Archives For FIBA World Championships

Photo by Ghost-Rider

Serbia’s Milos Teodisic just hit a nasty shot to eliminate Spain in the FIBA World Championships. It was contested; it was 30 feet from the hoop; it was cold-blooded (here’s Chris Sheridan’s take on the last-minute coaching strategies). And it was a fitting end to a weird, wild game that nicely captured the charming madness of the entire tournament: singing fans; insane long range gunning; wildly unpredictable officiating; fiery players swept up in a nationalist fervor (in a good way).

This game, like so many international games, gave us a chance to see not only teams who routinely play the kind of flowing, ball-moving basketball that the NBA occasionally lacks, but also players who are either too slow-footed and earthbound (the perfectly hirsute and dissolute-seeming Jorge Garbajosa) or too waif-like (Juan Carlos Navarro) to stick in the League, but who are nonetheless really, frighteningly good.

We Wolves fans were also able to check out two of our Puppies overseas draftees: Ricky Rubio of course, and this year’s second-round pick, the 6’10″ 22-year-old Nemanja Bjelica.  Bjelica’s long, wobbly limbs give him a newborn colt-ish appearance, but when he touched the ball on Wednesday, he snapped to attention, ripping off a volley of tall, clean jumpers. Bjelica clearly has a lot to learn defensively; he played only 14 minutes before fouling out and in the fourth quarter allowed Rudy Fernandez to cut to the hoop for an easy layup off an inbounds pass. But Bjelica is young, tall, and confident; he can handle the ball; he hit all five of his field goals. You can see the appeal.

As for Rubio, the young heartthrob looked a little frustrated in this one. It wasn’t so much that he played poorly, although his defensive gambling created space for Serbia’s shooters and got him into foul trouble. But Rubio’s great strengths are his instincts and skill in transition; in this game, Serbia was able to prevent Spain from getting into the open floor, effectively creating a matchup of half-court offenses.  Now, Rubio is a solid half-court point guard, and he was able to find Marc Gasol and Fran Vasquez on two gorgeous pick-and-roll drives. But the half-court also exposes Rubio’s great current weaknesses, his shooting and his finishing at the basket. Perhaps knowing this, Ricky tends to simply, unobtrusively run the offense, allowing his more experienced teammates, like Navarro and Garbajosa, to create their own looks.

For the most part, I’d say this is a pretty admirable show of maturity and humility from a 19-year-old superstar. But there were times in this game when the offense was not crisp, when the shooters were not hitting, and Spain really needed their point guard to create some scoring chances. And, with a few exceptions, Rubio never really did this. One hopes that as his shooting touch improves, Ricky will begin to see himself in that Nash-ian light, as a player with the responsibility of the offense on his shoulders.

If the Wolf Among Wolves comments section is any guide, it seems that Kevin Love is a polarizing figure; somehow I’m not surprised. Our last few posts on Mr. Love have raised a number of deceptively tricky questions. First: just how good is he? Is he, in the words of commenter Hayden, a “future star”, or is he simply an elite role player, as I suggested (um, and anyway, what exactly does it mean to be a “role player”? More on this later). Does Love’s unselfish, blue-collar image reflect reality or is it actually a function of his racial profile? Are perceptions of race even still salient in today’s NBA? See how quickly things got heavy?

Let’s take the last part first. Commenter W rightly points to Wally Sczerbiack, Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and JJ Redick, among many others, as white American players who are not typically described as “smart,” “unselfish,” or “hard-working,”–the classic “white guy” profile.  My point, when I brought this up, was not to argue that these stereotypes are still so baldly dominant in the League (the college game is a slightly different story…), but merely to point out that, on the surface, Love seems to fit the mold so perfectly and, moreover, that the media tend to articulate their fawning over Love in this ancient, coded language. Love fits perfectly into a certain vision of a lost, pre-Iversonian era in which players played the “right way”, in which effort and coachability triumphed over sheer ability (check that old SI article on Hubie Brown, or just read “The Breaks of the Game” if you don’t believe this conception exists. Or just talk to any number of a certain kind of Minnesota sports fan). He gives anachronistically workmanlike effort; he practices lost arts (the box-out, the outlet pass). Race isn’t explicit in any of this, but its just beneath the surface in all of it.

Clearly, though, the most interesting things about these narratives are the ways in which they unravel. If assists are resonantly among the stuff white people like, then what’s to be done about Magic Johnson or Chris Paul? If churlishness and trash-talk are thought to be in the classic “black guy” repertoire, then how do we deal with Larry Bird? What about indulgently flashy guard play? I give you White Chocolate himself, Jason Williams. How do we deal with these intertwinings and contradictions? Can we even identify definitive notions of “white” and “black” playing styles without giving ourselves a headache? Do the above counter-examples disprove the rule or simply reinforce it? This gets complicated pretty quickly.

What’s compelling about Love is that he both conforms and diverges from the idealized picture.  True enough, when he is at his best, Love appears to be out-hustling every other player on the floor, to be compensating for his lack of size and leaping ability with a dogged work ethic. His passing skills and patience within the offense seem to speak to a willingness to share the ball, to unselfishly and intelligently play within systems. But, contrary to mythology, these skills are not simply moral achievements, the products of a well crafted, blue-collar soul. Kevin Love is a tremendously gifted natural athlete: his hands are terrifically strong; his vision and hand-eye coordination are preternatural. Moreover, we Wolves’ fans are well aware of his shortcomings as a teammate: his willingness to publicly criticize coaches; his 30-odd game flirtation with sulky, middling effort last season.

So even if you do believe that the NBA is a fallen world, filled with selfish, disloyal ultra-athletes, Love’s particular mix of talents and attitudes don’t easily fit the narrative. The league is filled with strange, oddly shaped players like this: the cerebral, Italian-speaker with the classic mid-range game; the West Virginia white boy with the And-1 handle; the slow-footed, wild-haired, face-the-basket, seven foot German scorer; the gleefully, aggressively weird lockdown defender from Queensbridge . I could go on like this forever.

Love Against the World

Benjamin Polk —  September 1, 2010 — 11 Comments

Wisconsin Historical Images

Kevin Love is bright white and a little lumpy. His steps are plodding and thick. He does not really look like an NBA basketball player. And he certainly seems a little bit out of place among his fellow world-class North Americans with their lithe, elastic bodies and their liquid skills. He does resemble, however, quite a few of his opponents in these FIBA World Championships; perhaps its no accident, then, that, as Sebastian Pruiti has pointed out at NBA Playbook, Love appears to be a natural at the international game:

Kevin Love is a very good rebounder in the NBA, and we shouldn’t be surprised that this skill carried over to the FIBA Worlds, but at this pace?  Love has grabbed 21 rebounds in his 26 minutes of play, which comes out to an insane 31.5 rebounds per 40 minutes (h/t J.E. Skeets via John Schuhmann). How is Love able to grab so many rebounds? By simply outworking and outsmarting his opponents.

Love tends to draw the kind of praise that we’ve come to understand as racially coded cliches. In the Worlds, Fran Fraschilla (who I should say right out front is a terrific analyst who understands the hell out of international basketball) busted out the full complement: Love is “your perfect teammate,” he is “smart” and “hardworking” and “unselfish”. These make him sound just like an unathletic, Big Ten white dude and I confess that they are part of the reason that I was a little disappointed when the Wolves picked him up. I mean, weren’t you just sick to death of hearing about how great an outlet passer this guy was?

As it happens, Love actually is an unselfish, hardworking, intelligent player who throws a seriously wicked outlet pass (this one is pretty ill too). Pruiti aptly points out that all of these hallmarks–the clever, nasty rebounding, the passing, the off-ball movement, the long-range shooting–have been on full display in this tournament (although he does leave out one of my favorite highlights, in which Love singlehandedly boxed out two Croatians, allowing Rudy Gay to coast in for a putback dunk).

Clearly, Love has taken to the international game. His lack of size for a power forward and “two-inch vertical” (another Fraschilla quip) are less exposed by the relatively less athletic competition; the extra spacing in the half-court suit his heady passing and movement; his shooting ability creates space and passing angles.

But, and this is where things start to get interesting for Wolves fans, he’s also aided immensely by the fact that he’s surrounded by more obviously gifted players. Let the Kevin Durants and Derrick Roses of the world create the shots with their quickness and ballhandling. Leave the soaring finishes to the likes of Rudy Gay. Love is at his best when roaming the lane and moving the ball, putting in yeoman’s work, hiding in plain sight.

Love’s play in this tournament supports the idea that he is currently the Wolves best player. But it’s also begun to validate  David Kahn’s statement that the Oswego boy should be no more than third-best on a contending team, that in order to really flourish, he needs to be on a team of his betters. The remark bears Kahn’s trademark wrong-footed honesty, but it contains a rather large grain of truth.

Take, for instance, Team USA’s squeaker against Brazil this Monday. Thanks to his inspired play in the first two games, Love was among the first reserves to come off the bench. But it quickly became clear that this wasn’t his game. A 22% rebounding rate is great, but it doesn’t mean much when your opponent is shooting 63% from the field. Love’s defense has improved dramatically since his first season (although Zach does have some choice words), but his lack of quickness showed in his struggles to cover ground while defending Brazil’s spread pick-and-roll (a nice assessment from Tony Ronzone, both of Brazil’s tactics and Love’s development, is right here).  And the deck was stacked against Love in his one-on-one matchup with Tiago Splitter, Brazil’s  nimble seven-footer. Too much height and too much skill for the little big man.

Kevin Love, in other words, is a role player. A dude with the potential to be even more forcefully, life-affirmingly entertaining and effective than the other great glue guys (Varejao, Battier, Birdman and their ilk) but because of those limitations, those holes in his game, a role player nonetheless. This leaves us wondering: Wes Johnson, Michael Beasley, how good are you really gonna be?