MINNEAPOLIS This summer, the man who's played basketball everywhere from South Korea to South Dakota only had to hop in his car.
It was less than a four-hour drive for Greg Stiemsma to his meetings with the Timberwolves in Minneapolis during free agency this summer. No plane ticket was necessary, and so the man accustomed to living time zones away from his Wisconsin home had only to fill up his gas tank. It was odd, for sure, and almost unfathomable for a player whom few outside of Wisconsin had heard of a year ago.
Before the 2012 offseason, free agent was a word that struck fear into Stiemsma's mind. He was a perennial free agent, it seemed, going from undrafted to the D-League to overseas. Free agent meant uncertainty and the chance to be cut, another new team, another new place. But this summer, free agency wasn't that bad.
Sure, Stiemsma's former team, the Celtics, couldn't bring him back after his breakout season, but that was due to salary cap constraints, not a lack of desire to have him in Boston. Things weren't guaranteed by any means late season foot problems likely lowered his free agent stock but Stiemsma knew the Timberwolves were interested, and the summer looked to bring what every player covets: a guaranteed contract.
It did. Stiemsma signed a two-year contract (the first season and 2.575 million are guaranteed), and four years after the University of Wisconsin graduate began his world tour of basketball, he's almost as close to home as he could possibly be in the NBA. (Only Milwaukee and Chicago boast closer NBA teams to Randolph, a small town in southeastern Wisconsin where Stiemsma grew up.) After Boston fell through, Minneapolis was where he wanted to land, and two weeks into the preseason, Stiemsma is already finding a sense of comfort.
"It's awesome," Stiemsma said. "It's the most fun I've had playing in a long time. It's the most comfortable I've been on the floor without always looking over my shoulder and being worried about I'm going to be cut, if I'm going to stay, all that stuff."
On the floor, Stiemsma is the backup end of one of the NBA's most interesting one-two punches. A year ago, few had heard of him or of the team's starting center, Nikola Pekovic, but after breakout winters last year, the two have become household names among NBA fans. The challenge for both now is proving that their successes of last season both of which were cut short by injuries are no fluke. The Timberwolves' own hopes of winning ride on that, as do the two men's careers.
"This year I must work," Pekovic. "I earned that minutes. I can't just say, Okay, Coach, give me to play 35 minutes. That's fine. I will stop working.' I will work even more so that Coach can see that he didn't miss why he gave me that minutes to play. That's how I'm doing. That's how I will keep doing."
Stiemsma's task is no different.
Pekovic's numbers last year were impressive than Stiemsma's on the offensive end he averaged 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds to Stiemsma's 2.9 and 3.2 last season but the former Celtic spent last season in a backup role and is a force on the defensive end. He was third in the league in blocked shots per minute played behind Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka and Milwaukee's Larry Sanders, and he'll be a major boon for the Timberwolves defensively.
The fact that Stiemsma is discussed in such terms is still a shock to the 27-year-old. He's stopped looking over his shoulder, maybe, but that doesn't mean he isn't still just a bit in awe.
"It definitely is (crazy)," Stiemsma said. "It's crazy how fast things can change in a year, but I wouldn't want it any other way, either. I'm excited for what that all means."
So what does it mean? Well, right now, Stiemsma is not quite certain. He knows it means job security and a chance to make the playoffs on a radically improved team. He knows it means being Pekovic's backup and perhaps sharing minutes with Louis Amundson. But other than that, this season is something of a mystery for Stiemsma and his teammates, and that's perfectly okay if not exciting.
Last year in Boston, Stiemsma said, the team already knew its roles and strengths. It was full of veterans with playoff experience, and he was the unsuspecting rookie attempting to fit his way into a system. This year, so much more is up for grabs. There's less of that experience but more untapped potential, and what history guaranteed in Boston, it makes uncertain in Minneapolis. In many ways, this is the perfect fit.
"I'm a little bit older guy with some more years," Stiemsma said. "I'm not exactly the usual second-year guy or kind of a rookie 27-year-old, almost, so it's a little bit different. I've been playing this game for a long time."
So Stiemsma hopes he can bring his own brand of veteran presence and his acquired ability to fit in and jell with new teammates to Minnesota. He may not have a traditional background, but this team is far from traditional. It's a cobbled-together hodgepodge, one that might see success but which no one could have dreamed of just months ago. In it, Stiemsma has found his home.
Now, he'll just have to stake his claim on a role. He had his best preseason game last Wednesday in Fargo, when he scored four points in 13 minutes and finished the night with two blocked shots. Since then, he's played just 13 total minutes in the team's second and third games, and his most memorable contribution Saturday was an early technical foul.
But he's still recovering from the foot injury and plantar fasciitis, still learning his role and how to be effective in this new system. He won't play the majority of minutes that's Pekovic's job nor will he be the go-to guy for energetic, up-tempo play that role goes to Lou Amundson and Dante Cunningham. Rather, Stiemsma will be most effective on defense, with those long arms perhaps becoming a quiet asset to the team.
After everything the last four years has brought, that's just fine with Stiemsma. He has a role. He earned it. Now, the work just continues.
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