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By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer

The Warriors didn’t think they were getting this good of a player.

When they acquired Andrew Wiggins at the trade deadline in 2020, they hoped they were getting a complementary piece for their stars. They wanted defensive help. They wanted a potential third option on offense. They wanted rebounding.

What they didn’t realize: He’d become a star himself.

Wiggins has been the X-factor for the Warriors in the NBA Finals, with his magnum opus coming in Game 5. He led the team in points (26), rebounds (13) and defensive intensity in their 104-94 win over the Celtics to take a 3-2 series lead.

He’s likely not going to win Finals MVP, but that performance was enough to skyrocket him into contention for the honor. It’s a stunning ascension for a player who was considered a wild disappointment in the NBA just a short while ago.

Now, he’s shining on the greatest of sports stages, making a mockery of anyone who dismissed him, while simultaneously highlighting the Warriors’ uncanny ability to bring out the best in their players.

“We had no idea that he would make this kind of contribution,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr acknowledged. “But I think it’s a reminder that for every — almost every player in the NBA — circumstances are everything. You kind of need to find the right place, the right teammates, that kind of stuff. Wiggs has been a great fit.”

The thing about the Warriors is that they help players become the best version of themselves.

Andre Iguodala transformed into a Finals MVP on this team. Gary Payton II went from dangling by a thin thread in this league to becoming the top perimeter defender on this team. Wiggins went from being considered a failed No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft by Cleveland to becoming an All-Star for the first time on this team.

There’s a reason why that happens. Draymond Green is so fiery and intense that he makes everyone around him better. Steph Curry is so easygoing and humble that he leaves space for other people to shine. Kerr is so smart and experienced as a former role player himself that he’s able to relate to every player on the team, Nos. 1 through 15.

For Wiggins, it has been a winning recipe.

“Man, there are just a lot of great people here,” he said. “Great people here that challenge you. They hold you accountable. The support system, everyone on this team, this organization, they support you, and they want to see you do good. And they put you in a position to do good.”

The Warriors have brought out the best in Wiggins. He has played lockdown defense throughout the playoffs against some of the league’s biggest stars, including Luka Dončić, Ja Morant and Jayson Tatum.

And in a pivotal Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Wiggins took over. It happened on a rare night when Curry went 0-for-9 from beyond the 3-point line following his 43-point masterpiece in Game 4. Wiggins set the tone from the start. He was everywhere, flying over players for rebounds, and then pulling up for jumpers and dunks on the other end.

With the Warriors holding a paper-thin 75-74 lead over the Celtics heading into the fourth quarter, Wiggins had 10 points on five-for-five shooting and five rebounds in the final period, more points and rebounds than anyone else on either team. Oh, and he held Tatum to one-for-five shooting.

It was a masterful performance.

Draymond Green said when the Warriors acquired Wiggins in exchange for D’Angelo Russell, the team never looked at him as just another piece they could move. Instead, they hoped he’d truly fit in following his lackluster five-and-a-half seasons with Minnesota.

At the time, Green heard good things about Wiggins even though he had fallen from someone who had superstar expectations when he entered the league into someone who was considered just a shooter with poor shot selection.

“When he first came here, and I’ll never forget …. Thibs [former Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau] was like, ‘You’re going to love him. He competes. He defends.'” Green said. “And he was telling us Jimmy [Butler] loved him. And we all know how Jimmy Butler is. If you have any softness to you, Jimmy don’t like you.”

Wiggins has more than lived up to those expectations.

In the Finals, he has led the team in both rebounds (9.4) and blocked shots (1.2), while also being the second-leading scorer (18.4 points) behind Curry.

In Game 4, with Green struggling to get things going, Wiggins had a career-high 16 rebounds and 17 points. And he followed that with an even better performance in Game 5. Over the past two games, he has had a combined 41 points and 29 rebounds.

“I think the bigger the challenge we’ve thrown in front of him, the bigger he has responded,” Green said. “You want a guy like that. When the stage get big, they respond and play their best basketball. And that’s what he’s been doing.”

The Warriors are now all celebrating Wiggins’ success. The 27-year-old forward said he was shown a lot of love in the locker room after the game. While reporters weren’t privy to that celebration, what we did witness was Klay Thompson‘s face light up when talking about his teammate.

When Thompson was asked a broad question about how happy he is for his teammates who weren’t a part of the team’s past Finals runs, he, unprompted, started talking about Wiggins’ ultimate highlight of the night.

It came with just over two minutes left, when Wiggins drove from just inside the half-court line down the key, throwing down a thunderous one-handed dunk with so much force that the ball slammed through the net into Derrick White‘s face. It was the exclamation mark on the best game of his career, and Thompson beamed while describing it.

“We don’t get more excited than when Wiggs dunks on someone and then meanmugs them,” said Thompson, who had 21 points on 7-for-14 shooting, including going 5-for-11 from beyond the arc.

For Wiggins, things have just finally worked out for him.

The timing is right. The situation is right. The pieces around him are right. And the stage is right.

Now, he’s one win away from his first championship. And he’s not just part of the team, riding the coattails of his superstar teammates.

Instead, he’s one of the main reasons that the Warriors are in this position.

“It’s something I dreamt about, for sure,” he said. “Being in the league, and this is the ultimate stage. It doesn’t get bigger than this.”

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter at @melissarohlin.


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