MINNEAPOLIS — He spends most of his time during games at the end of the bench, throwing out pointers and making sure rookies are paying attention. He beats up on Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea during practice, yet that pair’s presence in the lineup has kept him from playing a meaningful minute all season. He’s not large, he’s not long, and he’s far from an NBA household name.
Yet A.J. Price is still here.
The Timberwolves’ backup point guard’s 2013-14 contract became guaranteed for the rest of the season last week, meaning if the team did decide to part ways with him at some point, he’d at least leave with a sizeable paycheck in hand. Such a front-office move would appear justified, at least on paper.
The 6-foot-2, 181-pound, fifth-year veteran has appeared in just 16 of Minnesota’s 37 games so far, almost exclusively in the fourth quarter of already-decided contests. He’s attempted only 26 field goals all season.
But the reason both president of basketball operations Flip Saunders and coach Rick Adelman concurred Price should stay is twofold: chemistry and potential damage control.
"He is a great guy to have in the locker room," Adelman said. "And if something ever happened — I hope it doesn’t happen — to our point guards, I wouldn’t hesitate to play A.J. You know he can do the job."
The coach’s evidence is drawn from Price’s performance last season in Washington, where he started 22 games, played in 57 and averaged a career-high 22.4 minutes per contest. He worked under former Wizards personnel man Milt Newton — now the Timberwolves’ general manager — then, and Newton gave him a ringing endorsement when Minnesota’s front office began looking for potential training-camp invitees this offseason.
As he has in each of his five NBA seasons, Price proved his worth during the preseason. In five exhibition appearances, he shot 48.1 percent and dished out 2.4 assists per game while exhibiting command of Adelman’s offense. His tireless work during camp in Mankato immediately turned heads within the organization, and the Timberwolves opted to keep him around and cut 2013 second-round draft pick Lorenzo Brown.
The same traits continue to show up even while Price warms the bench, Adelman said.
"Every day, he comes ready to play," Adelman said. "Every practice, he comes ready to play. He’s just very professional."
I’m still never satisfied. I haven’t been able to find my way onto the court, into the rotation, and that was my main goal this year, not just making the team.
It’s not a new mindset for the Connecticut product. Selected 52nd overall by Indiana in the 2009 draft, Price has had to earn a roster spot each year he’s been in the league.
He frequently shares tools for navigating the annual professional hoops grind with Minnesota’s younger players, even first-round, guaranteed-millions rookies Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. A higher-than-average knowledge of the game allows him to point out opponent weaknesses and offer tips to his teammates during the course of play, too.
Watch Price from his spot near the corner at the next Timberwolves home game. Chances are, he’ll tell Rubio or Kevin Love how he can position himself better or run a certain play more efficiently.
But make no mistake. Price wants to play, not coach.
"I’m still never satisfied," said Price, who averaged 14.9 minutes per game during his first three years in the NBA, all with Indiana. "I haven’t been able to find my way onto the court, into the rotation, and that was my main goal this year, not just making the team."
But it looks like the only way that becomes a possibility is if something happens to Rubio or Barea. Adelman learned all too well during his first two years here how crippling the loss of a point guard can be when Rubio went down with an ACL tear. His absence leaked into last season, when Love and several other key pieces missed significant time due to injury.