Kevin Love entered the NBA in 2008 a stocky, ox-like bruiser known as a post presence and not much else. He enters this weekend’s All-Star Game as one of the league’s toughest outs, on pace to become the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76 to average 25 points, 13 rebounds and four assists in a season.
He’s changed his body. He’s changed his range. He’s changed every game he’s played in the past four seasons.
Supremely confident and covetous of a place among the league’s all-time elite, Love may have seen this coming.
But much of the basketball world didn’t.
During his years as a player and assistant coach for the Lakers, Brian Shaw made a frequent habit of heading over to Pauley Pavilion and catching a UCLA game. Bruins coach Ben Howland had recruited Shaw away from St. Mary’s to the University of California-Santa Barbara in the mid-1980s — Howland was a Gauchos assistant then — and often invited his old friend to check out the crop of potential NBA talent in his cupboard.
Shaw remembers watching Love lead UCLA to the 2008 Final Four, stomping the school’s freshman scoring and rebounding records in his wake. But he also saw a 6-foot-10, 260-pound bull without much muscle tone that might struggle to produce dramatically against the NBA’s top-of-the-line athletes.
"I thought he’d be a solid NBA player," said Shaw, now the Nuggets’ head coach, "but never really thought that he would elevate himself to the level that he is right now."
The All-American could shoot (17.5 points per game, 55.9 percent from the floor, 35.4 from 3-point range) and rebound (10.6 per game) with the best of them. Even in his rookie season with the Timberwolves, he asserted himself as a handful on the glass.
But the floor stretching, assist generating and basketball acumen that are staples of Love’s arsenal took more time to germinate.
"I’m impressed by that," Shaw said. "The shape he’s gotten himself into, finding his niche in this league and just being able to not only just rebound the way that he can and has shown to do with guys that are a lot bigger and a lot more athletic, but his basketball IQ, how he’s really, really rounded himself out to be a good all-around offensive player, expanding his game out to the 3-point line as well as posting up, being able to pass the ball the way that he does.
"He’s really made himself a hot commodity around the league."
‘Put down the snacks’
Kevin Durant’s connection to Love goes back even further. The pair’s well-documented hoops brotherhood dates to their junior high and high school days, when they’d run into each other often on the AAU circuit.
Full-faced and big-boned, Love wasn’t as disciplined back then, Durant said.
"He put down the snacks," said the Thunder star, who will join Love in the Western Conference’s starting lineup Sunday in New Orleans. "He used to be one of those guys, but you can tell he put in so much work."
Even while consuming a snack-heavy diet, Love was named the 2007 Gatorade National Male Athlete of the Year and earned national player of the year accolades from six different entities. That high school senior-year distinction was impressive enough, but after working out with Love the past few offseasons and facing him in game action, Durant’s appreciation has skyrocketed.
This year’s league MVP favorite saw Love attack the weights and cardio machines this past summer to carve out the 243-pound frame he carries today. He’s been the helpless defender, on occasion, Love looks in the eye before rising and rattling home a 3-pointer from 25 feet away.
"He couldn’t shoot a lick when I first met him, and now he’s the best 3-point shooter in the league after Steph Curry," Durant said. "He’s one of those guys that has a quick trigger but can also mix it up in the paint and do a lot. I worked out with him all summer and stuff he was doing, you know, big guys are not supposed to do that."
Love doesn’t get to the rim with as much ease or force as Durant, part of the reason he’s three spots behind him in the league scoring race. But Love’s 37.1 percent 3-point clip ranks fifth among power forwards, and that’s on 308 attempts — 25 more than the next-most frequent long range shooter of the group.
Love’s strength is nearly unmatched, as he ranks second in the league with 13.2 rebounds per game. And those trademark outlet passes he’s tossed since high school have only been accentuated by the presence of leak-out specialist Corey Brewer. Love’s four assists per game rank 36th — in the entire NBA.
Never was Love’s power-finesse combination on display more than the month of December, when he averaged 30 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.2 helpers. From Dec. 10-30, he recorded 25 or more points and eight or more rebounds in 11 straight games — the longest such regular-season streak since Shaquille O’Neal did in 2001.
"He was 30 and 10 for the whole month? Four assists?" Durant asked incredulously. "Not many people can do that. Nobody can do that, really, to be honest."
That’s coming from the league’s leading scorer, who Thursday eclipsed the 40-point mark for the eighth time this season.
Say what you will about the man that infamously traded Kevin Garnett, the only other All-Star starter in Timberwolves history.
But Kevin McHale knows talent, at least well enough to assemble the Minnesota rosters that made eight straight playoffs from 1996-97 to 2003-04.
Yet even he couldn’t see this coming.
"If anybody drafts anybody besides LeBron (James) and they tell you they saw all this, they’re lying to you," said McHale, now the Houston Rockets’ head coach. "But everybody lies in this business. I thought Kevin would be a double-double guy. He could really rebound, rebounded outside his area, had great hands and a really good 15-17-foot jump shot, and I said with that alone, he could be a 15 and 10 guy.
"He took it to a whole new level."
McHale coached Love during his rookie season and brought him along steadily. Love started just 37 games and averaged 11.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and one assist. He attempted just 19 3s all year. Two of them went in.
In between contests, McHale often spent extra time aside with Love, enlightening him on some of the nuances that come with professional post play. There are few better experts in that regard than the hall of famer from Hibbing, Minn.
While he may not have been enamored with coming off the bench, Love credits McHale for helping him get started. What’s happened since may have shocked the former Celtic, but it’s no longer news.
During the past four seasons, Love ranks fifth in the NBA in scoring and first in rebounding. It’s a number skewed by the fact he missed most of last season due to injury, but either way, his first professional coach didn’t expect it.
"I never dreamt he’d put up the numbers he put up," McHale said. "I always thought he’d be a good solid, double-double guy who had a chance to be an All-Star sometime in his career. He’s eclipsed that already."
By the time Rick Adelman got a hold of him, Love was already establishing his uniqueness among current NBA greats. It was certainly a draw for the veteran head man to come to the Twin Cities ahead of the 2011-12 season to try and team up with the star power forward on a reclamation project.
With Minnesota still feeling the effects of past personnel gaffes by former president David Kahn and failing incessantly to compete in close games, the overall results haven’t been there.
But in spite of the Timberwolves’ — 11th in the West and six games back of a playoff spot — woes, Love has solidified himself as premier.
"He’s been one of the top players in the league," Adelman said "There’s no doubt. He’s been very consistent game in and game out."
Even with fellow starters Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin out with injuries. Appearing in seven games since Pekovic was sidelined with right-ankle bursitis, Love is averaging 31.6 points and 15.1 rebounds while shooting 46 percent from the field.
That’s with a sore neck, back, hip, ankle and left quadriceps. The physical beating kept Love out of two games during that stretch.
"Lately, he’s been through a lot of banging around, ups and downs," Adelman said. "It’s not just putting up numbers; if he doesn’t play like that with our other people out, we’re really in trouble."
All weekend, Love will garner that same respect. Media interviews will focus on his increased ability to hit long jumpers and muscle his way for rebounds and putbacks. Saturday night’s 3-point shooting contest will display his knack for knocking down triples; he won the event in 2012. Then comes Sunday’s 7 p.m. tipoff, when Love will saunter across the Smoothie King Center stage and hear his name called along with the nine other most talented and well-recognized basketball players in the world.
Then comes a late-season push aimed at defying the Timberwolves’ long-shot odds of snapping the league’s longest active postseason drought. Talks of his future with the franchise — he has a player option on his contract after next season, and the team may opt to trade him so as not to let him walk for no returns — will persist. Opponents will continue, Pek or no Pek, to beat the snot out of him.
But while his current teammates from an internationally flavored roster have spread throughout the globe, Love will spend these next few days in the center of the basketball universe, located this year on the Bayou. An online and social media fan vote got him there, but it’s the years of honing his game, body and mind that drew their digitally-pronounced praise.
After years of grinding toward world-class status, he’s right where he belongs.
"It’s a number of things," said Love, who’s played in two other All-Star Games but makes his first start Sunday. "I think I’ve worked very hard throughout my entire career. I worked really hard this last offseason. I told the fans that I would and hopefully my play this year has, you know, obviously helped them vote for me.