MINNEAPOLIS — When he left the nation’s capital this past spring, A.J. Price had a feeling he’d run into Milt Newton again.
Price’s one-year deal in Washington had just expired, and the Wizards decided not to renew it. Newton, though unaware at the time, was on his way out the door to become Minnesota’s general manager.
“I told him when he left Washington last year, I said — and I didn’t know that I was gonna be here — I just said ‘Hey, look, good luck this year. I’ll probably see you down the line,'” Newton said. “And here we are today.”
The newly-hired Newton, Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders and coach Rick Adelman are the latest basketball gurus to give Price a shot. First, it was Jim Calhoun at Connecticut. Then Larry Bird took him in the second round of the draft and let him develop into a reliable backup point guard with Indiana.
And it was Newton, the Wizards’ vice president of player personnel for 10 years, who helped procure Price for Washington. There, he put forth the best season of his four-year career, backing up John Wall and proving his viability as a playmaker and a chemistry creator.
In addition to calling out teammates in practice, he’d go out of his way to make sure they succeeded in game situations — finding transition specialists early in the break, tossing up alley-oops to players he knew could finish them off, and pulling them aside to make sure they were on the same page.
Once he displayed the same qualities during Minnesota’s training camp, the Timberwolves knew who their No. 3 point guard would be to start the year.
“We’d have some young players that were struggling, we noticed that he would take them aside and try to encourage them, not only by words but in practice and during the games,” Newton said of Price, who made the Timberwolves’ 15-man roster when it was announced earlier this week. “He’s really a very selfless kid in that he doesn’t worry about himself; he worries about his teammates. So based on all those things, we thought he would be a good fit here.”
With a young core, Minnesota’s front office has put a premium on adding veteran leadership. It signed Ronny Turiaf as a free-agent glue guy and went with 10th-year veteran Kevin Martin as its shooting guard over some younger potential options.
Price’s value within that mix was shaped during the earlier stages of his career.
“I had to become a man at, pretty much, 18,” he said.
Calhoun recruited Price out of Amityville (N.Y.) and convinced him to spurn offers from Kansas, Florida State and St. John’s. Ranked as one of the nation’s top 50 recruits, Price was expected to contribute in the Huskies’ national title defense right away.
But a life-threatening hemorrhage in his brain caused him to miss the entire 2004-05 season. It was discovered Price suffers from arteriovenous malformation, a condition that causes arteries and veins to become entangled. In Price’s case, a mass of blood vessels in his head formed and began bleeding.
His recovery, which included radiosurgery in Boston, took more than a year. While still in the midst of it, he and teammate Marcus Williams stole four laptops from student dorm rooms and tried to sell them.
A decision that Price now describes as “dumb” saw him arrested, suspended for the 2005-06 season and put on probation. But Calhoun kept him around, and he’d go on to bounce back from a torn ACL and lead UConn to the 2009 Final Four as a senior.
You’d never know there was a smudge on Price’s record now, Newton said.
“You kind of chalk it up to being immature in college and making some mistakes,” said Newton, a former college star himself at Kansas. “But, like a real man, he took those mistakes and he learned from them.”
Said Price: “Just going through everything I went through at such a young age kind of forced me to grow up fast. . . . I’ve learned certain values and qualities much earlier than other people, and they’ve stuck with me.”
He brought them to the Pacers, who drafted him 52nd overall and played him in 14.9 minutes per game during his three years there. Washington then signed him to a training-camp deal like the one Minnesota granted him. After sticking there, he averaged 3.6 assists and 7.7 points.
Price’s road through a health scare, personal trouble and the annual stresses of trying to crack a roster spot provided him more eclipsed hurdles than the average 27-year-old encounters. His mission is to use them to his and his younger teammates’ advantage.
“Any time you come in, with a young team especially, and show guys just what it takes to stay around, to get here,” he said. “Guys who are fortunate enough to be in that position, they take those qualities and use them, the sky’s the limit, pretty much, for guys.”
Sitting behind Rubio and J.J. Barea in Minnesota’s guard rotation, Price isn’t in line for much playing time, barring an injury. He was deactivated for the Timberwolves’ season opener Wednesday.
But it’s the intangibles that render him an important asset whether he’s in or out of the lineup, Newton said.
Without them, the pair may not have reunited in Minneapolis.