The Book on Andrei Kirilenko

Andrei Kirilenko loves to read.

After an early season loss to the Denver Nuggets, the press drifted away from his locker to wait eagerly for the appearance of Kevin Love, fresh off his miraculous—and first—return from a hand injury. Kirilenko busied himself with preparations for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first extended road trip out west, packing a stack of paperback books with Cyrillic type on their black covers into his bag. “What are you reading?” I asked.

“Russian,” he said with a smile.

Kirilenko’s dry sense of humor might be completely unexpected if you’ve only watched him on the court. After their recent and unexpected win over the Houston Rockets—a win that saw Kirilenko work more as a distributor from the elbow—a reporter pressed him about exactly how that strategy opened up the floor.

“You’re trying to get all the secrets,” he said. “We got a win and we have to be quiet right now and save it for the next game.” When he’s enjoying a win like this, his deep-set blue eyes don’t seem as unreadable, nor his high, prominent cheekbones as sharp as they can look under the bright lights of the arena.

The day before the victory over the Rockets, which snapped a five-game losing streak for the Wolves, he sat in the tunnel outside the locker room. He appeared neither down about the streak nor amped up about what the next game might bring. Aside from his warm-ups and the way all 6’9” of him seems an ill fit for a tiny black folding chair, you wouldn’t have guessed he was a professional basketball player as he talked about his reading habits.

“I always read three, four books that are fantasy, that I like, and one has to be a classic,” he said. “You don’t like it, but you have to read it just to take your medicine. So at least you understand what you like, what you don’t like. You can make a judgment then. If you don’t read it, you can’t judge it.”

A lot of basketball fans might not be able to make sense of Kirilenko’s game, especially if they’re used to measuring players through stats accrued along straight lines: the most points, the most rebounds, the most blocks. Kirilenko’s approach to the game is more omnivorous; he plays in an all-around way we like to think we admire, but that all too often goes underappreciated. Maybe it makes sense that his career began not with a dream of one day being an All-Star, but with a simple question in St. Petersburg.

“When I was in the first grade—six years old, seven years old—my first coach, he came into my school and he picked three tall guys and asked them if they wanted to start coming to play for the team. Two guys said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Okay.’” Like Europe and unlike the United States, sports in Russia is not inextricably linked to academics, but rather exists on a separate but parallel track. Young athletes play in the system of “sports schools” until the age of fifteen, when they can begin their professional careers.

“Our [sports school] team had been playing good,” he said. “And I always said, ‘We’re all going to go to the next level, to the professional teams,’ but one of the guys said, ‘You know what? Probably just one of us is going.’ He was right! One guy went and started playing professionally.”

Kirilenko seemed to put it that way very deliberately, not entirely comfortable admitting that he was indeed that guy. It came up again when he talked about his former sports school teammates. “The rest of the guys start doing regular jobs,” he said, but then corrected himself. “I don’t mean regular jobs, I mean different jobs.” One of them, a manager of a foundation in St. Petersburg, still plays in an amateur league there. “He’s scoring like 30 points [a game],” he said with what seemed like pride.

Kirilenko says his approach to the game was balanced from the start. “I actually never scored many points,” he explained. “I don’t think I’m that [much of] a sharpshooter to score 30 points a night. When I was young, we had a lot of tournaments back to back-to-back so we played a lot of games. One tournament, they call you the best offensive player and the next, the best defensive player. And it was always like that.”

That’s something that followers of the Timberwolves have come to appreciate about Kirilenko’s game. Against the Rockets on Saturday he notched his seventh double-double of the season with 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting and 11 boards. Against the Cavaliers back in December he only had 8 points, but notched 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks, pulling close to the elusive five-by-five, a feat that’s only occurred five times since 2003. Three of those were Kirilenko’s.

To hear him tell it, that balance arises naturally from observing the flow of the game. “I’m pretty good at understanding what’s not good, so I’m not going to it. If I miss two or three shots in a row, I would not take the fourth shot. I would probably try to create a foul, try to go inside and finish with a layup. So I will choose the right opportunity. I would shoot it, but it’s going to be a way open shot. It’s not going to be a risky shot.”

It can be fascinating to watch this unfold in a game, especially compared to players who are constantly looking for their shot. “A lot of times, I use my shot in the beginning of games just to let my defensive player know that if you’re not going to close, I’m going to shoot the ball. If you make a couple shots, it’s going to be disaster for him because he has to get up and contest the shot. If you make the first shot, he has to contest very close and that’s the great opportunity to pump fake and create something out of it.”

His pump fake is a genuine thing of beauty. Maybe it’s just his angular frame but there’s something distinctively Constructivist about it, a pure expression of a utilitarian game that produces results, if not always fodder for highlights. He often uses it to set the defense churning, not seeking his own opportunity so much as looking to open a door for a teammate.

L: Alexsandr Rodchenko’s “Construction 2.” R: Andrei Kirilenko’s “Pump Fake.”

The highlights happen, but to focus on Kirilenko during a game is to see the little things done right: the way he bounces on the balls of his feet on defense, staying low and watching his man’s hips; the way he anticipates passes along the baseline for steals, then exploits a gap in focus on the other end to cut on his opponents’ baseline and drop in a reverse layup; the way he rarely takes a bad shot. Even when they’re not dropping, his shots still feel like a good thesis, well-argued and backed up with clear support.

But that approach isn’t for everyone, nor does he think it should be. “I think some of the guys feel that if they missed three shots, they have to continue shooting,” he said. “I played with Kyle Korver and I’ve seen him miss three shots in a row and I would say, ‘Keep shooting.’ Because if it clicks, you’re going to make like five or six shots in a row. Everybody has to know their weakness and their strength.”

From both watching him play and speaking with him you begin to understand that he sees that weaknesses are not just obstacles to be torn down, but things that have to be gone around, over or under. The ups and downs are not there to be defeated, but negotiated. When he talked about his reputation as a defender, he demurred, saying, “Some of the games, everything falls in the right place and you get steals, but some of the games you’re horrible on defense. I mean, you can tell. I can tell. Some of the games I’m like, ‘They call me a good defensive player but I’m ashamed of this.’ And same with the offense. Some of the games you have a great performance. Not scoring-wise but being an offensive threat, being active, being aggressive. And some of the games you’re just running on the side watching the game like a spectator.”

Kirilenko has gotten good at taking the games as they come. Observing, assessing, understanding that there’s a balance to be struck between what we’re good at and what challenges us. Like a text, he reads them, finds his place and slips in. He doesn’t keep a classic in his stack of reading just for show — he wants to be able to make an informed judgment, even when it’s negative.

Toward the end of the interview, I mentioned that I’d given serious thought to learning Russian just so I could read Dostoevsky in the original.

“It’s not gonna help you much,” he said with a laugh. “It still sucks.”

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