Beasley enters offseason with uncertain future

MINNEAPOLIS – Michael Beasley sits in front of his locker, two white headphones lodged solidly in his ears as if to say, look, I’m tuning you all out.

But the questions are coming, and he’s firing back with answers. Those headphones are just for show, a barrier between Beasley and everything he’d rather not think about. He can hear it all, every concern levied at him about his future, every answer he provides. And no matter what anyone thinks about Beasley’s expectations and self-evaluation, there’s no denying that the NBA’s former problem child has put a good deal of thought into what comes next.

Beasley, who went from a starter to a role player after returning from a sprained foot in late January, has been coming off the bench for the Timberwolves all season while working to improve his defense. He’s averaging 23.1 minutes this season, a career low and down from 32.3 in 2010-11, when he started all 73 games in which he appeared for the Timberwolves. For many players, those minutes would be plenty, and the 11.6 points he’s averaging would be just fine. But this isn’t any player. This is Michael Beasley.

The top high school recruit in 2007, Beasley spent a year at Kansas State before entering the NBA as the second overall pick in 2008. Some argued that he should have gone first instead of Derrick Rose – last year’s league MVP – and Beasley was picked before both Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook. These are players whose names have been considered for major awards, and Love and Westbrook are the fourth- and fifth-best scorers in the league this season, respectively.

Just four years ago, Beasley was considered better, if not the best. Now, after Rose signed an extension in Chicago so large it has a rule named for it, after Love and Westbrook also signed multi-million-dollar extensions, Beasley remains uncertain about his future. It’s “blurry,” he said recently, and perhaps rightfully so; Beasley has never achieved the greatness or consistency that breed large contracts and security. The Timberwolves have an $8.1 million option on the small forward for next season, but when they let the Jan. 25 deadline for offering him an extension pass, that suggested they needed more time to consider their commitment to Beasley.

It’s not that Beasley hasn’t brought an added spark to the Timberwolves’ offense this season. He has, and he’s also worked diligently at his defense. His health has been a major concern, between that sprained foot and an injured toe, but when Beasley has been able to compete, he’s had his moments. Take his 24-point night in the team’s season opener, his 34-point outing in Houston on Jan. 30 or the 27 points he scored against the Clippers in Los Angeles on March 5. There’s no doubt that when Beasley is on, he can be an offensive force. It’s the lines of zeros, the strings of single-digit nights that seem far too many in number, which worry coaches and put a damper on his prospects.

“We just like to have him healthy,” Love said. “It’s a weight off everybody’s shoulders when Mike’s healthy… it’s good to have him back. It’s extra firepower.”

Health has been a concern for Beasley this season in a further-reaching manner. Not only has it jeopardized his role with the Timberwolves, but it’s also prevented him from putting on a good show for prospective teams down the stretch. Beasley missed five games in late March and early April, and though he returned with a 20-point night in New Orleans, every night he sits is a missed opportunity to prove himself.

But as far as Beasley is concerned, showing off for other teams may be secondary to asserting to coach Rick Adelman and Timberwolves executives exactly how much he’s capable of.

“As far as… if I’m going to return, I just have to let everything play out,” Beasley said. “Like I said before, many times, I would love to come back and be a Timberwolf. I love it here. I can genuinely say that from the bottom of my heart. From my teammates to the Cities to the coaches to the staff, everybody’s just so welcoming here.”

Beasley has finally found an identity in Minnesota, a niche within a team. As volatile as his personal life once was, he’s now a mellow force in the Timberwolves locker room. He’s irreverent to the point of being utterly confusing, and he gets along with his teammates. There are inside jokes about poker with Love, and the off-key notes of a Beasley tune are sometimes heard in the background of the power forward’s postgame interviews. Beasley is becoming more likeable by the season, but with millions of dollars on the table and his inconsistent past, that’s not enough to guarantee him a roster spot.

So will the Timberwolves pick up Beasley’s option? There’s no way to tell. Watch him play on one of those 20-point nights, and it’s hard to think they wouldn’t. He looks the role, making the shots few players dare to take with the instincts that no amount of practice can instill. But then there are the down nights, the ones that make it hard not to think that the 23-year-old is already a bust. It’s a fine line, and though Beasley is maturing, there will come a point where his time to step up has run out.

That point might not be just yet, though. Yes, Beasley’s production this season was down, his time on the bench outnumbering his minutes on the court in many games. But Beasley showed a measure of maturity and selflessness that he’d rarely displayed in past seasons. Upon his 20-point return on April 8, he admitted how hard it was to be encouraged for himself after his team’s fall from the playoff race. Even before that, when he was still injured, he spoke the party line about how though his injuries and uncertain future were frustrating, nothing was more important than the team.

Who knows if he meant it, but for Beasley to even entertain those ideas, to know that they’re the right things to say, is a step. Whether it’s enough to earn him another year in Minnesota or a decent contract somewhere else remains to be seen.

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