Standing in a Bowie gym as the coach of the United States All-Stars in last spring’s Capital Classic, former Maryland point guard Keith Gatlin looked over to where Aaron Wiggins was going through a pregame workout.
Gatlin turned to a reporter who had covered him for part of his career in College Park and nodded at Wiggins, who had played for Gatlin the past two years at Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, N.C.
“Mark’s going to have a hard time keeping him out of the starting lineup,” Gatlin said.
Wiggins started his first two games in college before Maryland coach Mark Turgeon moved the lean 6-foot-6 wing to the bench Monday night against North Carolina A&T.
“I think Aaron’s more comfortable coming off the bench, to be quite honest with you,” Turgeon said after an 82-59 win.
Wiggins said it really doesn’t matter.
“Wherever he wants to play me is fine, the way he wants to play me, I just want to do what I can do to help my team win,” Wiggins said. “If that’s coming off the bench, if that’s starting one night, if that’s not playing anything at all that one night, it’s OK with me as long as I can do something to help my team win.”
In 27 minutes against the Aggies, who play in his hometown of Greensboro, Wiggins finished with a season-high 14 points to go along with four rebounds, four assists and two steals. He also hit four of eight 3-point attempts after shooting 3-for-12 from beyond the arc in the first two games.
“He was better [shooting], and defensively he continues to grow,” Turgeon said.
Told what Wiggins shot from 3-point range, Turgeon said: “Aaron can do that, and he can get hot. … He made shots. He got comfortable, he didn’t hesitate, which was good to see.”
There is a steady rhythm and quiet aggressiveness to the way Wiggins plays. He is rarely out of control, and seems to have a great understanding of the game. Unlike many players his age, he seems to play hard at both ends of the court.
And, mostly, he plays at a similar pace all the time.
“I think Aaron’s a really good player. That’s why we recruited the heck out of him,” Turgeon said. “Nothing he’s doing is really surprising me, except he’s maybe a little further along defensively than I was expecting. Aaron doesn’t get sped up. And he’s got a good feel, he’s learning. He cares. He wants to be great, so he’s always trying to improve.”
Wiggins has more of an old-school approach, where the more you can do without scoring, the more a cold shooting spell might be overlooked.
Asked about that approach, Wiggins said that something Turgeon told him when he arrived on campus last summer resonated with him.
“Coming into Maryland, Coach would tell me when my shot isn’t falling, make sure I’m doing other things really well,” Wiggins said. “Playing defense, rebounding. That’s something I worked on since I’ve gotten up here. I guess I’m doing pretty well with it, gotta to continue with.”
Except for taking a lot of shots for a freshman who’s viewed by many as his team’s fourth-best scoring option, — Wiggins has 29, tied with former Mount Saint Joseph stars Jalen Smith and Darryl Morsell and behind junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr.’s 40 — the way Wiggins stuffs a stat sheet is reminiscent of recent Terp Kevin Huerter, who was a first-round draft pick of the Atlanta Hawks last June.
In fact, Wiggins is off to a better start than Huerter in his first three games against Division I opponents. (The Terps played Division III St. Mary’s in their third game during Huerter’s freshman year in the 2016-17 season.)
Starting alongside fellow freshman Cowan and junior star Melo Trimble, Huerter got off to a quiet start offensively, scoring just six points per game compared with 11 for Wiggins. Huerter shot 4-for-8 on 3s, and only 5-for-10 overall.
Huerter, who like Wiggins was known as mostly a shooter in high school, had three steals and a huge block to help Maryland beat Georgetown. Wiggins has a team-high eight steals, including five in the season opener against Delaware.
In his first three games against Division I teams, Huerter had five assists and two turnovers. Wiggins has nine assists and just two turnovers. Huerter proved early on he was a good rebounder, with 14 in that stretch. Wiggins has one more.
Perhaps the biggest difference in their games is that Wiggins is better at putting the ball on the floor, as well as getting to the rim, than the 6-7, then-185-pound Huerter was in his freshman season. Wiggins has hit all eight of his free-throw attempts. At a similar point, Huerter had taken just two free throws, making both in the third game.
Quickly erasing his reputation as simply a 3-pointer — Gatlin, who as a Terps senior hit nearly half of his 3-pointers (56 of 113), called his former player “the best high school shooter I coached” — Wiggins is suddenly taking the ball to the hoop.
“That’s something I’ve definitely been working on. You don’t want to settle for too many jump shots, especially when shots aren’t falling,” Wiggins said. “That first [game], I didn’t shoot well at all [1-for-8 overall, 1-for-6 on 3s]. You just can’t settle for 3-point shots or deep 2s, so I’ve got to get to the basket.”
When Huerter’s name was mentioned to Wiggins after Tuesday’s game, his eyes widened, as did his smile.
“Kevin did a lot for the team. He did a bunch,” Wiggins said of Maryland’s likely best all-around player in each of his two seasons. “The dude was a sniper, lights out. I don’t think that’s a role that I would just be able to fill in myself.
“It’s something that all six of us as a freshman group have to make sure we step up and come together and do it as a team. Even if we lost Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson and guys like that, it’s not like any individuals can just fill in as a team.”
Like Huerter, Wiggins has made a fast impression.
It’s not just for one trait.
“How much of a leader he is, he’s always talking,” said fellow freshman Ricky Lindo Jr. “He can shoot very well. Other than that, he talks a lot, encourages a lot too. Really good bigger brother.”
Said sophomore center Bruno Fernando: “His work ethic, definitely. He’s a guy that holds everybody accountable and he will come into the gym first and everybody else is going to join him.”
Along with playing a similar game to Huerter, Wiggins is also wearing the No. 2 jersey that was so tied to Trimble during his three-year career. It is the same number Wiggins wore with his high school and Amateur Athletic Union teams.
Asked if he had any questions about wearing it, Wiggins said Thursday: “Of course there was second thoughts. He was such a great player and did so much for the program. No. 2 sat for a year out of respect for a year and the coaches said it would be no problem.”