Wolves' Russians will have to stick together
OCT 04, 2012 5:00a ET
It's one he put into place last season, when Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea joined the Timberwolves. One was from Spain, by all accounts sheltered and heavily accented; the other, though a veteran, was a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican. And so the informal mandate was handed down: only English on the court, all the time.
A year later, and Rubio is fluent. There's really no worry about him and Barea speaking in their native tongues, and now, a more complicated situation has presented itself. Alexey Shved is the newest young point guard who's made the move from Europe to Minnesota, and his language barrier is vastly different.
Rubio is from Western Europe. He arrived with a better grasp on English than anyone expected, and there was no need to coddle him. Shved, however, is from Russia, whose language is so different from English that it has its own alphabet. If Rubio faced a language barrier, Shved's is closer to an impenetrable wall, and the only-English-on-the-court-rule is faltering.
Lucky for Shved, Andrei Kirilenko signed with the team just weeks after he did, and though Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn never imagined he'd be able to acquire both Russians, he's been given an embarrassment of riches. It's not just their on-court skills, which are undeniable, but also Kirilenko's presence as a mentor that should ease Shved's transition to the NBA.
The 23-year-old Shved understands English well; speaking it is the issue. Adelman said it's obvious he comprehends what's happening on the court in practice, but he can struggle to express himself. In many situations, that could be a major problem, but for the Timberwolves, it's easily corrected. Having the two Russians together has turned out to be the best plan that was really something of an accident.
"I don't see any problem there," Adelman said. "Andrei helps in that area. I don't know what they're saying, but they're talking. It's not anything I understand."
Adelman shrugs and laughs. The rule, for now, is on hiatus.
It's common for foreign rookies to use a perceived lack of English to their advantage. They only understand when they want to, only can speak when it benefits them. It's the best kind of trick, and it's one Shved will never get away with. Kirilenko knows all too well his younger teammate's limitations -- or lack thereof -- with English, and he's taken it upon himself to push Shved into understanding. Kirilenko remembers his rookie year in Utah, when he had no such mentor and not even an English tutor. Even then, he said, he picked up the language easily after just a season in the locker room. He's going to make sure Shved does the same.
"He has to go and get the feeling himself," Kirilenko said. "It's like his English. I said, 'Look, you can't only talk to me. You have to talk to other people or you're not going to learn English.'"
It might sound like harsh advice, but Kirilenko and Shved are close enough that tough love works. They've known each other for five years and have played together on the Russian national team for four, but their relationship goes even further back -- at least according to Shved.
Kirilenko told the story: Shved has a photo, which Kirilenko has seen, of the younger player holding a signed Kirilenko jersey years ago in Russia. Kirilenko was already a major star and the face of Russian basketball, and that jersey was the prized possession of a player too young to be considered a major talent.
"I remember the picture of him, he's like 5 or 6 years old," Kirilenko said.
Shved cuts him off, an instance where it's worth it to test his English.
"More, more it was 12," Shved protested.
Kirilenko shrugged. This is a bit, and the chemistry is undeniable.
"He look very young in that picture," Kirilenko said. "He was holding the jersey of mine, I sign it, I don't even remember and I signed it, but I guess I did something . . . I hope I did."
So regardless of how young Shved was or how baby-faced he might have looked, the truth of the story lies in the fact that he's been a fan of Kirilenko for years. His teammate is also a role model, a man whom he watched as a child, then played with in Russia for CKSA and the national team, and now, finally, is lining up alongside in the NBA. Things have worked out well for Shved.
Without Kirilenko, we'd see none of that humor. We'd likely hear fewer words, whether due to an inability to express himself or a feigned lack of comprehension. But with Kirilenko, we see Shved as something of a naif, a shadow. He's a young, skinny kid with long hair and a headband. But there are also the beginnings of personality and comfort, and that can translate to the court.
It's too early at this point to say what kind of impact Shved will have, but it's already looking like it'll be more than originally believed. Shved's was a development couched in caution, and Kahn warned that he might take time to transition. However, at media day and again at the Timberwolves' early practices in Mankato, there were suggestions otherwise. Adelman made it clear that Shved will have the opportunity to earn playing time, and he's been performing well in 5-on-5 at practice.
If Shved is a project, then the Timberwolves seem to be attacking it in the proper way. There are realistic expectations, a support system and an international presence that should make him confortable. Right now, he might be Kirilenko's shadow, and that's fine. He won't be allowed to be for long.
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