The team had better hope he stays.
At 32, Kirilenko is not necessarily part of the future, but he is a key component of the team right now. When healthy, he should get the start at forward over second-year player Derrick Williams, who is making strides but still has yet to reach his potential.
Aside from offering around 13 points per game, AK-47 has garnered respect in the league as a 10-year veteran and is a leader in the locker room. He also has had a good influence on Alexey Shved, a fellow Russian.
He Can Still Play
Kirilenko’s numbers speak for themselves. He is shooting 30 percent from three, 50 percent from the field and 77 percent from the stripe for a true shooting percentage of 57.3 (per Basketball-Reference.com).
While he has had his fair share of ugly three-point shots, if he’s open he will hit them—especially in transition—and with long arms on his 6’9”, 235-pound body, he can get to the basket and finish. He is never going to be a bruiser like Nikola Pekovic and should not be considered a go-to scorer a la Kevin Love or (hopefully) Derrick Williams, but he pulls his weight offensively on any given night.
There was some speculation that he had lost the defensive ability that made him a star in Utah, but he has proven doubters wrong with his play this season. “I think I can guard 2-4,” he told The Sporting News in December. “Maybe some point guards, but not the fast ones.”
His presence was dearly missed on February 28, when the Timberwolves traveled to Los Angeles to take on Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. It was only a couple minutes into that game when Bryant threw down a virtually uncontested dunk from a half-court set en route to a 33-point night, reminding a national audience that Minnesota had absolutely nobody on the floor capable of guarding him.
Would Kirilenko have shut him down? Probably not, but it is not far-fetched to think that he could have curtailed his scoring a little bit.
Kirilenko is also an adept passer. “If Andrei pulls down a rebound, I’m taking off because he passes so well,” J.J. Barea told the Pioneer Press in October. “It makes our job a little easier with him being able to get the ball up the floor.”
“I can't say enough about Andrei Kirilenko and what he has done for us," Rick Adelman told The Sporting News. "He is so active defensively, he takes the best player on the other team all the time, but he just does so many little things. He is a great passer, he¹s always all over the floor, he is just constant movement. If we hadn¹t gotten him, I am not sure what we would have done."
Nobody is going to mistake Kirilenko for Ricky Rubio anytime soon, but AK-47 can find the open man in transition and turn his defense, or rebounding ability, into fast-break points in a hurry.
An Influence in the Locker Room
Kirilenko spent his early years as teammates of John Stockton and Karl Malone on the Utah Jazz. He learned quiet, subtle leadership from two men who came so close to winning an NBA championship—had they only been able to overcome Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls.
In the present day, Kirilenko is passing the lessons bestowed upon him as a young player as the elder statesman in Minnesota
The Russian Connection
One person he has had a great influence on is 24-year-old guard Alexey Shved, who has been a revelation this season. Unsure of how his game would translate from Europe at the beginning of the season, Shved has found his role on the team as the shooting guard and appears to be a staple on the roster for years to come.
Kirilenko is entitled to some credit for that.
“He is always talking to him," Adelman told The Sporting News. "A lot of times, I don¹t know what they’re saying, I can’t understand it. They’re always talking in Russian, so who knows? But Andrei is a smart player, I think he drives Alexey."
“He’s helped me,” Shved told the Associated Press in September. “He played in Utah. He knows everything. I’m like a rookie. It’s very important for me that we come on this team together and for sure it helps me.”
The Wolves need to retain Kirilenko.
It’s been a tough season, but the veteran has taken things in stride and played well in Minneapolis. If the team stays healthy next season, it should have enough talent to make a title run…something that becomes a lot more difficult without AK-47 on the team.
Tom Schreier covers the Timberwolves for Bleacher Report and writes a weekly column for TheFanManifesto.com.