While the Minnesota Timberwolves and CSKA Moscow performed warmups prior to tip off Monday, Alexey Shved stood near halfcourt and mingled with old friends. He smiled, laughed and spoke in his native tongue — Shved looked comfortable.
We’ll never forget the moment in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers last season when Ricky Rubio told Shved to “change this face, be happy.” Even prior to Minnesota’s preseason opener, Shved’s confidence has been under scrutiny as he’s struggled to play well without the ball and is seemingly disinterested playing shooting guard.
“His whole game has been when he has had his hands on the ball,” coach Rick Adelman said. “He’s really good then. When he’s off the ball, he has a tendency to shortcut things. He just has to stay with it and become a cutter as well as a ballhandler.”
For him, it’s an undoubtedly important season in terms of growth on, as well as off, the court. Friend and former CSKA teammate Andrei Kirilenko mentored Shved throughout his rookie season and the two helped win Russia the bronze medal during the 2012 Olympic Games. They remain close friends to this day. However, Kirilenko turned down Minnesota’s offer during the offseason signed with the Brooklyn Nets for a significantly smaller offer. While the two speak “every other day” on the phone, Shved understands that he and Kirilenko “have their own lives” and there are no feelings of abandonment although it seems to have affected him emotionally.
“Maybe not having A.K. here does affect him because he used to talk to Lexey all the time, and in Russian,” Adelman said. “We don’t have anybody who can do that right now.”
Monday’s exhibition against the Russian club gave the 24-year-old a chance to feel at home, temporarily producing smiles on the face of a second-year player that could be feeling isolated playing in the NBA. Warmups ended and teams took to benches and minutes after hearing his country’s national anthem; Shved, on the behalf of Minnesota and the Wolves alike, welcomed CSKA to the Target Center.
“They want to show that they can beat an NBA team and NBA teams don’t want to lose. Everybody is ready for this game.” – Shved prior to Monday’s game.
Perhaps CSKA took advantage of the world-renowned “Minnesota Nice,” playing spoiler in the Timberwolves preseason opener, winning in overtime 108-106. The Wolves shooting woes from the 3-point line continued from last season, shooting 19 percent from deep as everyone wearing a home uniform looked a bit rusty while the visitors kept their poise throughout more than 10 lead changes during Monday’s game.
Shved may never forget some of the memories accumulated prior to the game, but his performance during the game is something he may hope to forget. He scored six points on 1-of-6 from behind the arc and was 2-for-12 overall. However, his aggressiveness with the ball in his hands was impressive nonetheless.
Only twice during the second half of last season did Shved attempt more than 11 shots from the field and though he was inefficient Monday, his willingness to take the open look and drive to the basket is a good sign for the Timberwolves. He tallied four assists, most of them in the second half, as he and Derrick Williams played the majority of the fourth quarter with training camp invites A.J. Price, Othyus Jeffers and veteran free agent acquisition Ronny Turiaf; the team lacked chemistry and communication on both ends of the floor.
Despite his numbers in the box score, Shved’s performance was key in the Timberwolves second-half rally against CSKA. His only successful 3-pointer fell with a little more than a minute remaining in the game to put the Wolves within four and the two-man performance between he and Williams carried the offense throughout the fourth quarter; Williams ended the game with 21 points.
It won’t be until Nov. 22 that the Timberwolves face the Nets during the regular season — Monday’s preseason game against CSKA was a only the beginning of what will be another grueling season for Shved if he’s unable to get comfortable in his Minnesota surroundings.
“Maybe sometimes I am thinking about the game and I am not smiling,” he said when asked if he needs to play with more joy. “First of all, this is the game. You need to win this game and afterward, I can smile.”
Though unable to emerge victorious on Monday, the team has a chance to redeem itself Wednesday against the Toronto Raptors at 6 p.m. Central Time; the game will not be aired on television. It’s an important season for Shved, Williams and the rest of the Timberwolves and moving forward we’ll see this team, with the majority of them in good health, grow closer together throughout the season, something that’s pivotal for the mental toughness of the Russian guard. He’s still learning to play the game he loves, one that’s brought the young man across the world to America — it may take some more time for Shved to understand it, but the Timberwolves are happy to have him and fans should do their best to make him feel that much more at home this season.