The talk before the lockout in 2011 was that Andrei Kirilenko was done in the NBA.
Injuries had hampered him for the last seven years of the 10 seasons he played for the Utah Jazz and at age 30, the former All-Star did what was expected during the lockout. Kirilenko went home, signing a contract with CSKA Moscow that included an opt-out clause that would allow him to return to the NBA when the lockout was over.
But a funny thing happened along the way. Kirilenko decided he liked playing at home. He was healthy for the first time since 2004. He was having fun, playing in a familiar setting and, with the London Olympics on the horizon, Kirilenko decided to just stay put.
Kirilenko was more like his old self with CSKA Moscow. He averaged 14.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and was the named Most Valuable Player of the Euroleague in 2011-12.
At the Olympics, Kirilenko took on a leadership role for the Russian squad, scoring 140 points in eight games, including 35 in a 95-75 win over host Great Britain in group play. Kirilenko scored 20 points as the Russians upset Argentina 81-77 in the bronze-medal game after losing a tough 67-59 decision to Spain in the semifinals.
“It was good for me to stay and not to come back and rush into the new schedule last year,” Kirilenko told the Sporting News last week. “I came back this year, with the Olympic Games, I feel fresh and ready for the season. It was a good decision to stay.”
He signed a two-year, $20 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves in late July and has been solid for the Timberwolves. Not only is he contributing on the offensive end, averaging 13.3 points a game, but he’s back to his old self defensively.
Kirilenko’s defensive rating of 99.5 is 20th in the NBA, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and is second on Minnesota’s roster to Kevin Love’s 98.8 mark.
Not bad at all for a player who had been thought to have lost a step toward the end of his stay in Utah. Kirilenko was a first-team All-Defensive team selection in 2005-06 after being a second-team choice the previous two seasons. He parlayed his defensive excellence into an All-Star Game appearance in 2004.
Despite missing four games in late November and early December because of back spasms, Kirilenko has been a stabilizing force for a Timberwolves team that has had players coming and going at a rapid pace because of injuries.
The Timberwolves are 14-13 after their 111-107 win over the Phoenix Suns Saturday night. That’s good enough for eighth place in the Western Conference playoff chase despite missing Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger, Brandon Roy and Love for significant periods of time.
“I can’t say enough about Andrei Kirilenko and what he has done for us,” coach Rick Adelman said. “He is so active defensively, he takes the best player on the other team all the time, but he just does so many little things. He is a great passer, he’s always all over the floor, he is just constant movement. If we hadn’t gotten him, I am not sure what we would have done.”
Kirilenko has been valuable on the floor, but he’s also helped a countryman make the adjustment to the NBA. Rookie Alexey Shved played with Kirilenko last season for CSKA and also on the Russian Olympic team and the 24-year-old has excelled while being pressed into service at both guard spots.
Shved is still learning English and having a mentor in Kirilenko has helped with the move to the NBA.
“(Kirilenko) is always talking to him,” Adelman said. “A lot of times, I don’t know what they’re saying, I can’t understand it. They’re always talking in Russian, so who knows? But Andrei is a smart player, I think he drives Alexey.”
Shved has started eight games and is averaging almost 11 points and 4.6 assists while getting nearly 28 minutes a game.
Minnesota hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2004, three years before franchise icon Kevin Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics. With Rubio slowly returning to the rotation after missing almost a year with a knee injury and Love healthy again, the Timberwolves are coming together and could be a tough out come playoff time.
A big part of the resurgence, though, has been the return to the NBA of Andrei Kirilenko. AK-47 is firing as well as he ever has and the Minnesota Timberwolves are that much better for it.
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