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Canadian star Wiggins shrugs off hype in first NBA game back home

03/18/2015 03:12 EDT | Updated 05/18/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - The spotlight follows Andrew Wiggins like a shadow these days.

But the 20-year-old insists he's grown accustomed to the hype and hoopla that comes with being both the NBA's No. 1 draft pick and Canada's biggest basketball star.

It's obvious in the way he's been playing.

"When you're thought of as the face of the franchise, that's a huge responsibility," said Sam Mitchell, an assistant with Minnesota.

"It's tough, especially when you're 19. He goes at his pace, he doesn't get too high, he doesn't get too low, it's amazing how he takes it. I can't tell you how he feels inside, but from what I've seen and how he reacts and how he plays, it just doesn't faze him. . . . he understands all the hoopla, but he puts it in a box and sets it to the side at 7 o'clock, and he goes out and plays."

Wiggins played his first NBA game at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday, in the Timberwolves' 105-100 loss to the Toronto Raptors. He finished with 15 points in 32 minutes, his much-anticipated appearance derailed by some early foul trouble.

Wiggins had received a warm ovation when he was introduced in Minnesota's starting lineup. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was even in attendance, posing for a pre-game photo with the young star from Vaughan, Ont.

"It's been great, from the time I landed, I went back and saw my grandma and my aunts, it was a great time for me, even seeing the Prime Minister," Wiggins said. "Not a lot of people can say they met the Prime Minister.

"He just said he's proud of us, me and AB (Anthony Bennett) both, keep doing what we're doing, keep representing Canada."

Barely a year ago, Wiggins sat courtside at the ACC as a fan to watch the Raptors battle Brooklyn in the playoffs.

"It's mind-blowing," Wiggins said, said of the events of the last year.

He's averaging 15.7 points a night and has won all four rookie of the month awards thus far, blowing away pre-season expectations of the young Canadian and putting him on pace to win rookie of the year honours — his goal for the season. He has shone in the biggest games, putting up 27 points against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him first overall only to turn around and trade him to Minnesota.

Wednesday morning, Wiggins was surrounded by more than 30 members of the media after the Timberwolves' shootaround. He wasn't flustered, evident in his wide smile.

"You get used to it," he said, on the media horde.

What has been tough to get used to is the NBA's heavy workload. Wiggins has set a goal of playing all 82 games.

"My coaches told me that's a big accomplishment, if you play 82 games your rookie year, you should be proud of that. That's what I aim to do," he said.

But it will be anything but easy in a pro season that's three times the length of his college career. He was feeling the grind post-game.

"I think it's the time of year it hits you. It's a big difference from college," Wiggins said.

Wednesday night marked Game No. 67 for Wiggins.

"Guys, he's tired," said Mitchell, who stepped in as head coach Wednesday — Flip Saunders missed the game for personal reasons. "He's learning, he's getting mentally tougher, he's learning how to push through, and that's part of the process.

"But I'm proud of his effort, I'm proud of the fact that every night, we call his number, he straps it up, he goes out and plays. He plays as hard as he can every night, a lot of times he takes the toughest perimeter offensive player without any complaints, and he just plays. But he's tired."

Wednesday, Wiggins was tasked with guarding Toronto's DeMar DeRozan, who hit a pretty fadeaway jumper over the rookie with 1:40 to play.

"(DeRozan) is a helluva player, that was a great shot, I thought I defended it pretty well, better offence at that point," Wiggins said.

Wiggins' Canadian teammate Bennett — the No. 1 draft pick in 2013 — didn't dress for the game. He's been sidelined since mid-February with an ankle injury.

"I tried to go yesterday, but it just wasn't working," said Bennett, from Brampton, Ont. "It's been disappointing not to play the whole month. . . But coming back home, a lot of family, friends, fans in Toronto, it's just always depressing."

Bennett hasn't been surprised by how well Wiggins has handled his rookie season.

"Wiggins, he's just been a real killer since I met him. That's way back, Team Canada, AAU (Amateur Athletic Union youth league)," Bennett said. "He just has something special about him. This year, he showed it out. Hopefully he gets rookie of the year."

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