MINNEAPOLIS It's impossible to tell whether Alexey Shved is shocked by what he's doing or merely curious at why everyone around him seems so utterly surprised.
There's a lot of nervous laughter when you talk to Shved. A lot of staring downward, a lot of shrugging, a lot of telling everyone that no, this is not a big deal. Not his play. Not his haircut. Not the adjustment to the United States and the NBA. To have a conversation with him is to have a lot of thoughts thrown at you as he bounces from idea to idea hoping to hit on the answer he knows he's stumbling toward.
"I'm a rookie, but my partners help me, and they every time tell me something about the game, what I need to do in the game, offense, defense," he said after Friday's 95-85 win over the Bucks. "I have played a lot of times. Coach believes in me, and it's very important for me and for everybody."
So many ideas he's tripping over, but it comes down to this: Shved is more experienced than he's given credit for; he's a team player; and Adelman has given him a resounding vote of confidence. Combine all that with raw physical skills, and the rookie who was expected to need time to adjust has now fast-tracked his way into being a major contributor on these battered but resilient Timberwolves.
But he's still acclimating to the NBA, this 23-year-old Russian just 15 games into his career. His English remains shaky, and he still lurks in Andrei Kirilenko's shadow. If he were playing like the Alexey Shved everyone imagined, that might have passed as okay, but this Shved, this mess of arms and legs, braces and a furrowed brow, cannot. Not when he's averaging 10.4 points per game, 12.6 in his past nine outings. Not when he's scored 84 of his 156 points this season in the fourth quarter.
Not when he hits a 3-pointer with 1:15 left in Friday's game and the shot clock expiring, his fourth long-range score of the night. Not when he plays defense like he did, contesting shots and using those long, spindly arms for something other than passing and shooting. Not when he sees the court like he does, adjusts like he's been adjusting, steps up like he has with so many of the team's wing players sidelined.
And so he's forced to talk, to perform again in the locker room, which is perhaps just as difficult as what he does on the court. He speaks in his guttural, soft tone about the Olympics, about learning so much there, about Kirilenko and defense and the importance of teamwork. It's impossible to tell if he's pleased with what he's doing or if he expects it, and in that mystery, Shved is supremely intriguing.
For 48 minutes several nights a week, the guard becomes basketball's Peter Parker, transforming from a squirrelly, shy rookie into something entirely opposite. There are still the growing pains, like that flubbed pass that Monta Ellis snared at the end of the fourth quarter, the hesitance at times, his size but on nights like Friday, it's okay to say so what.
For that matter, it certainly seems like Shved himself shrugs it off pretty easily. Out there on the court, where there's no English to worry about, where it doesn't matter if he's technically a rookie or a seasoned international pro, Shved is the picture of poise.
"That guy has no filter out there," Kevin Love said. "He just plays. Sometimes it's just unconscious He just has a sort of supreme confidence out there. He seems like a shy guy, but when he gets out there, it's like he's a whole different person."
Love isn't the only one who's noticed. Rick Adelman is coming to expect this kind of performance from the rookie. It was as if the coach predicted his long-range shooting before the game, when he pointed out that they'd been falling in practice and hypothesized that it would soon follow in games. That's exactly what happened; he went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc.
It's past the point when this could be a complete fluke. Past the point when this is all going to overwhelm him and he's going to crumble on the court, when this can all be chalked up to a novelty. Shved has established himself as a fourth-quarter weapon. He's a spark off the bench, which is where he'll stay, it seems, even as his minutes increase. Somehow, this shy rookie just a month removed from a bob, a headband and his NBA debut is utterly unflappable when it matters most. He's as deceptive in that way as he is talented.
"He's got the same face down 20, up 20, game tied," J.J. Barea said. "He's going to always play the same way."
When asked whether his 16-point, five-assist night was the best of his young career on Friday, Shved vacillated. Against Golden State on Nov. 16, he pointed out, he scored 22 points (and had seven assists to boot), but the team lost. So, he reasoned, this might be the best game, because "better if you make 10 points or five points and your team's won."
The rookie has a point, and though the season to this point (with the exception of that first game in which he scored exactly zero points) has been his coming out party, Friday marked another step. It marked a game in which the Timberwolves' three (yes, three, they're that injured) guards Shved, Barea and Luke Ridnour combined for 47 points. The matchups were working, as were the passing and the routes, and in this, the second game since the announcement that Ricky Rubio is returning to practice, it looked like the remaining guards were playing to prove a point.
Shved's set a high bar for himself thus far, and it's rising. There's the R-word being whispered about, the tantalizing idea of a Shved-Rubio backcourt. It's a pretty thing to imagine, these two Europeans playing together, one who's already lived up to the impossible hype and the other who's created a level of excitement no one could have imagined just a few weeks ago.
Shved and Rubio. Shved and Rubio. There are questions, of course, of whether Shved can keep up at this level, of Rubio's knee and if he can become the player he was a year ago. But Shved and Rubio, it's too tempting not to think about. It's the guilty wish of a team long deprived of such things, and it's coming oh so soon.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Shved and Rubio may be tempting, but the reality isn't half bad, either. The reality is Alexey Shved, scoring threat, shooting guard, fourth quarter solution and the Timberwolves still learning the sum total of what he can do.
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