Wolves’ Love embracing leadership role, even if scrutiny comes with it

Kevin Love (right) is putting up huge numbers this season, but that has also put him under a larger microscope with regard to his leadership role with the Timberwolves.

Howard Smith/Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The chiseled physique. The crisp, clean haircut. The increasingly difficult step-back jumpers.

There’s little doubting that Kevin Love has added a lot to his repertoire lately. For one, he’s actually playing — he missed all but 18 games last season with a broken hand that drew scorn from around the basketball world — and pretty darn well, at that. The ultra-talented, tireless power forward ranks fourth in the NBA in scoring and second in rebounding while finding ways to dish out assists and try shots from all over the floor.

Even after dropping off some during his past three games, Love is moving more agilely, scoring more diversely and taxing adversaries more excruciatingly than ever.

"He’s a different player," coach Rick Adelman’s said on more than one occasion.

But there’s another change at play. One that doesn’t come as natural for Love as sticking back a rebound or stepping off a pick-and-roll for a timely 3-pointer.

An offseason point of emphasis for the sixth-year, veteran star was increasing his vocal input. That means a lot of things — on-floor communication, encouraging rookies Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Robbie Hummel at practice, speaking up in team meetings, putting his stamp on the dressing-room culture.

His teammates and coach have noticed it.

"He’s trying to become more of a leader out there," forward Chase Budinger said, "especially in the locker room, of talking more and of trying to work out plays with guys one on one or talk through different circumstances out there on the court with guys, especially at halftime, trying to talk to everyone."

Said Adelman: "He’s just more confident. He knows his abilities. He can do more things. I think it (leadership) is just a natural evolution as guys get into their careers."

Yet Love doesn’t regard himself as the team’s unquestioned chieftain.

"Of course," Love said when asked if he sees himself in more of a central leadership role than previous years. "But we have other guys on this team, like Pek (Nikola Pekovic) and Ricky (Rubio), who lead by example, who speak up. Coach, like everywhere he’s been, every player has a voice. I think everybody’s going to step up. And it takes a whole team."

The issue was raised last week when Love called out teammates J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham for allegedly moping at the end of the bench and not getting up during timeouts in Minnesota’s loss to Phoenix.

Love felt he’s enough of a key voice on this team to tell reporters such activity "pisses me off" and "we’re supposed to be a team."

It wasn’t Love’s first public chastisement of a specific group of teammates. The week before, he ripped the entire bench for its poor play while maintaining the starters held up their end of the bargain in a loss to Dallas.

Adelman likes things handled in-house. So does Barea, who said he agreed he and Cunningham were out of line but would’ve rather been approached about the issue in person.

"This day and age, you have to figure out how to say it," Adelman said, "because it’s gonna be there forever."

So Love is still learning.

It takes an extraordinary player under extraordinary circumstances to fully assume the reins of an organization, Adelman said. Part of what’s made Magic, Jordan, Kobe and Lebron so iconic is their knack for upping the level of performance around them.

And even they had to morph into such a role. Love is capable of joining them someday, Adelman contends.

"I think a team that has a certain guy is special," Adelman said. "In time — someone like Kevin Love, for instance, with his ability — in time, he’ll grow into that. But I think at the start, it’s not that easy to do."

It’s also not easy when one’s future with said franchise is uncertain. Love can opt out of his contract in 2015, and the latest run of rumors has him desiring a change of scenery in the form of the Los Angeles Lakers.

So for now, Love is right. To some extent, anyone wearing a Timberwolves uniform is allowed to chime in.

"Everyone does have a voice on this team," said Budinger, who re-signed with Minnesota this past offseason as an unrestricted free agent. "We do have some veterans that will speak up here and there, but as well as other guys that have been in this league for a while who also can talk."

One of those men is point guard A.J. Price, who rarely plays but has been in the league for four seasons and knows what it takes to navigate an NBA schedule. He and Barea have emerged as the bench’s most vocal personalities. But both say Love, because of his All-Star status, is looked to as the team’s No. 1 voice, even if others are allowed to be heard.

"I think, in some ways, it’s kind of been forced upon him," Price said. "When you’re the best player and you do the most for the team, everybody gravitates toward you.

Everybody’s going to look at you. So regardless of whether he wanted that role or not, I think it’s kind of been pushed on him, and I think he’s done a great job this year with embracing it and kind of getting guys to rally behind him."

Said Barea: "He’s an All-Star on this team, so he’s got to be the leader. He’s got to be a voice, and everybody’s got to follow the All-Star."

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