Lindell Wigginton stood in a tiny gym in central Iowa wearing a neon-green jersey tucked into his shorts. Most of his teammates played for local community colleges, and given the nature of the Capital City League, Wigginton didn’t know some of the guys with whom he shared the court.
He was playing for no reason other than to show the most loyal of Iowa State fans a glimpse of the star they had heard so much about. Given the hectic summer Wigginton had overseas, nobody would have blamed him for not playing in the Capital City League. Wigginton showed up nonetheless.
The highest-rated recruit to come to Ames since Craig Brackins a decade earlier, Wigginton had the weight of an entire fanbase on his shoulders before he ever played a game at Hilton Coliseum.
On that July night at Faith Baptist Bible College in Ankeny, Iowa, the crowd was quiet and patient, waiting to explode at a moment’s notice if Wigginton leaped for a dunk, crossed over a defender or nailed a long-range bomb.
Wigginton caught an outlet pass, dribbled up the court and missed a pull-up jumper short off the rim. The only voice Wigginton heard as he jogged back on defense was that of Monte Morris.
“That was great,” Wigginton said. “A lot of players played before me at the Cap City League but he made a point to just come watch me. He was talking on the sidelines, telling me what to do and things like that during the game. It was just fun.”
‘Your guards are just so good’
Iowa State was in a panic.
Just two years removed from back-to-back Big 12 regular-season titles, head coach Larry Eustachy resigned after photos surfaced of Eustachy drunk with college students at a house party in Columbia, Missouri, after a January 21, 2003, Cyclone loss to the Tigers. Arguably the most successful stretch in Iowa State basketball history was ending in shambles and national embarrassment.
Desperate to cling to the recent success, Iowa State promoted assistant coach Wayne Morgan to the head coaching position. The goal was to keep Eustachy’s recruits — namely guards Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock — on board with Iowa State’s new hire.
After all, Morgan had been the lead recruiter for both Stinson and Blalock. As a New York native, Morgan had a strong connection with them since they had also come from the Northeast.
Iowa State first learned about Stinson from a friend of Morgan in New York when Morgan was still an assistant coach.
Morgan’s friend called him up and said he had a kid named Curtis who Morgan should see. The kid, Morgan’s friend said, played a lot like Jamaal Tinsley, who had been named Big 12 Player of the Year in 2001.
That, of course, piqued Morgan’s interest. He went to see Stinson’s AAU team and immediately knew he had a special player on his hands.
“Curtis played on a team where he was the point guard, but he was like the biggest guy on the team,” Morgan said. “Nobody could stop him. He just went to the basket and scored, went to the basket and scored, went to the basket and scored … and I said, ‘Yeah, we’d be absolutely interested in him.’”
When Stinson and Blalock arrived in Ames, they were ready to go right away.
Stinson led the team in scoring and assists as a freshman, with Blalock finishing second in assists while coming off the bench. Stinson still holds the Iowa State freshman scoring record with 534 points.
The magic of Stinson and Blalock, however, came during their second season. That’s when the backcourt took over.
Stinson again led the team in scoring, with Blalock finishing third on the team in points. Blalock, the more natural passer, led the team in assists, while Stinson finished second. Iowa State went on to win 19 games that season before losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to eventual champion North Carolina.
The biggest moment, though, came on a Saturday afternoon in February in Lawrence, Kansas.
Iowa State pulled off a massive upset over No. 2 Kansas, thanks in large part to Stinson’s game-high 29 points. He hit a game-winning pull-up jumper with 5.1 seconds left in overtime to seal the deal.
“I can’t tell you how many times an opposing coach would say to me, ‘Your guards are just so good,’” Morgan said.
In 2005-06, Stinson and Blalock finished first and second on the team in points, assists, minutes and steals. Iowa State lost six games by one possession or in overtime, however, and missed out on the postseason.
When Wayne Morgan was let go after the season, Stinson and Blalock elected to forgo their final year of eligibility. Both declared for the NBA Draft. Blalock was selected 60th overall by the Detroit Pistons while Stinson went undrafted.
Morgan called it a “travesty” that Stinson never got to play in the NBA. While he never got that opportunity, Stinson left his mark as a Cyclone. He ranks ninth in school history in career points per game at 17.6 and is eighth all-time in career assists. His backcourt mate ranks seventh in career assists.
Taylor, Garrett and a new era
The departure of Morgan after three short years was followed by an in-state hire. Northern Iowa’s Greg McDermott had led the Panthers to the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years, but he walked into a depleted roster in Ames.
Gone were Stinson and Blalock, two leaders and veterans who had more experience than just about any pair of players in the country. Sophomore Tasheed Carr and freshman Shawn Taggart elected to transfer as well, leaving McDermott with a bare cupboard.
Rahshon Clark and Jiri Hubalek were the only contributors that remained from the Morgan era, but neither of them were guards.
Mike Taylor was.
Taylor was a skinny 6-foot-2 guard, who, as McDermott said, played the game more like a two-guard than a point guard.
Nobody could guard Mike Taylor except, well, Mike Taylor. He led Iowa State with 16 points per game in his first year at the Division I level and also led the team in assists.
The problem? Turnovers and missed shots. In his only year at Iowa State, Taylor racked up 168 turnovers. In contrast, Monte Morris finished his four-year college career with 165.
“He hated to lose a drill in practice, let alone a game,” McDermott said. “We gave Mike a tremendous amount of freedom that year he played for us and obviously he’s gone on and done some good things in his professional career as well.”
Taylor became the first NBA D-League player to be drafted into the NBA when Portland picked him up in the 2008 NBA Draft. The highlight of his professional career came on the bright stage of Madison Square Garden in 2009 when he lit up the Knicks for 35 points and eight rebounds as a member of the Clippers.
With Taylor gone after only one year, McDermott was able to hand the reins to the next man in line.
Diante Garrett had basketball in his genes. His father, Dick Garrett, played in the NBA in the 1970s, and Diante’s 6-foot-4 frame made him an intriguing prospect.
When he first arrived in Ames, however, Diante was about as raw as a prospect could be.
“Diante really worked on his game,” McDermott said. “He really had an endless motor … Obviously, there was a learning curve as a freshman, but he had a good sophomore year and a better junior year, then a great senior year when he was playing for Fred [Hoiberg].”
Garrett got better each year. His assist and steal numbers progressively improved each of his four seasons. As a scorer, Garrett jumped from 6.3 points per game as a freshman to 17.3 as a senior.
He marked the transition from the Stinson and Blalock days to the Hoiberg era, too. Garrett never had a winning season in college, but he played a crucial role for both McDermott and Hoiberg and became a steadying force in a time of turbulence.
“He was pretty consistent,” McDermott said. “He wasn’t one of those guys where he’d have a big game and then disappear. He was a rock for us. He had to play a lot of minutes and he never got tired.”
When Iowa State had rare moments of success on the court in those years, Garrett was at the forefront. Iowa State knocked off then-No. 5 Kansas State in 2010 as the Wildcats fought for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They wouldn’t have won without Garrett, who McDermott called “huge” in that game.
Iowa State’s star forward, Craig Brackins, had fouled out with about two minutes remaining in regulation of a tight game. Garrett took over.
“It was a great win at the time,” McDermott said. “We put the ball in Diante’s hands a lot late in that game, and he made some great decisions for our team.”
Garrett scored the first five points of overtime and Iowa State held on for the biggest win of the McDermott era. He finished with eight points and eight assists in the win.
Garrett’s senior year was completely unlike his first three. With McDermott now coaching at Creighton and former Cyclone legend Fred Hoiberg patrolling the sidelines at Hilton in his place, Garrett had a lot of freedom as a point guard that he didn’t have earlier in his career.
“When I was able to recruit after that, I showed a lot of what we did with Diante,” Hoiberg said. “I think that was very attractive to point guards. They loved how we played with him [with the] freedom. … That was huge that I had Diante to be the catalyst in that system that first year because it really set the tone for my future guards and the way that we recruited them. Diante was a very important player.”
He led the Cyclones in minutes, points, assists and steals his senior year en route to being named All-Big 12 second-team. Garrett eventually played two seasons in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns before playing overseas.
After Garrett’s one year with Hoiberg, the Cyclones needed a new floor general. Guards such as Chris Allen and Korie Lucious were good one-year options, but Iowa State needed someone fresh to be the face of the backcourt for years to come.
Controlling the game
When Monte Morris arrived in Ames as a 170-pound freshman, he didn’t know what to expect.
The Cyclones were coming off back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade. Half of the team from the previous year was gone. Hoiberg was a local legend who had somehow revitalized a struggling program within two years, but for the first time in his brief coaching career, there were legitimate expectations for his program.
But the 2013-14 season? That was completely up in the air. Morris, fellow freshman Matt Thomas, and some transfers — such as Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane — would be asked to step up, but nobody really knew what the team would look like. The stable of transfers Hoiberg brought into Ames had finally expired, and the Cyclones were looking for new faces to lead the program into the future.
Morris would go on to become arguably the most decorated basketball player in Iowa State history. He currently holds school records for career wins, assists, steals and a number of other achievements. But back then, Morris was just a skinny freshman getting pushed around in practice.
“I think the biggest thing was DeAndre was almost 24 years old and here comes Monte as an 18-year-old kid,” Hoiberg said. “His eyes were wide open, I don’t think he really knew what to expect. DeAndre really pushed him.”
At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Kane had a considerable size advantage over Morris. Having three years of college basketball experience and six years of age ahead of Morris didn’t hurt, either.
Kane started at point guard as Iowa State raced out to a 14-0 record to start the year. For the first half of the year, Morris came off the bench. But as conference play got rolling, Hoiberg switched things up and started Morris in place of Matt Thomas. Morris started the final 17 games of the season alongside Kane.
Playing beside Kane was more fun for Morris than playing against him in practice.
“It was tough,” Morris said. “He definitely bullied me [in practice]. But around February or March, I started learning his style and his tricks and I got better with it.”
Iowa State went on to win the Big 12 Tournament title that year for the first time since 2000, and a Sweet 16 run followed. But once the season ended, the Cyclones again were faced with replacing star players. It was Morris’ time to shine.
Nobody wondered about his passing ability, but people questioned Morris’ size. They questioned his scoring ability and whether he could be a go-to offensive player for a Big 12 team.
He wasted no time proving people wrong.
During the next three years, Morris led Iowa State to two more Big 12 Tournament titles, three more NCAA Tournament victories and a number of unforgettable moments.
One of those moments came during his sophomore year at the Big 12 Tournament. Morris scored a game-high 24 points, including a buzzer-beating fadeaway jumper to give Iowa State a first-round victory over Texas.
“I’ll never forget Monte hitting the shot against Texas in the Big 12 Tournament,” Hoiberg said. “We were down the whole game. I think we may have been down 20 that game in the first half.
“We called a play to run a screen and he was gonna read how the defense played it and he read it perfectly. He rose up and hit one of the biggest shots of the year.”
When Hoiberg took the head coaching position with the Chicago Bulls, Iowa State’s next head coach — naturally — was a point guard guru.
Steve Prohm came from Murray State after just four years as a head coach, but he already had produced two NBA point guards at a little-known, mid-major school. Those two guards — Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne — were proof of Prohm’s ability to get his floor generals to the next level.
“You have guys that you give freedom to because you can trust them,” Hoiberg said. “That takes a good coach to be able to have that trust in your point guards as opposed to having your thumb on them all the time and controlling every play. Steve’s done a good job of that.
“It’s always good when you’re coaching and you have players that you helped put in the league because it helps you with recruiting and I believe that’s why he’s continued to have success with the guards that he has in there now.”
Thanks to Morris being drafted by the Denver Nuggets last June, all three primary point guards who have played for Prohm at the college level have gone on to get selected in the NBA Draft.
By the time Morris left Ames, his name was etched in school history among the best to ever play in a Cyclone uniform.
The next chapter
Lindell Wigginton stood in Cairo, Egypt, with a gold medal draped around his neck and a brazen grin plastered across his face. Next to him, one of his teammates held a Canadian flag stretched across his body.
Wigginton had just captained the Canadian U19 team to the 2017 FIBA championship. Basketball fans around the world watched as Wigginton and his teammates knocked off France, the United States and Italy during three consecutive days in early July to win the tournament.
“That was a mind-blowing experience,” Wigginton said. “That’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Arguably the most accomplished player in school history said Wigginton could break his records before Wigginton had ever set foot in Hilton. That’s a lot of pressure to live up to, especially for an 18-year-old kid.
Wigginton doesn’t have the luxury of being eased into his college career like Morris did. Instead, he has a target on his back, along with loftier expectations from fans than probably any Cyclone since Marcus Fizer.
“I’m just always gonna go play my game,” Wigginton said. “I don’t really feel pressure. I don’t get caught up too much in the hype.”
He has the benefit of playing alongside senior point guard Donovan Jackson, but instead of learning behind Jackson like Morris did with Kane, Wigginton will be sharing the role right off the bat.
“I know I’ve got big shoes to fill since Monte left. I know the team’s got big shoes to fill because they’ve been making the NCAA Tournament for so many consecutive years,” he said. “It’ll be a disappointment to me if I don’t lead my teams to the NCAA Tournament, or get as many wins as [fans] are used to having.”
For Iowa State to make the tournament, Wigginton will certainly have to play a big role. The team is replacing six seniors and a transfer from a year ago, but that doesn’t faze Wigginton.
Individually, he wants to play in the NBA one day.
For now? Wigginton has other things on his mind.
“I just want to be a winner,” Wigginton said. “I don’t really care about my individual stats. Obviously that’s a bonus if [I could be] Big 12 Freshman of the Year or All-American, but I just want to be considered a winner.”
When Wigginton leaves, whether that’s after one year or four years, Iowa State will still be in good hands at the point guard position, thanks to the program’s long tradition and Prohm’s reputation.
“You look at guys like Hornacek and Tinsley and Morris and Diante Garrett and Will Blalock and Curtis Stinson and, who am I leaving out?” Prohm said. “I know there’s a couple I’m probably leaving out. You look at all these guys; we’ve had a special, special run of point guards here from Orr to now.”