Wiggins is one of the older guys in the Draft, Gatlin believes that will work to his former star’s advantage.

“I think he can go as far as he wants to go. He has the right mindset, and he’s determined,” said Gatlin, who is now an assistant coach for the High Point Panthers. “Aaron is just a driven and strongly-minded young man.”

Wiggins projects to be a two-way wing in the pros with his size. He measured at 6-foot-5 with shoes and has a 6-foot-9 wingspan at the Combine and recorded the fourth-fastest shuttle run (3 seconds) and sixth-fastest three-quarter sprint (3.04 seconds).

“Hundred percent [I fit the 3-and-D mold],” Wiggins said. “I think I have the ability to really shoot the ball well on the offensive end and with my athleticism and my creativity to get my own shots. And on the defensive end, I can guard multiple positions with my length and athleticism, footwork, and speed.”

His biggest takeaway from the whole pre-Draft process?

“You gotta be ready to play every single game. You gotta have the mindset of really go out and compete and play your hardest. That’s something that I’ve done my entire life,” Wiggins said.

It’s a routine that he’s enjoying a lot. Wiggins hopes it stays the same until after July 29.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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