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Spotlight shines on Wiggins

Jan. 09, 2013 @ 12:04 AM

HUNTINGTON -- As Huntington Prep's charter bus left Ryan's Steakhouse in Princeton, W.Va., Saturday en route to Floyd County, Va., for a game, a little boy named Virgil walked quickly out of the restaurant with his mother and father to catch a glimpse of Andrew Wiggins, the nation's top-ranked boys basketball prospect for 2013.

Sheepishly, the boy walked onto the team bus with his parents for an autograph.

Virgil's mother instructed him to get a photo, and Virgil perked up and threw his arm around Wiggins -- a gesture which drew a shy smile from Wiggins, who settled in for the portrait.

"That's everywhere. He gets it all the time," Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford said with a smile. "It happened at McDonald's (Saturday), too. It's pretty common."

It's an interesting dynamic, really.

Wiggins can knock down a pressure shot or soar for a high-flying dunk in front of thousands while on the basketball court, but the fanfare is still something he is getting used to.

The spotlight is outside of his comfort zone just a bit.

"He's still learning to deal with it," Fulford said. "Standoff-ish isn't the word, but he's very careful with how he opens up and talks with people."

The quiet, 6-8, 215-pound, 17-year-old from Toronto is about two things at this stage -- basketball and being a kid while he can.

That time is quickly fleeting for Wiggins, who reclassified to the Class of 2013 earlier this year and, thus, is now thrust into the national spotlight as the nation's top player and top available recruit.

Here's the story of Wiggins, who is about as anti-superstar as a superstar can get.

Where will Wiggins go?

For tens of thousands of basketball fans nationwide, the ultimate question will have to wait until after the 2012-13 season to be answered.

Wiggins confirmed he will have three more visits after the season -- to Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas. He visited Florida State in December.

That means the basketball nation will have to wait to find out where the player dubbed "Canada's LeBron" is headed.

While the decision is a few months away, Wiggins knows exactly what he's looking for in his college.

"I want a good skill-development coach and a coach who is going to be there to support me," Wiggins said. "I would like to go somewhere where I can win a national championship, and I think all the places I'm thinking about going to, I can do that."

The race for Wiggins is extremely tight and it seems like a three-horse race between Kentucky, Florida State and North Carolina in no particular order. Wiggins said he is still visiting Kansas, but the odds of him going there are slim to none.

In looking at Wiggins' recruitment, there are several factors with what each school brings to the table.

Kentucky: What makes Kentucky a viable choice is head coach John Calipari's ability to take an 18-year-old and make him NBA ready in one season.

Calipari has already assembled one of the top recruiting classes in history for 2013 with three of the nation's top prospects at their position.

Wiggins said fans want him to be the fourth.

"UK has a lot of fans in all of the states we play," Wiggins said. "I think most of the time I'm hearing from fans about them, but I'm going to go where is best for me to go."

Regardless of surrounding talent, Wiggins will be the main attraction of any offense, but he'd also have talent around him to help expand his game both mentally and physically.

That would be valuable to Wiggins, who is projected as the top pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.

Florida State: The Seminoles have many factors on their side.

Both of Wiggins' parents are FSU grads and his best friend -- Huntington Prep guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes -- signed there in November.

He visited Florida State in December and left impressed after an ovation that included fans wearing shirts spelling out "We Want Wiggins" for the game against Florida.

"It's a great feeling to know wherever I go, colleges show me a lot of love," Wiggins said. "They made me feel welcome and comfortable right away."

Having Rathan-Mayes in Tallahassee is a bonus for coach Leonard Hamilton, who has a built-in recruiter around Wiggins at all times.

"He tries, he tries," Wiggins said. "It's not really a factor, but it would always be a fun thing to play with him. We are one of the best one-two punches in the United States."

With his parents and Rathan-Mayes in the FSU corner, it might not be about him saying 'Yes' to the Seminoles.

It might be more about him saying 'No' to those closest to him.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels hold an interesting dynamic for Wiggins.

If Wiggins chooses Kentucky, he'd be the latest in Calipari's history of one-and-done classes that made a national impact. If he chooses Florida State, he'd continue a legacy his father started several years ago.

North Carolina is the perfect opportunity for Wiggins to build his own legacy while learning from one of the nation's best coaches in Roy Williams.

There is no one who has been more visible in Huntington than Williams, whose first order of business after surgery to remove benign tumors from his kidneys was to visit Wiggins at the Marshall Rec Center on Oct. 23.

He's been back twice since -- Dec. 12 for a Huntington Prep game at Spring Valley and last Thursday for another practice.

Canada's LeBron

The Huntington area has been blessed with talented players who have seen success and moved on to the NBA -- most notably Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Hal Greer, Dallas Mavericks guard O.J. Mayo and Houston Rockets forward Patrick Patterson.

Still, Wiggins might be the biggest impact player that Huntington has seen since Greer led Douglass Junior/Senior High School and Marshall University in the 1950s.

Wiggins is a 6-foot-8, 215-pound small forward who features all the skills and intangibles to be a future NBA great. Because of his size, skill and leaping ability, he's a matchup problem for anyone.

With a bigger defender, he'll simply draw them out to the perimeter and use his speed to drive past them. With a smaller defender, he can either elevate over them on jumpers or for finishes at the rim.

While scoring is his most notable attribute, his rebounding and defense are what truly make him the nation's top prospect.

He's a lean kid who needs to put weight on, but Wiggins' hands are exceptionally strong, which is evident when rebounding among the trees.

In Saturday's win over Wesleyan Christian (N.C.), he grabbed the game's last three rebounds -- all loose-ball situations -- and held tight during a scrappy, defensive affair to ensure the Express win.

In the same game, he shut down Theo Pinson, the top-rated small forward in the Class of 2014, in the second half. Pinson had 10 points in the first half, but was held scoreless in the second half as Wiggins locked him up.

He's just a kid

As the lines form at games across the country for a glimpse or autograph of Wiggins, it is easy to forget he's just 17 years old and won't turn 18 until Feb. 23.

Fulford joked there are two departments where Wiggins wants to be ranked No. 1 in the country -- basketball and the popular video game Call of Duty.

"That's where he's most comfortable," Fulford said. "He's not a big-time socialite where he's got to be around others and out and about. He'd rather be playing video games and just be a kid."

Wiggins keeps a tight circle of trusted friends, led by Rathan-Mayes, who has been by his side since they were very young.

Around teammates, he'll open up and joke around while talking about everything from shoes to movies to basketball. Silence returns once in a more public setting though.

Fulford said his desire for privacy has caused him to be even more quiet as the buzz has built surrounding his coming decision.

"He's definitely hesitant because of the media," Fulford said. "He doesn't make it want to seem like he's leaning one way or the other."

Being a normal kid has been difficult.

With a father that played in the NBA, he's always somewhat been in the public eye. That is sure to increase in the coming months.

That's why he's in no hurry to make that decision.

For now, he wants just two or three more months of being himself -- a kid with a basketball, his friends and his video games.