It’s a bit of an understatement to say expectations for this year’s Timberwolves squad were set higher than usual. With seasoned veterans Andrei Kirilenko, Chase Budinger, and (to a lesser extent) Brandon Roy ready to fill in between the existing studs Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio — the cupboard wasn’t just filled, the Wolves had to buy a chest freezer for the basement and the garage and start canning.
There were early concerns over minutes: How would Alexey Shved find minutes in such a crowded veteran backcourt with Roy, Budinger, Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea, and eventually Rubio all seemingly ahead of him on the depth chart? How would Derrick Williams get enough minutes to refine all the skills that earned him his #2 overall draft status playing behind Kirilenko and Love?
It’s also a bit of an understatement to say it turns out space hasn’t been an issue. Whereas the roller coaster of last year’s Timberwolves season ended with incapacitation, both physical and otherwise. This year, the opposite has been true.
A hand injury put Love on the shelf and Williams was awarded the starting power forward spot, where he showed he still didn’t have a clue as to how to get his shot off at the rim, in traffic or in the flow of Rick Adelman’s offense. The marked improvements of his defense and rebounding over his rookie year would have been met with more fanfare if there wasn’t already a power forward (Dante Cunningham) coming off the bench who performed the same tasks with aplomb, at a second round pick’s salary, all the while minimizing misadventures on offense.
The personality crisis of Williams would normally be just another step in a young player’s development. For a traditional #2 pick on a team willing to let him play through his mistakes, it would be a welcome challenge to spread his wings and be all he could his rookie year and then come to build on it the next. Not so, with these Wolves.
The ascension of Shved through the ranks to crunch time playmaker is a mantle that has been thrust upon him by necessity. Roy’s knee, Barea’s meandering, Kirilenko’s back, Love’s recovery, and Ridnour’s inability have all given way to the magnanimous Shved, who has shown the ability to spoon feed his teammates opportunities they would otherwise struggle to find. Williams, in particular, benefitted against Milwaukee with repeated catches at the wing and rim.
The biggest difference between Williams and Shved’s situations is, with playmaking at a premium, Shved’s ability to create for others makes it easier for Adelman to allow him to play through his mistakes. His skills are the least redundant on the active roster and the only person who will keep him out of the starting lineup, when he returns to it, is Rubio.
Adelman has consistently played both Cunningham and Shved with the second unit, resisting opportunities to start them en lieu of Williams and Malcolm Lee. Theories abound. A master plan to cultivate Shved as a Manu Ginobili or James Harden-style 6th man? Nurse the rookie along slowly by placing him in a less stressful situation by pairing him with a dominant ball handler, Barea, like he did Rubio last year? Regardless, Adelman has chosen to protect the continuity of his second unit. As the injured pieces of Love, Kirilenko, Rubio and Budinger return to or enter the fold, they shall remain.