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Minnesota Timberwolves

The moment behind the man: Andrew Wiggins

#WiggySmile

For every draft prospect, there's a head coach who remembers the moment. The moment they knew their player would one day be playing in the NBA.

Andrew Wiggins had countless moments when he wowed crowds in Canada and the United States before becoming the second Canadian to be selected first overall in the NBA Draft, but for his high school head coach Gus Gymnopoulos there's a moment that stood above the rest.

Wiggins' Vaughan Voyageurs (now Vaughan PREP) were playing in one of Montreal's historic high school tournaments - the Sun Youth Basketball Holiday Classic, a tournament that now has over 38 years of history. For quite literally decades now, fans have packed into gyms to watch different high school stars at Sun Youth. The main attraction this particular year?

15-year-old Andrew Wiggins.

Already on the radar as a potential NBA prospect and playing in a tournament that featured players as old as 19 and 20 years old, Wiggins didn't disappoint.

Coach Gymnopoulos calls out a play to get Wiggins an open look. Wiggins was to run off two screens and hopefully end up with a wide-open look right at the rim. As Gymnopoulos looks on, his team gets through the set without any hiccups except for one small problem: Wiggins wasn't as open as he was supposed to be.

For most 15-year-olds, this might have been a problem. Keyword there? Most.

Gymnopoulos's point guard spots Wiggins barrelling towards the rim as was the play design and threw a lob towards the basket. Wiggins leaps, catches the pass, and throws down a vicious dunk over not one but two defenders. The gym erupts so loudly that the referee's whistle signalling Wiggins had been fouled wasn't heard. A one-hand snatch out of mid-air and finish over two defenders that Gymnopoulos calls "ridiculous" to this day. For many in the gym that was the moment they knew Wiggins was special. Not many 15-year-olds are throwing down alley-oops in traffic, let alone on two defenders.

But that's not the moment, at least not for Gymnopoulos.

It's what happened next that sticks in the coach's mind as that moment he knew that Wiggins was special.

After Wiggins threw down the dunk that set the gym on fire, Gymnopoulos watched on as his team had seized momentum of a hotly contested game. Zeroing in on Wiggins he realized that the young protege had no reaction. With chaos surrounding him, fans holding each other back from having to run on the court and interrupt the game - Wiggins calmly walked to the line and waited for his free throw attempt. Not a scream, didn't pound his fist on his chest - he was already on to the next play. Gymnopoulos watched Wiggins bury the ensuing free throw to complete the three-point-play and knew what he had on his hands - a special talent who would one day be playing in the world's most famous league.

"I think at that time people had a sense that he was going to make it to the NBA and do big things, I don't think there was any doubt in terms his ability to play the sport of basketball, "Gymnopoulos told NBA.com. "You know at that time he was like 14-15 years old when he was at Vaughan and he still had several years ahead of him but we all had the idea he was going to go because of the way he played the game and his athletic talent and all that stuff.

"So part of our job at that point in time with him being 15 years old was to sort of still give him a normal high school experience and still kind of treat him like the rest of the kids.

"He was so grounded that it wasn't really hard to do. He didn't have the ego like give me the ball or anything - he wanted his teammates to have as much success as he did.

"And you kind of see that as he's gone on to into his career, he's an unselfish player, he loves his teammates. He wants to win basketball games, he doesn't try to put himself out there every time he makes a basket - he doesn't show off he doesn't do any of that stuff. He just plays the game, he just wants to play the game."

Fast forward to almost ten years later and Wiggins indeed made it to the biggest basketball stage as Gymnopoulos and many others expected. But in that time, a lot has changed for the now 24-year-old who's in the midst of his sixth season in the NBA.

After his third year in the league, when he averaged 23.6 points per game, it looked as though Wiggins was getting ready to break through to the next level. But over the last couple of seasons, the Canadian has become the target for heavy criticism. His numbers took a dive, his nightly efforts were challenged and many questioned whether or not he was worth the five-year $147 million max extension he had received prior to the start of the 2017-18 season.

Despite what was happening on the outside of his circle, Wiggins remained the same within it. Having coached Wiggins, Gymnopoulos was wowed by his former player many times on the court, but it's the man off the court that he's forever impressed by.

"He hasn't changed at all. He's still that same sweet guy as pleasant as they come under difficult circumstances and he's just so gracious just a nice human being," Gymnopoulos said. "Every time you see him it's kind of like the same old Andrew...(he) just smiles, hugs you.

"Now he's a great father, family man and he just embraces everyone that surrounds him that he knows.

"I still see him and I still communicate with him often and all the circle of friends that are around him and his family and everybody that went to Vaughan - they all went to Vaughan and I know them all.

"It's pretty special when you see that from kids to men. They're all part of the same circle, you can still pick up the phone and give any one of them a call and it's a great feeling as an old coach."

A month and a half into the 2019-20 season things have changed again for Wiggins - this time for the better. He's off to a great start averaging career highs in points, assists, rebounds and field goal percentage. Gymnopoulos points to the system change in Minnesota as one of the reasons why Wiggins is once again flourishing.

The critics that were once hammering Wiggins are slowly finding ways to applaud his play. As with everything, they'll always be skeptics and on the opposite end, they'll be some who go overboard with a small sample. Andrew Wiggins is still just 24-years-old, his basketball career is far from over.

MORE: Will Wiggins sustain his hot start?

Most 24-years-olds aren't expected to be fully mature or their best selves in the real world. However, in the sports world, you don't get the benefit of that doubt. There's an argument that could be made that Wiggins is still maturing as a basketball player. He's still trying to figure out who he is on the court and maybe this season is the beginning of that. Gymnopoulos believes the best is yet to come for Wiggins on the court and that there's still All-Star potential to be fulfilled.

Off the court, however, the former coach thinks Wiggins was as close to a finished product as he could've been at a young age. All the media attention he got as a high schooler didn't faze him. All the criticism over the past few years didn't change him. He's remained a down to earth fun-loving kid at the core and regardless of how his playing career turns out, his off-court legacy will be just as important to many who look up to him as his on-court profile according to Gymnopoulos.

"I get really upset when I hear people criticize him because I know what kind of person he is. As a coach and as a father you want your children to be like him. You want your children to grow up with that mindset and mentality where you're gracious," Gymnopoulos continued.

"You can see it now, you can see how happy his teammates are when he does well. They love him. He's just got a great spirit about him.

"I know his ultimate goal is to win a championship so I think in terms of his basketball legacy there's still a lot to write. We're all excited to just watch it unfold and be a part of that journey.

"But I do think his biggest legacy after he's long been done playing this game is going to be the way that he treats others. The way that he gives back to the community. The way that he enjoys seeing kids light up...he gives them free camps and he has (kids) all the time there.

"So I think in terms of his basketball legacy that's going to unfold as it naturally does in terms of all the accolades that he's going to pile up in my opinion. But I think the way he treats people and the stuff that he does off-court is the stuff that's going to leave a lasting legacy with people, with humans.

"The unselfish nature and the giving back to the community and all that stuff that he loves."

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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