A Russian expatriate is becoming a Minnesota fan favorite
This past offseason was one of tremendous upheaval in the offices at the Target Center. Malcontents and inconsistent buffoons were jettisoned in favor of long, athletic and intelligent wing players. Out went Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, Martell Webster, Anthony Randolph, Wayne Ellington and Wes Johnson; in came Andrei Kirilenko, Greg Stiemsma, Dante Cunningham, and Chase Budinger. Brandon Roy, sans knee cartilage and all, was also signed to (hopefully) fill the void at shooting guard, the caveat being – “if he can stay healthy.”
The Roy experiment lasted five games before knee pain, and another surgery, sidelined him indefinitely. The risk was well worth it: the dearth of talent at shooting guard has made it a premium position in the NBA. If Roy could have managed to be 75% of his former self, for 24-28 minutes per night, his $5 million salary would’ve actually been a bargain.
The answer to the Wolves’ shooting guard deficiency, or at least part of the answer, came in the form of their least heralded offseason pickup: Russian guard Alexey Shved. Lured away from his Euroleague club, CSKA Moscow, Shved was an unproven commodity. A combo-guard with good length, he was seen in the Olympics playing for the bronze-winning Russian national team along with fellow Wolves’ newcomer Andrei Kirilenko.
It isn’t often that impact foreign players go completely undrafted – usually, someone will take a second-round flier on an international guy just in case he develops into a back-of-the-rotation contributor – so what happened with Shved? How come he was an international free agent, ripe for the plucking?
Shved was draft eligible in 2010, at the age of 21. According to scouting reports from around that time,[i] concerns about his wiry frame, as well as his perimeter shooting, held him back. According to Wolves’ beat writer Jerry Zgoda, there were also some doubts about his maturity.[ii] Oddly enough, it seems as though his game wasn’t suited for the Russian leagues in which he played, which are known for their slow-it-down, half-court style of play. Shved is more of a slasher, which is possibly attributable to his time with American players such as Trajan Langdon, a former Duke star who wound up with CSKA Moscow after his college days were over.[iii]
All that was enough for Alexey to slip through the cracks – that is, until his 2011-12 Euroleague and club season, in which he broke out in a big way. In 21 Euroleague games (Europe’s highest level of competition) he averaged a 10.6/2.6/3.6 line on 49%/50%/81% shooting splits. In club games, he went for 11.6/2.9/3.3 on 46%/39%/78% shooting. Two years older, and having addressed his perimeter shooting woes, Shved was now a free agent, thanks to the fact he’d gone undrafted in 2010. It was a blessing in disguise.
To be fair, the Wolves weren’t the only team who approached Alexey with a contract offer – Memphis and Cleveland were also in the mix – but he chose to come to Minnesota, and it’s difficult to believe Andrei Kirilenko didn’t have something to do with it. The two came as something of a package deal – 3 years, $9-$10 million for Shved, and 2 years, $20 million for Kirilenko, with both deals signed within two days of each other at the end of July.
Andrei Kirilenko has arguably been the Wolves’ most important player to this point, but Shved’s contributions to the back court cannot be understated. Though he has yet to start a game, Shved has played more minutes than the nominal “starting” shooting guard in 11 of the team’s 18 games, including the last 7 in a row. The Wolves are 6-5 in such games, and 3-4 in the rest.
Shved’s non-starting irks some Wolves fans who’d like to see him on the floor at the opening tip – but Adelman’s handling of his backcourt rotation is anything but conventional. Most teams start their best players and rest them from the 3:00 mark of the 1st and 3rd quarters to the 10:00 mark of the 2nd and 4th quarters. Adelman, however, starts Malcolm Lee at the 2-guard, plays him until there’s about 3:00 left in the 1st and 3rd quarters… then Alexey Shved comes in, and rarely leaves the court afterward. Shved ends halves and games on the floor – a sign that the coaching staff trusts him a great deal.[iv]
The trust in Shved makes sense – he’s hardly your typical rookie. He’s been playing professionally since he was 17 years old. This season, he’s averaging 10.6/2.7/3.6 on 40%/33%/79% shooting splits – remarkably similar to his production with CSKA Moscow last season. While a 33% mark from the perimeter is nothing to write home about, he’s had to become more of a gunner with the absence of Chase Budinger (out with a knee injury) and the struggles of Kevin Love (22% from 3-point range).
Despite the low Field Goal and 3-point percentages, he’s still an efficient player, with a 14.3 PER.[v] For some reason, he’s labeled as a point guard in all the NBA statistical databases, which is odd, because he’s rarely the primary ballhandler on the floor; almost all his minutes come with Barea or Ridnour on the court with him. If he were labeled as a shooting guard, that 14.3 PER would be good for 23rd in the league, ahead of big money guys like Joe Johnson ($19.7 million salary) and Andre Iguodala ($14.7 million). He’s about on par with J.J. Redick ($6 million) and Jason Terry ($5 million) in that category.
I’m not saying he’s as good as those four guys, but if he’s in the conversation with them, and for half the cost, it’s pretty clear the Wolves found a diamond in the rough when they snagged him out of Mother Russia. If you insist on calling him a point guard, his efficiency looks a little worse, but is still higher than Ty Lawson, Devin Harris and some guy named Jeremy Lin – and again, Shved makes significantly less money than all of them.
What remains to be seen is how Shved meshes with Ricky Rubio when he returns. Malcolm Lee has abysmal as the starting shooting guard, and should see a significant decline in minutes once the Spanish prodigy is cleared to play. But time will tell how Adelman distributes the minutes in a crowded backcourt, with Shved, Barea and Ridnour all viable options at the guard spots.
The potential lineup that really excites many Wolves fans – most of all, me – is Rubio, Shved, Kirilenko, Love and Nikola Pekovic. It would be fun to see players with the passing skill sets they possess take the floor at the same time – the unselfish ball movement, playing within Adelman’s offensive system, would be a sight to behold.
Will Adelman agree with our premise? Would that lineup even be successful? Hopefully, we start to get some answers on Wednesday night.
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!
[ii] Personal correspondence via Twitter. Jerry Zgoda is a must-follow for Wolves fans – he’s engaging, pleasant and sticks strictly to Wolves-related business.
[iii] Also in the Draft Express article referenced in footnote 1.
[iv] As of December 3rd, Shved had played in 86% of the team’s 4th quarter minutes, per 82games.com.
[v] PER stands for “Player Efficiency Rating”, a statistic developed by ESPN’s John Hollinger that is a little like WAR in baseball. There’s an explanation here: http://insider.espn.go.com/nba/hollinger/statistics