Aaron Wiggins, a sophomore on Maryland's men's basketball squad, has been on big stages before. He had a solo in an elementary school production of "High School Musical." He was first chair in his middle school band as a trombone player. His childhood performing arts career also included piano and several forms of dance.
The Greensboro, N.C., native is no stranger to big basketball stages, either. He played two seasons at Wesleyan Christian Academy -- where he was coached by former Maryland guard Keith Gatlin -- and helped lead the Trojans to a pair of state title games. Wiggins and Team Charlotte played for an Under Armour national championship on the AAU circuit. And the Terps' guard now has a college basketball postseason under his belt, too.
But even bigger stages and brighter lights may be ahead for Wiggins and his Maryland teammates. The Terps return seven members of their eight-man rotation from last season and began the 2019-20 campaign ranked No. 7 in the AP poll. They have a pair of All-Big Ten preseason selections in point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and forward Jalen Smith. But head coach Mark Turgeon has pointed to the 6-foot-6, 200-pound Wiggins as the player who made the biggest strides in the offseason.
"I think he's just getting comfortable," fellow sophomore guard Eric Ayala said. "The game is slowing down for him. He's just playing at a different pace. ... I think that's what makes him so dangerous, his ability to slow the game down."
Wiggins has a history of being a supporting actor on talented teams. He played high school ball with Jaylen Hoard, a five-star forward who's now with the Portland Trail Blazers after a season at Wake Forest. Wiggins was also an AAU teammate of Devon Dotson, another five-star recruit who is now a sophomore at Kansas. College coaches would attend games with the intention of seeing those other stars, but Wiggins made sure they noticed him, too.
Maryland started pushing for Wiggins in the spring of 2017, and he committed that June, becoming the first member of a recruiting class that also included five-star forward Smith, four-star guard Ayala and later Serrel Smith Jr. and Ricky Lindo Jr. The Terps' class was No. 6 in the country, per 247Sports' composite rankings.
When Wiggins signed, he was expected to back up playmaking wing Kevin Huerter, who still had two years of eligibility remaining. But Huerter ultimately left for the NBA Draft after his stock took off in the spring, leaving Maryland even more reliant on Wiggins and the other freshmen. Filling those shoes took a group effort: Ayala stepped in as a ball-handler, Wiggins provided the spot-up shooting and Cowan showed improvement as a playmaker.
"It wasn't something that I could do as an individual and just step in for [Huerter]," Wiggins said. "Anthony played the two, Eric played the one, and with Eric's ability at the one to make the right reads, I think that made it a lot easier for our team to come together a little bit closer and fill in for Kevin."
Wiggins averaged 8.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game as a freshman, highlighted by 15-point outings on the road against Michigan and Michigan State. He connected on 62 of 150 3-point attempts, leading the team at 41.3 percent. Wiggins started just four games but still shouldered a starter's workload of 23.5 minutes per contest.
After the Terps' two-point loss to LSU in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Wiggins quickly got back in the gym. His days featured ball-handling workout sessions in the morning, practices with the team in the afternoon, weight training after practice and late-night returns to the gym to get shots up. He knew he had to get better. His team needed it.
"I said, 'Aaron, if you played like you did as a freshman as a sophomore, we're not going to get any better,'" Turgeon said. "So it's been a mindset from the first time we met since the season ended that he was going to be a big part of our offense this year."
The jump shot was already there; Gatlin has called Wiggins the best shooter he ever coached. But Maryland expects Wiggins to be more aggressive and more willing to showcase his complete skill set. He showed last season he was a capable facilitator, rebounder and defender. After such an extensive offseason of work, he's more confident in all of those phases.
Perhaps the most important improvement, though, is in his communication and leadership. Maryland lost center Bruno Fernando, one of the premier emotional leaders in the country, to the NBA during the offseason. And even with so many returning pieces, the Terps feature primarily underclassmen. That means players like Wiggins are the veteran leaders now, and he's taking that role seriously.
"There are guys who were in my position last year, who may be a little confused, who have a lot of plays being thrown at them, who have something that they want, a goal that they want as an individual," Wiggins said. "It's a big deal, just being a vocal leader, making sure that any questions they have, they have answered."
Ask the freshmen for their first impressions of Wiggins and they'll talk about his personality. Center Makhi Mitchell said having a teammate with Wiggins' energy is "like having another hype man" in addition to his twin brother, Makhel. Forward Donta Scott said with a smile that Wiggins "tries to be funny," but acknowledged the sophomore's work ethic even if his jokes don't always land.
When the season ends, Wiggins likely has an NBA decision to make. He checked in at No. 24 in Yahoo Sports' "way too early 2020 NBA mock draft" in June and has plenty of time to generate more buzz with his play. Maryland fans are familiar with this script: Huerter and Fernando left after two years, and Smith is a projected first-rounder next summer as well. But while Wiggins is still in College Park, Md., he wants to stay in the present.
"This is where I'm at right now. I'm worried about Maryland basketball, and I want to win," Wiggins said. "I don't pay much attention to [draft hype]. I hear it, I see it, but I'm here. And I want my team to win."
Follow Thomas on Twitter @TKendziora37
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 259: November 2019
Originally published Nov. 15, 2019