Wolves' investment in Kirilenko is paying off

December 18, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — Andrei Kirilenko's toenails are painted a shiny, lacquered black. On his long, muscled back, he sports a massive, menacing tattoo depicting a warrior riding some kind of reptilian beast.

But Andrei Kirilenko also has an affinity for his small, rimless glasses, the kind your doctor or physics professor might favor. His dress shirt is buttoned and pressed pristinely, his answers polite, his basketball opinions informed, his smile easy.

Rules and assumptions do not apply to the 31-year-old Russian. Convention would say that at his age, after a year out of the NBA playing a far easier schedule, Kirilenko would be rusty, fading further from his former self. It would say that this transition, to just his second NBA team since 2001, might be difficult, that Kirilenko is beginning the twilight of his career.

Andrei Kirilenko has no time for convention.

So far this season with the Timberwolves, Kirilenko has stuffed a stat line that's his best since 2005-06. He's averaging 13.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.7 blocked shots and 1.8 steals. He hasn't averaged more points or rebounds since 2005-06 (15.3 and 8.0, respectively), nor has had a PER as high as this season's, 19.25, since then. He hasn't averaged more assists since 2007-08 (4.0), more steals since 2003-04 (1.9) or more blocked shots since 2006-07 (2.1). Of course, Kirilenko is shouldering more minutes in Minnesota than he has since his fifth year in the league, but his per-36 minutes numbers across the board are as good as any season since that year when he last played this much.

In other words, Kirilenko is playing like he's roughly 25. His true shooting percentage, 60.0 percent, is the second-best of his career. His defensive rating, 98, is tied for second-best, as well. He's scoring the ball and stopping opponents, jolting the often-listless offense and leading a defense that's exceeded expectations since the preseason. Kirilenko is back, yes, physically and literally, but the longer he plays like he's playing, there's a sense that he's back, too, in a much bigger sense. If, indeed, he ever left at all.

Granted, 25-year-olds don't often get back spasms like the ones Kirilenko battled two weeks ago, when he missed four games. They don't present the worry that this will all fall off, that they'll wear down, that more than 30 minutes a night might break them. But those injuries and so far unfounded fears are a small tradeoff for the benefits of Kirilenko's age. They're nothing compared to the forward's wisdom and perspective, which can sometimes seem like that of a 50-year-old coach, not just a veteran player.

The night of Ricky Rubio's return, Kirilenko got to talking about the state of the team, his team, even, you could call it. Last season, after every game, it was a race to Kevin Love's locker (race here used in the loosest sense, when considering the pace of the average writer); this year, though, there's a temptation not to plunge ahead into that back corner, but to hover near the entrance and wait for Kirilenko. He's taking ownership, and he's good for nuanced insight along with his ever-quotable quips after nearly every game.

That's just how Kirilenko functions; he's not here to usurp Love or challenge Rubio. That evening, after the melee at Rubio's cubby had scattered, it was Kirilenko's turn to talk, and in just a few moments of dialogue, he showed why he's as indispensable in that locker room as he has been on the court.

"We need them," Kirilenko said of the team's stars, quashing an implication that they've been disposable early and in their absences. "We need Ricky. We need Kevin. They're a huge part of our team. They draw so much attention, and it opens up for everyone. But without them, we're still playing as a team."

They need them, but they can go on without them -- and so much of that is because of him, of Andrei Kirilenko, the man deflecting the credit. He continued:

"We're here to create a team, and I think we're in the right way. We have everyone in the locker room having that very good chemistry. That's very rare, when a team can create that time of clicking, because you always have somebody kind of killing it. But we have a great team right now."

When the Timberwolves signed Kirilenko this summer, there was speculation that he'd been overpaid, that $10 million a year was too much for a player who'd been out of the NBA for a season and was already on a gradual downward tick. And it's tough to argue that, really; $10 million is a lot. Turns out, though, Kirilenko isn't quite that guy. Maybe he wasn't ever -- after all, his year in Russia was due to the lockout, and maybe there was a better reason for his diminished stats -- but now, almost two months into the season, he certainly is no longer.

Two months into the season, Kirilenko is firmly entrenched in Minnesota. He's the Timberwolves' token veteran, and they couldn't ask for a better one. He's operating by his own set of rules -- just ask Rick Adelman. "There are times, offensively, I'm not sure what he's doing," the coach said in November. "He's all over the place. But the effort he gives . . . you've got to give him freedom." And then there's his impact on Russian rookie Alexey Shved, which comes with another bended rule: the two are allowed to speak in Russian to each other. Adelman admits often that he has no idea what the veteran is saying to the rookie guard, but that it's working, and in his role as the Shved-whisperer, Kirilenko has his protégé on the fringes of the Rookie of the Year discussion.

Kirilenko isn't so much back as he's everywhere. At least, that's become his teammates' favorite descriptor of the forward. In one five-sentence analysis of what Kirilenko brings the team, Nikola Pekovic, the man who gives stoic a new meaning, quipped that he is "everywhere" a total of four times. "Active" is another favorite, especially of Adelman, who is comfortable enough with Kirilenko that he can laugh when he dives for a loose ball with the team up by double-digits.

A few months ago, that all would have been a novelty. Those would have been characteristics the team, deprived of them for so long, would have watched in wonder and celebrated. And it's not that the Timberwolves don't value them now -- no, it's just that they've accepted them, and Kirilenko, as part of their very makeup.

"Andrei was Andrei again," Adelman said on Saturday, after the forward posted 14 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocked shots. That's what being Andrei has come to mean, those kind of numbers, and when Andrei is Andrei, things tend to go well.

Maybe the numbers will fall off. Maybe age will show. But Kirilenko is just 31, fresh off a restful year and with no sign of letting up. He's doing something better enjoyed visually than picked to pieces for its unexpected nature, and perhaps we should leave it at that: a positively pleasant and quietly dominant run by one of the NBA's better veterans.

Kirilenko is enjoying this. He's enjoying being the surprise player on the surprise team, and he's daring to think it might even get better. With Rubio and his passes back, it's easy to imagine how much the point guard and the forward will complement one another. Kirilenko cuts and Rubio passes and it is (or will be) a thing of beauty.

Andrei Kirilenko, this bundle of contradictions, doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. He's the aging veteran as well as the spry surprise, the wise, polite Russian with that fascinating tattoo and those black nails. He's AK-47, AK, and just plain Andrei. And as the season progresses, it's becoming easier to forget that downturn, his age, even that whole season when he disappeared from the NBA, even if it was just months ago.

His sneakers cover up those jarring toes, his Timberwolves jersey all but the very wingtips of the tattoo. On the court, there is nothing to distract us from the real Andrei Kirilenko, none of the rhetoric or past or silly talking points. There is just a forward, defending and blocking, scoring and rebounding his way into the fabric of what may just be Minnesota's first winning team in years.

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