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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?