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6.29.2008

Love Better than Bird?

Minneapolis Star Tribune

By the time the Timberwolves either use or trade their third pick in Thursday night's NBA draft, they will have tested and examined potential selections in a process so extensive Kevin McHale says "we look in every orifice they've got."

Kevin Love a mirror image of McHale: The UCLA forward grew up watching the Celtics star play, and observers say there is much identical about their games.

Still, there are some things you couldn't know, you wouldn't know, you shouldn't know.

Such as UCLA freshman forward Kevin Love's perhaps too-cozy relationship with a particular food product. In an attempt to convince NBA teams that he is nimble and athletic enough, Love has lost 15 pounds since the college basketball season by changing his diet and forsaking what he calls his "chocolate-milk fetish."

Even more disturbing to long-suffering Timberwolves fans might be Love's old-school game nurtured by his father and ancient NBA game videotapes that he hopes McHale -- the Basketball Hall of Fame player and unpopular Wolves executive -- sees as his "mirror image."

A comparison to one of the greatest big men who ever played shouldn't be a bad thing, but given McHale's standing among the team's fan base ...

"If he doesn't see a little bit of himself in me or me see a little of myself in him, that'd be weird," Love said. "I used to watch tapes of him all the time growing up. He might have been my favorite player. There were so many things in his game that I just love. Watching me, it's almost like seeing a smaller, bulkier image of him."

Love's father, Stan, played four NBA seasons with the Baltimore Bullets and the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 1970s. When Kevin was born in 1988, Love gave his son the middle name of "Wesley" after former teammate Wes Unseld and raised him on game tapes of Pete Maravich, the Lakers' "Showtime" teams and McHale's Boston Celtics from the 1980s.

Love even put his son on the telephone with former ABA and NBA great Connie Hawkins a few times.

"That's the reason I wear No. 42," Love said, referring to Hawkins' uniform number.

Now that's old school.

So is Love's game, an uncommon combination of size, skill and resolve that carried him to Pac-10 Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, First Team All-Star and national first-team All-America honors.

Letting it fly

Love's athleticism and quickness is questioned. His grasp of the game, the passion with which he plays and passing skills compared to old-timers Unseld and Bill Walton by UCLA legend John Wooden, among others, are not.

"There's a gift in knowing how to play," McHale said. "It makes you faster. It makes you quicker. It makes you a step ahead. I played with a guy who you'd say, 'He's a step slow, he's this, he's that.' His name was Larry Bird. He wasn't too bad. There are guys who just know how to play. Magic Johnson wasn't a world-class athlete. He was just unbelievably smart. Those guys always do well."

Stan Love gave his boy that middle name and introduced him to a variety of passing drills, dribbling drills and hand exercises to hone his instincts and his strength. The results can be seen on youtube.com, where there is clip after clip of Love.

In one, he makes a full-court practice shot with a flick of his wrists. In another, he throws a 90-foot alley-oop pass to Beasley at a summer camp. In many others, he grabs a rebound in a college game and in an instant fires an overhead pass to a sprinting teammate three-quarters of the court away.

"His outlet passing is just ridiculous," Arizona State sophomore guard Derek Glasser said.

Former UCLA and NBA star Marques Johnson heard all about this Oregon schoolboy star before Love arrived in Los Angeles, and Johnson was reluctant to believe the hype. A Pac-10 television broadcast analyst, he now counts himself among the converted after watching Love average 17.5 points and 10.6 rebounds last season while leading UCLA to the Final Four, where Memphis beat the Bruins in a semifinal game.

"The pro game might be even easier for him than the college game was because he'll play with better players," Johnson said. "He has a basketball IQ and a toughness, a mentality you just don't see an awful lot. I didn't see Larry Bird play at 18 years old -- not to compare him to Larry Bird -- but I'm willing to bet Kevin Love was much better as an 18-year-old freshman. I'm not saying he'll chart out to be better, but I know what his heart is, what his desire is."

Measuring up

Still, questions remain: Is he tall enough? Is he quick enough? Does he jump high enough? Could you put him next to Al Jefferson in a power forward/center combo and not get destroyed defensively by taller, quicker opponents?

Wolves assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg, when asked if a Jefferson-Love tandem would be tall and athletic enough, said, "Against most of the teams in this league they are. A guy like Kevin Love is the perfect offensive complement to Al and, defensively, he's very strong and physical. That makes up for his lack of size. He's a player who plays bigger than his size with his smarts."

Love gained more height than anyone measured at the NBA's pre-draft camp in Orlando when he put on his basketball shoes. He measured 6-7 3/4 in his bare feet, 6-9 1/2 in his shoes.

"How 'bout that?" Love asked. "You'd have thought I had heels on out there."

Love gave up his beloved chocolate milk and now has nutritionally balanced meals delivered to him daily in an effort to slim down and thus answer questions about his speed and mobility. He weighed 255 pounds in Orlando after playing last season at 270 pounds, he said.

"I've been pegged as certain things -- unathletic, I can't move -- so I'm hoping to surprise a lot of people," he said. "That's what I'm here for: to change people's minds. I feel like Mr. Fit. I feel like a Transformer, if you've ever seen that movie."

The only film McHale and his scouting staff have seen recently is countless game tape, some of which features Love's game broken down into retrievable snippets.

Asked if he sees himself in any of the footage, McHale shrugged.

"I don't know," he said. "Kevin Love is going to be a real good Kevin Love."

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