MINNEAPOLIS – With Alexey Shved, listening is an effort. You’re trying so hard to hear him that you forget what he’s saying, willing so hard for it to be louder and slower that the words cease to make sense.
It’s not that Shved doesn’t speak English. He does, and pretty well for a player who was born 5,000 miles from Minneapolis and lived in Russia until last month. He understands the language even better. But the shy 23-year-old with the headband and braces is a little nervous, a little in a hurry and a lot soft-spoken. Get him going, and he has plenty to say. He’s trying, but for now, it can be too soft to notice.
On the court in his first week of training camp, Shved has been impressive. He’s taller than most expected, though just as lanky as everyone worried he’d be. He can shoot, though, with precision, and he’s already garnering comparisons to Ricky Rubio with his fluid movements. He has a natural gift for passing and a good read on the game. He isn’t perfect, but he’s showing signs.
“He’s really a smart player,” coach Rick Adelman said. “He reads situations really well. He’s just got a natural gift to pass the ball.”
For the past two practices, Shved has faced a new challenge, beyond just integrating with his new team, mastering the pace of the NBA and learning a new language. With Luke Ridnour sidelined briefly with a stiff back, Shved has been foisted into playing more at point guard, and as the team’s floor general, he’s taking baby steps.
“Well, it’s going to be a process,” Adelman said. “We’ve been playing him at the point, and I think that’s hard, because he’s got to be able to run the whole team and call the plays. We’ve been trying to just mix him and start showing him a lot of film.”
Until now, Shved had barely played point guard. It’s what he was known for on the Russian national team and thus on the national stage, but he played there out of necessity, just three months in each of the last two summers. Aside from those six months and his childhood experience at the position, Shved has played largely at shooting guard, but he’s determined to make the most of whatever chance he’s given with the Timberwolves.
The point guard position relies almost entirely upon the ability to lead teammates and run plays, and in that, Shved has an early obstacle. He has the physical profile for the position, but communication is still lacking. On Monday, he reassured everyone in his soft, fast cadence that yes, he’ll be able to call plays. He will do it in English, he said, and he’ll repeat himself if necessary. In those assurances, he seemed confident.
Unfortunately, what he promises has yet to occur.
Kevin Love said that he hasn’t seen evidence that Shved can yell out a play and make his teammates understand it. In fact, he said, Rubio was easier to comprehend last season when he arrived from Spain than Shved is now. That’s hardly a surprise, and Love’s critique was more constructive than angry, but Shved has his work cut out for him.
“I think as a rookie, once he learns, especially on defense having to talk and on offense having to be the facilitator on the floor, he’ll really have to speak up,” Love said. “I don’t know, we have to do some rookie hazing or something to get him to talk.”
Love is joking, of course, about the hazing, but the motivation behind it is real. Fellow Russian Andrei Kirilenko has said that he pushes Shved to talk to other teammates, hoping that expanding his social circle will improve his English more quickly. It’s a good plan, and one that Shved seems to be on board with. His English has already improved in his first week of practices, and he has the willingness and motivation to continue that upward trend.
“I like this place,” Shved said. “I like Minneapolis. To me, more difficult was first day when we have practice for four hours. But after that, I feel good. My body feel good and I feel good.”
There’s a comfort level now that was absent a week ago. It’s now possible to talk to Shved without Kirilenko, to engage in something of a two-way conversation without the interloper. A week ago, it took intermittent exchanges in Russian to get a point across. Eventually, Kirilenko would take over. Shved would watch his mentor like a puppy for a bit, and eventually, he’d sense he wasn’t needed and wander off. It was as if he doubted anyone really wanted to speak to him, assuming they were really there for the older star.
A week in, he seems to get it. He’s been given sufficient attention and playing time that he might begin to believe that yes, people care what he has to say. His confidence is growing, and it shows. Now, he’s closer ready for that first presason game, in which Adelman says he’ll see significant playing time and have a chance to show once and for all that he can successfully begin his transition to the NBA.
“I need to play first, my first five, six games, to start feeling it,” Shved said. “It’s a different style, a different country, different players.”
Shved will take time to catch on to the pace and the style. He’s not going to be a superstar immediately, but he has the potential to grow and a good base of skills that will help the Timberwolves this season. Language should be the least of his issues, and right now, he needs to speak up.