A sparkplug. A locker room guy. A leader. An upstanding citizen.
They’re all titles that Ronny Turiaf has earned during his eight-year NBA adventure, and rightfully so. Few professional athletes are handed multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts to fulfill such capacities.
“You just can’t find guys like that,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said.
But while Minnesota’s paying the 6-foot-10, 249-pound teddy bear $3.2 million over the next two seasons to spread his zest for life and passion for basketball throughout the organization, there are also on-court expectations for him as training camp rapidly approaches.
They’re just easy to overlook for a guy whose introductory press conference was held in the gymnasium at the Minneapolis Ronald McDonald House.
“I really believe basketball has empowered me to be who I am today, to make people smile, to change the world to be able to give back via basketball,” Turiaf said Wednesday morning, kicking off a day of community outreach that included shooting hoops with children at the McDonald House and hosting a private screening of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.” “That’s something that’s very important for me.”
Hence the health awareness initiatives, service projects, impromptu dance sessions on the bench and kindly countenance Turiaf takes with him to each new NBA city.
But he’s not here simply as a team ambassador, even if a cursory glance at his production suggests otherwise.
In eight seasons, Turiaf has started 95 NBA games. He averages 16.8 minutes, 4.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 0.5 blocks an outing. Last season with the Los Angeles Clippers, he eclipsed double digits scoring just once.
But besides displaying an abundance of energy, mentoring younger players and touching lives of community members like he sought to do Wednesday, Turiaf brings a suitcase-full of minute, less prominent tangibles, Saunders said. The former coach, who had Turiaf in Washington for all of four games in 2011-12, went so far as to call him “the total package.”
By performing the more menial tasks, Turiaf ups the production of his other four teammates on the floor.
“We were together in Washington, and he was pretty good, and then he got hurt, which wasn’t so good for me,” smiled Saunders, who was fired later that season. “Whether it’s a great player or a role player, there are a lot of players that can’t make their teammates better.”
So how does Turiaf do it? Defensively, No. 1. While he’s never logged big minutes, he can step in front of a shooter and change the direction of a shot and is active enough to thwart an interior pass now and again. His 3.5 blocks per 48 minutes rank fifth among all players during his time in the league. That gives Minnesota another viable rim defender alongside rookie draft pick Gorgui Dieng, both of whom will back up Nikola Pekovic.
It takes Turiaf-like vitality to defend effectively, and his is rarely in short supply.
“Whether Ronny plays five minutes or he plays 20 minutes, he’s always gonna be prepared to play,” Saunders said. “He’ll play whatever you give him to play, and yeah, there’s gonna be times he’s gonna be used in key situations down the stretch, just because of what he can do defensively.”
On offense, Turiaf has become a master of the pick-and-roll — particularly the pick part. That’s helpful when he’s trying to prevent opposing bigs from setting solid screens, too. He’s also an above-average passer, Saunders said, which is beneficial in setting up wing players for corner jump shots in coach Rick Adelman’s offensive system.
And every once in a while, Turiaf can shake loose for a big, rim-rocking dunk.
“Ronny’s personality is that of a pleaser,” Saunders said. “He likes to please people. He likes to help people.”
While there are plenty of ways to do that with his game, the 30-year-old will also be expected to continue his penchant for developing beneficial relationships, starting in the Target Center dressing room.
Turiaf has played six different teams, won an NBA championship, lost another and been exposed to all kinds of markets, from Los Angeles (the Lakers drafted him in 2005) to New York (2010-11). Minnesota’s core of Pekovic, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, by contrast, has never so much as reached the playoffs.
“It’s not just the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami,” said Turiaf, who was on the 2012 championship Heat squad. “It’s how I went to New York City and nobody counted on New York, and (the Knicks) made it to the playoffs and we got swept. So I can also talk about that. I can talk about every different thing, everything that I’ve been through in my career.”
Turiaf said he’s specifically looking forward to working with Pekovic, who led the Timberwolves in scoring last year after Love missed most of the season due to injury.
Matching up with him at training camp, which begins Oct. 1, is a different story.
“I hate playing against him, because he’s someone who’s relentless as far as posting up,” Turiaf said. “He’s the strongest center that I’ve had to guard, hands down.”
He’ll also have a lot to offer Dieng, both in terms of playing the post and adjusting to NBA life. Turiaf grew up on the Caribbean Island of Martinique, while Dieng hails from Senegal in Africa.
They’re two of the latest additions to a roster that’s distinctly diverse, much by former team president David Kahn’s design. “I’m looking forward to starting a United Nations crew here,” Turiaf joked.
Playing with instead of against Rubio will be a welcome sight, too, said Turiaf, who has represented France in a few international tournaments.
“I’m tired of playing against Ricky and Spain,” he said, drawing the laughter of media and Ronald McDonald House residents and workers present Wednesday. “I’m tired of those guys. It’s good to be on his good side. I’m actually really, really, really serious about it.”
But while he’s expected to seriously affect the outcome of games, don’t expect that trademark spontaneity to at all dissipate. “I never run out,” Turiaf said.