Make Room for Wally

The T-Wolves may well land in the playoffs again, but 2000's still a rebuilding year

Ideally, Szczerbiak will team with Garnett, Brandon, Anthony Peeler, Joe Smith, and Sam Mitchell to give the Wolves a more balanced scoring attack. Realistically, his defensive liabilities might make it difficult to keep him on the court. Unlike other offensively gifted ex-Wolves such as Chris Carr and Gerald Glass, Szczerbiak works hard on defense, and, as the son of a former player (Walt Szczerbiak was a college basketball star at George Washington University, and he later played with Pittsburgh in the old American Basketball Association and then for a long time in Spain), he understands the nuances of the game. The problem is his lack of foot speed, compounded by the learning curve he faces in making the jump from mediocre college opponents to the athletic studs in the pros. Frequently during the preseason, Szczerbiak has been beaten off the dribble by quicker foes, yielding easy lay-ups, a desperate foul, or a breakdown in defense as teammates tried to cover for his mistakes. Then again, having Garnett on your side can erase a multitude of defensive sins, and the new NBA rules relaxing the prohibition against more fluid, zone-oriented coverages will help as well. In any case, the synergy between KG and Szczerbiak is an exciting prospect, and considering who else was available, Saunders and McHale were smart to draft him.

As important as Szczerbiak might be to the Wolves' offensive fortunes, the biggest X-factor in the team's ability to put points on the board will stem from the adaptability and endurance of Terrell Brandon. After coming to Minnesota last March via the three-way trade that sent Marbury to New Jersey, Brandon gave supporters and detractors alike ample ammunition upon which to debate his worth. On the one hand, he led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio, attesting to his veteran leadership and superb decision-making skills. On the other hand, he was beset by nagging injuries for the second straight year (and the fourth season of the past six), affirming doubts about the durability of his small 29-year-old body.

Fragility aside, critics rightly noted that Brandon's low turnover rate was as much a product of his cautious style as it was due to his ball-handling acumen. The point guard blossomed into an all-star in Cleveland deploying the ultradeliberate, nothing-ventured-nothing-lost style favored by then-coach Mike Fratello. Given the circumstances of his arrival here, it was inevitable that he'd be unfairly compared to Marbury, a flashy, muscular, prodigiously talented warrior who excels at drives to the basket and is well suited to an uptempo pace. By contrast, Brandon's play mirrors the self-effacing generosity and dignified grace of his temperament. If Marbury's court signature is a kamikaze foray through traffic, Brandon's is a deft pass leading to a teammate's open jump shot off the fundamental pick and roll.

First-round draft pick Wally Szczerbiak has shown he can lighten the offensive burden on Kevin Garnett--provided his shaky defense holds up
First-round draft pick Wally Szczerbiak has shown he can lighten the offensive burden on Kevin Garnett--provided his shaky defense holds up

Brandon's brief stint with Minnesota generated enough stylistic friction for the Wolves to not-so-secretly pursue Payton and Stoudamire during the summer, while, for his part, the point guard made clear his determination to test the waters of free agency. Eventually both sides realized that re-signing Brandon to a hefty long-term contract was an imperfect but mutually beneficial course of action. Following up on a theme he began articulating last year, Saunders says the Wolves' offense will maximize the team's athleticism by pushing the ball up-court and generating mismatches in transition. Brandon's patience has subsequently been tested by persistent questions from reporters asking whether he's capable of playing that way. Yes, he answers, again and again--but always with the caveat that he won't change much from what he has always done.

The most likely result is a compromise that finds the Wolves running the floor in transition but finishing plays with open jump shots created by three-on-two mismatches that Brandon exploits, rather than artistic lay-ups and resounding slam-dunks. That's a style perfectly suited to shooting guard Anthony Peeler, who followed a stellar 1997-98 campaign with grotesque effort that saw him out of sorts both mentally and physically last season. Knowing that the Wolves were unable to find another team willing to gamble on him, Peeler reported to training camp fit and contrite and has played with the grit and panache that was so much in evidence two years ago. In addition to being a dangerous (albeit somewhat streaky) long-range marksman, when properly motivated he's an underrated passer and defender who should thrive in an environment of controlled fast breaks.

Concerns about Brandon should revolve less around whether he can ignite an uptempo offense (he can, with some modifications) than whether he can stay healthy. Along with the physical stress that goes with transition basketball, he has to contend with Saunders's desire to deploy more trap-oriented defensive schemes this year, as well as the coach's preference that the point guard defend his opponent the full length of the court. Sensitive to Brandon's history of injuries, Saunders says he plans to limit his playing time to under 30 minutes per game. That leaves a lot of time for Bobby Jackson and/or William Avery at the point--not a pleasant scenario to ponder.

Last season, after Marbury was traded and Brandon was injured, Jackson floundered as a starter. No surprise there: He is a classic "tweener"--too short to be a shooting guard and bereft of the court sense, poise, and ball-handling prowess required of a point guard. Before long, on-court mistakes and a lack of confidence had created a vicious cycle that was painful to watch. Jackson is at his best providing juice off the bench in five-minute increments, primarily through his defensive intensity. Avery, by contrast, could become a fine point guard round about 2002 (he's got decent size, a penetrator's moxie, and a sweet long-range jumper), but the 20-year-old rookie simply isn't ready to steer an NBA offense for 15 minutes.

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