Wolves want more defense from Beasley

MINNEAPOLIS — Blame his sprained right foot.

Blame Kurt Rambis and Eric Spoelstra. Blame Frank Martin. Blame the coaches at his six different high schools, who started the trend of valuing Michael Beasley for his offensive skills and little else.

They’re easy to blame and hard to fault. For so many years, Beasley was a prize, a sought-after recruit and the next best thing — first in AAU, then in college and finally in professional basketball. Of course he was. Beasley played on one of the most successful AAU teams of the 2000s, the PG Jaguars. He was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game in 2007, when he scored 23 points. The top prospect in that year’s recruiting class, Beasley attended Kansas State, where he led the Big 12 in points and rebounds, averaging 26.2 and 12.4, respectively.

He was the best. He’d always been. And you don’t mess with that, especially when “that” is Michael Beasley. Along with the athleticism and the scoring, Beasley has always had a temper, an explosiveness that matches his offensive firepower. He was kicked out of the NBA rookie symposium, and he underwent substance abuse treatment in 2009. With that reputation and those tattoos, the cornrows and the haughty comments (“We’re going to beat Kansas at home,” he said in 2008 before Kansas State played Kansas. “We’re going to beat them in their house. We’re going to beat them in Africa. Wherever we play, we’re going to beat them.”), Beasley perhaps unknowingly created a barrier around himself, preventing growth and improvement.

He was good enough to get by. He always had been, but in his first two seasons in the NBA with Miami after being drafted No. 2 overall behind Derrick Rose, Beasley was moving closer and closer to just getting by. The teenaged pro was no longer on top. Sure, he was starting by the time his second season began, but the player with the third-most single-season points of any college freshman was no longer leading a team, much less a league, in scoring. He was solid but streaky offensively and shaky on defense, and the heightened competition exposed Beasley for maybe the first time in his life as something other than a star.

And so it went. Beasley was eventually traded in July 2010 to the Timberwolves, where his numbers went up but his inconsistency remained, especially at the end of last season. Mike was being Mike, and everyone let him.

Not anymore, though. Since injuring his right foot on Jan. 6 and missing 11 games, Beasley has played exclusively off the bench. He’s averaging 24.6 minutes since coming back, and Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman says Beasley’s return to the starting lineup has yet to be determined.

To some it might look like a punishment. In reality, it’s the exact opposite. What Adelman and his staff are doing might just be the best thing that’s yet happened in Beasley’s four-year career.

Adelman is one of the first coaches to have the guts to bench the forward, but even he shouldn’t be anointed as Beasley’s savior. What really spurred this process wasn’t any one person. It was his injury and his teammates, who proved that the Timberwolves could still win without Beasley’s scoring punch. Sure, the team missed him, but seeing it function without Beasley was enough to justify limiting his role, for once forcing him to refine and expand his game.

“The whole league knows Mike can score,” said teammate Martell Webster, who sat on the bench with Beasley while both were injured. “What we don’t know, what’s been inconsistent, is his defense.  . . . Once he can complete the whole package, Mike will be a force to be reckoned with.”

And so there is Michael Beasley each night, warming the bench at tipoff while Wes Johnson plays the minutes that were once his. To a casual fan, it might not make sense. Why is a player who’s capable of a 30-point game benched in favor of a player who’s averaging 5.7? The answer is simple: Adelman and his staff aren’t going to mortgage Beasley’s future for success today.

Beasley worked extensively over the summer to make his game more complete with Norm Nixon, a former Laker and Clipper who’s been an agent and analyst since his retirement. When the season started, assistant coach Bill Bayno and player development coaches David Adelman and Shawn Respert picked up where Nixon left off, and their work with Beasley has intensified since he returned from his injury.

Bayno said the main focus of his work with Beasley has been to get him to be something more than a scorer. Bayno has seen Beasley’s potential, like in his 14-rebound game against Sacramento on Feb. 7, but he’s also seen night after night of the forward lagging on defense. Adelman said Beasley’s biggest problem is neglecting his man when another player has the ball, and he needs to learn to shift his focus away from the action and to his assigned target.

“I think the biggest thing with him is consistency,” Adelman said. “He needs to stay mentally in tune to what we’re trying to do.”

In some ways, this is all a mind game for Beasley. He needs to redefine his role and perception of himself if he wants to succeed in the league. Of course his eyes are always trained on the ball; the ball has been the key to his career. Shooting, scoring — you need the ball to do it all, and Beasley wants it. But sometimes that’s not possible, and to learn to stay within his limits, to do what’s better for the team rather than what’s best for him, is Beasley’s new task.

“He has to realize that there’s more than one way to win a game,” Webster said. “I keep telling him, if your offense isn’t rolling, make sure that you’re very, very, very in-tune with the team defensively. Because he can help us. He’s long; he’s athletic. Don’t be a one-dimensional player.”

It’s easy to see Beasley is making strides, and he still has a clear identity among his teammates. For now, he’s still a scorer, firepower off the bench, Adelman said. But eventually that identity will grow, if the effort and hours he’s put into this process are any indication. Given Beasley’s confidence, he must know that, but that knowledge doesn’t make the reality of here and now any easier for him.

“It’s just hard for a player who for his whole life has been a starter, a star on a team, to have to come off the bench and then try to be this star again,” Webster said. “I don’t fault him for that. That’s not cockiness. That’s called confidence.”

Beasley plays down whatever aversion he has to coming off the bench, and for him to do that speaks volumes. The Michael Beasley of a year ago might have whined or scoffed at his role, but the man who walks off the practice court stripped of his white starter’s jersey this season isn’t placing blame. He’s learned to negotiate his role, and he’s managed to limit his thought during games to what he can do when he’s out there, rather than lament what he can’t do while he’s sitting on the bench.

“We’ve got guys that can shoot,” Beasley said. “We’ve got guys that can score. I just worry about what I can do once I get out there. That’s really about it. I never look at the game and think of if I were in it. I just try to control the things I can.”

Sure, there are moments where it’s difficult, probably more moments than anyone knows. But that’s expected. Although he’s in his fourth year in the NBA, Beasley is just 23. What’s being done for him and to him this season is something bigger than most 23-year-olds can fathom. The Timberwolves have the luxury of being able to get by with Beasley in a limited role, and his coaches are now sowing the seeds for changes that could extend or even save Beasley’s career.

“This is long-term thinking,” Bayno said. “This isn’t short-term thinking. I think sometimes young players, they just think short-term, which is, ‘I’ve got to get my points.’ We’re thinking that we want you to be a championship player. That’s the long term.”

And for Beasley, things are changing. He’s still in some ways the same old Michael, with the tattoos and the smug grin, the guy who wears cut-off sweatpants instead of shorts because, you know, it’s cold, and pants, they just drag all over the place. He’s still unpredictable, and he hasn’t lost that façade of confidence. But his mindset has changed. As he stands outside the 3-point arc during practice, assistant coach Terry Porter feeding him balls, the shots are good, just as anyone would expect. But there’s a focus in Beasley’s eyes, a narrowed glare that belies a more consistent, calculated intensity.

Beasley’s goals have been pretty constant since those early AAU days. He’s always wanted to be a better player, to make his team more of a threat. He’s repeated those goals who knows how many times, but this year, there’s something else, something more, a game-changer if there ever were one.

Michael Beasley wants to be a better teammate, and that might just be the key to it all.

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