Created: 10/26/2012 6:03 PM KSTP.com By: Ben Musel
For the longest time -- basically since future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett left -- every Wolves opposition has employed the same simple game plan: Stop the power forward and win the game. Last season the emergence of point guard Ricky Rubio and center Nikola Pekovic changed that game plan and lead to a 21-20 record before Rubio tore his ACL. Then every other actual basketball player on the roster went through an injury of their own. It has been almost 10 years since the team has had three legitimate starters. This year, if the Wolves can rid ourselves of that ubiquitous injury bug, they may have three legitimate stars.
The one thing that held the team back throughout last season and stuck out like a sore thumb once their best players weren’t on the court was atrocious wing play. The team’s best small forward (Mike Beasley) was a power forward, the best shooting guard (Luke Ridnour) was a point guard. In fact, if not for Pekovic, the best center would have been a coach (Jack Skima).
This season the Wolves have replaced a cast of journeymen and out-of-position players with something very novel: actual small forwards and shooting guards. They now have players at the 2 and 3 who can do things like dribble, pass, make their cuts and hit that corner three-pointer that Rubio so graciously supplies. How many times last season were you elated to see the wide open man behind the arc get a beautiful pass from Rubio only to realize that that man was Martell Webster or Wes Johnson? This season that open man is probably going to be Brandon Roy, Alexey Shved or Chase Budinger. Budinger is particularly good from long range shooting over 40% on all three attempts and near 50% from the corners.
The team’s ball handling and passing are dramatically improved as well. Brandon Roy has averaged more than 4.5 assists over his career and Andrei Kirilenko clocks in at nearly three over his. Last year, Johnson couldn’t have dribbled the ball if he’d had a string attached and Beasley always ended up in isolation when he got his hands on the ball. As for this preseason, whenever Chase gets his hands on the ball, he will only think as far as, “should I shoot or should I pass?” and he’ll probably do it a lot quicker than the current Phoenix Suns players would.
Then, of course, there is the wild card in Shved who played the point for the Russian national team and will no doubt wow audiences with his flair. It’s hard to tell if Shved will remind Adleman more of Jason Williams or the other skinny foreign kid he has on his team. My hope is that he reminds me of a younger Manu Ginobili, but at the moment that is very wishful thinking.
Have I mentioned that these four players along with forward Dante Cunningham will play more defense in one week than Beasley has played in his career? Kirilenko, Cunningham and Shved in particular will make a difference when the other team has the ball. They’ll jump the passing lanes, get tips, steals, and blocks when the opportunity arises, and they are far more likely to know where their man is and where they should be at any given moment. Kirilenko is a defensive maestro, recently mentioning that he’d much rather look down at the stat sheet and see a 5 x 5 than a double-double. I love that AK-47’s goal every game is to get five steals and blocks to go along with his points, rebounds, and assists.
There are still a lot of questions to be answered about the guys brought in to play on the wing. Will Roy’s knees hold up for an entire season? Will Shved’s game translate to the NBA? Is Kirilenko on the down-slope of his career? What on earth will the Derrick Williams project look like at the end of the season? I can’t answer those just yet. I can answer this one: Would you rather have this group of guys than the group from last year? Yes, most definitely I would.
Just three years removed from only having one starting caliber player in the line-up at the start of the year, it’s looking like they’ll have four and maybe even five when everybody is once again all healed up.