MINNEAPOLIS "What do you mean?" Rick Adelman had to ask, his dry laugh cracking. The reporter who'd asked the question didn't know better. He was with the visiting team, and he'd seen the box scores. He'd seen that Derrick Williams hadn't been playing, never more than 15 minutes since Nov. 21. He'd seen that 2011's No. 2 pick had sat, had become a "DNP" in three of the team's past eight games.
He wondered what was going on, and he asked where Williams stood. It was an open-ended prod, a vague hint of the underlying, bigger issue. What has happened to Derrick Williams, and whose fault is it?
And so the Minnesota Timberwolves coach answered with the most blunt of dispatches.
"Kevin Love was hurt," he said. "Everything changes for players when people come back and you get your normal rotation. ... You play the people who you think give you the best chance to win. And if you're a coach in this league and you don't do that, you're really stupid."
Take that sound byte alone, and Adelman sounds something approaching crass. He sounds like a coach too blatant, perhaps too shortsighted, to nurture young talent. But it's so far from the truth, a misrepresentation bred of frustration and one impossible-to-solve young player, and it should color no one's opinion of what Adelman does for the inexperienced rookies under his rule.
Because Rick Adelman is the opposite of all that. He's the kind of coach players love playing for, and in Minnesota, he's left his mark on the young. The right kind of mark, for the most part.
Look first at Ricky Rubio, before he was Ricky Rubio, before he played a game in the NBA or was injured. Before all of that, if you can believe it, many doubted what he could do in the United States. He showed up with high expectations and this dull, nagging idea that they might be ridiculous, and then Adelman let him play like few coaches in Spain ever had, freely and without restriction.
He's a player's coach, they all say, these hundreds upon hundreds of men who have followed Adelman's lead. In Minnesota, thanks to Rubio, he established himself as such quickly, though subtly; it was easy to credit it all to the rookie, when really there was a man, a former point guard, even, creating the system in which he flourished and letting him do his thing.
Rubio didn't have to earn that right to do his proverbial thing. All he had to do was earn the right for it not to be taken away, and he did. Same has been true for Alexey Shved, who's in a similar, if not magnified version of the position the rookie guard before him faced. Shved didn't just have uncertain expectations; he had none. There was no reason to believe he'd be a factor early this season or a factor at all until his second or third year in the league. He was presented from the start as very much of a project, and yet here he is, 18 games in, second in the league among rookies in assists per game (3.6) and sixth in points (10.6).
"Some coaches are really hard on young guys," Adelman said. "I don't believe in doing that. We see the skills, and we see the way he (Shved) can do things in the game, and you've got to put him out there."
So here is Shved, looking like his play will factor into the Timberwolves' fate. Ask him about his season, and you'll get soft, jumbled words from a 23-year-old still making the transition from Russian to English. One word, though, will stick out. Confidence. Coach, he has confidence in me, Shved will say, in some iteration. Coach has confidence, and so of course he'll play well. Of course he'll just default to the things he's been doing for his entire professional career in Russia, the things that put him on the NBA radar in the first place. No one is saying to play any way other than what's natural for him. No one is breaking habits that worked just because they're not the norm for a particular system. Like Rubio before him, Shved is doing little more than what comes organically, and he's succeeding.
There are so many other cases, too, just here in Minnesota, in this tiny slice of Adelman's career. Chase Budinger arrived in a June trade from Houston, already familiar with the coach's system. Adelman, in turn, was familiar with him, from the two years he spent coaching him with the Rockets. They were the first two years of the former No. 44 pick's career, and in them, he impressed Adelman so much that the Timberwolves traded the 18th pick of 2012 for a year of his time.
And to find maybe the best case of Adelman's live-and-let-live philosophy with these young players, look no further than the Timberwolves' current starting lineup. Look to the shooting guard, Malcolm Lee, who'd played in just 23 games (for a whopping total of 277 minutes) before he was forced into the starting lineup. The coach had other options, however limited or unconventional, than the raw, inexperienced combo guard, but he picked him. He put Lee out there, in doing so showing he believed in him, and since then, Lee has played a solid role.
Malcolm Lee, the oft-injured second-round pick, a starting shooting guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Ricky Rubio, the fading phenom upon arrival, the missing piece for this team. Alexey Shved, the Russian nonfactor, now among the league's best rookies.
Of course these players deserve the credit. They took the time and the opportunities they were given, and they've capitalized. But it is Adelman who's giving them the time, who's treating each like any other player, who isn't tripped up in their age or inexperience. When given talent, Adelman lets it be just that.
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