KG's Rookie Year
On pages 82 to 84 of the Timberwolves media guide is a section called team history. The entries are selective. The dates when Billy McKinney, Bill Musselman and Jack McCloskey were hired are included. The dates when McKinney and Musselman were fired and McCloskey "retired" are not. Apparently the memories from the Jimmy Rodgers Era are too painful. The team's second coach is not mentioned at all.
The history section includes several hallowed moments, including when Target Center was named, Andres Guibert became the first native Cuban to play in an NBA game, and Christian Laettner won three of the highly prestigious ESPY awards - for plays he made in college.It is time to add a new milestone. Next to the date of Nov. 7, 1995, there should be the following entry: "A Timberwolves player about to re-enter the game tells his coach that, for the good of the team, the coach should keep his replacement on the floor."
With 7 minutes to go in the Wolves' 93-92 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night, coach Bill Blair started walking down the bench to consider the possibility of putting starting small forward Sam Mitchell back in the game to replace Kevin Garnett. "Coach, keep him in," Mitchell told Blair. "I see what he's got." The stunning thing was that Blair did not faint.
When was the last time one of his players volunteered to stay on the bench to keep a teammate on the floor? Blair hesitated. "Here?" he said. "This is probably the first time. In Indiana [with the Pacers] it happened all the time. It's part of winning. That's part of the change we're looking for here, guys who think that way." Word out of the Wolves locker room was that after the game, Doug West volunteered to come off the bench if Isaiah Rider continued to play the way he did against the Lakers notwithstanding those golden moments when Rider massages the ball forever and the rest of the offense comes to a grinding halt).
Players volunteering to come off the bench or stay on the bench for the good of the team? This indeed would be mighty refreshing stuff in Minnesota. In Mitchell's case, it also is probable that Garnett may not have given him much choice. Three games into his career, Garnett is not exactly ready for the NBA All-Star Game, but one thing already is apparent: There is nothing in his on-court demeanor or play that suggests he is in awe or overmatched on the NBA stage.
There is certainly nothing resembling the look of sheer terror that often filled the face of Donyell Marshall, last year's No. 1 pick, when he took the court. Garnett does not seem afraid to make a bad play. He plays loose. Late in the Wolves' tense game with the Lakers, Terry Porter, who will be this team's point guard in the fourth quarter, was putting powder on his hands along the sideline during a timeout. Garnett, in a light moment apparently meant to fire up his teammate, slapped the point guard on the butt several times so hard that a shocked Porter, grinning, almost fell over the scorer's table.
"He's not afraid of anything," said Blair. "When he gets beat on a play it's not like he gets destroyed. He comes right back. I don't want to pump this kid up too much but he has a chance to do some really special things. He has a lot of poise for somebody so young." The encouraging thing about Garnett's performance on Tuesday was that he proved he does not have to score points to influence the game. Garnett scored only eight points, but he also had five rebounds, three steals, two assists, a blocked shot, a goaltending call that received the loudest ovation of the night and a handoff pass over the top of Lakers guard Nick Van Exel's head that offered the most amusing moment of the night.
Wolves fans are not accustomed to seeing one of their players elevate and pancake a shot - goaltending or not - with the flair of Garnett. They also are not accustomed to having one of their players palm the ball over the head of an opposing player to hand it off to a teammate. Rarely in a 6-11 player - especially one who is growing up at a time when the highlight shows trumpet the thunderous dunk rather than the pretty pass - do you see the kind of passing instincts Garnett has displayed. This works out well for the Wolves. In the earliest stages of his career, Garnett will be better served if there are not too many scoring demands made of him.
"I love Kevin's passing," said Blair. "The thing about Kevin is he wants to fit in. He wants to work so his teammates accept him. Sometimes, he passes too much. I've been on him lately to shoot the ball more. I almost started threatening to throw the ball at him if he didn't shoot more. It's a nice problem to have." When the Wolves drafted Garnett, there was much discussion about bringing the high school kid along slowly, limiting his minutes to 18 to 22 a night, maybe less. There will be nights when this indeed should be the case, nights when he looks every bit the teenager he is, and looks nowhere nearly as effective as he looked Tuesday night.
But forget the notion that the Wolves need to protect the tender psyche of a player one year out of high school so that he is not overwhelmed and his confidence is not shattered. Garnett already looks unbreakable. Mitchell, even if it ends up being at his own expense, got it right in his selfless message to Blair: Do not hold this kid back because the book says you should. Play him. A lot.