DALLAS — Andrei Kirilenko has been a godsend to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Russian rookie Alexey Shved during this strange twist of a season.
It’s a minor miracle that the Wolves are still sniffing playoff contention considering their barrage of injuries. One major reason is Kirilenko, the 11-year NBA veteran who is in his first season with the Wolves after a decade-long run with the Utah Jazz. He spent the 2011-12 season enjoying a one-time homecoming in Russia, playing before family and friends during the NBA’s lockout and shortened season.
The versatile, 6-foot-9 forward was always going to figure in as a major piece to the rotation, but he’s been invaluable in the wake of long-term injuries to forwards Chase Budinger and Kevin Love, among multiple other injuries such as to Brandon Roy and Malcolm Lee that have thrust the surprising Shved into a starter’s role at shooting guard.
“We had some seasons when we had a lot of injuries, but this is something crazy,” said Kirilenko, whose scoring (13.4 ppg), rebounds (6.8) and minutes (34.8) are all his best since the 2005-06, and his 50.8 shooting percentage ranks as a career high. “We never played together [with a full roster] for even one game. It’s tough to play that way, but I guess this is the reality of NBA basketball.”
Then there’s been the big brother role Kirilenko’s embraced mentoring Shved, who turned 24 last month. But with a baby face and a mouth full of braces, some might say Shved could could pass for, well, a 12-year-old. Which is exactly how old he was when he first met Kirilenko and asked Russia’s No. 1 basketball player to sign a picture for him.
“He’s a great guy and he has a lot of bright moments in front of him,” said Kirilenko, who turns 32 next month and beams at Shved more like a proud papa than a big brother. “I think he started the season well and he can really be a great contributor to a team.”
Two-thirds of Russia’s NBA contingent play for the Wolves. Timofey Mozgov, currently buried on the Denver Nuggets’ bench, is the other. Kirilenko and Shved know each other quite well now after playing last season together for CSKA Moscow, and the two fashioned quite a dynamic duo on the Russian Olympic team that put hoops back on the map in their country by taking bronze in London.
They were gearing up for the Games when Shved, signed as a free agent by Minnesota in July, got word that he would continue on as Kirilenko’s teammate in Minnesota.
“He is the best player in Russia,” said the 6-foot-6 Shved, whose game (10.8 ppg and 4.7 apg) has emerged quicker than his grasp of the English language, which he speaks softly and carefully. “He is smart, he plays hard. Everybody wants to be a player like this.”
Just as Spanish-speaking J.J. Barea (from Puerto Rico) aided the Spain-born phenom Ricky Rubio last season in his arrival stateside, having Kirilenko around to show Shved the ropes of the NBA and American life has been invaluable.
And who knows, perhaps soon Shved will serve a similar role to another wide-eyed countryman that makes his way to the NBA.
“Sergey Karasev might be the next [one],” Kirilenko said of the 6-foot-7, 19-year-old shooting guard who averages 18.7 points and 6.3 rebounds for Triumph Lyubertsy in the Russian Professional Basketball League. “He might be joining us soon.”