A Veteran Clamps Down

The Wolves find an unexpected bright spot

In some ways Kendall Gill brings back memories of Malik Sealy. Before he was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver in May 2000, Sealy was the second-best defender, after only Kevin Garnett, in Wolves history. Agile as a cat and six feet, eight inches high, he routinely smothered opposing shooting guards out on the perimeter and could bury the open jump shot at the other end of the floor.

Gill is only six-five but plays about two inches taller due to his large wingspan and quick leaping ability. A shrewd, proud defender, he doggedly fights through picks and deftly shaves his opponent's angles to the hoop. Fast hands and an acute sense of anticipation make him a constant threat to steal the ball; indeed, he led the NBA in that category during the 1998-99 season. Through the Wolves' first eleven games, he has been the team's third-most accurate shooter, converting 47 percent of his field goal attempts. That probably won't last--he hasn't shot better than 41 percent the last four years--but his defensive prowess on the perimeter is so much better than the Wolves' other guards that he belongs on the court during crunch time in close games even when his jumper isn't falling.

Hampered by a string of injuries in recent seasons, the 34-year-old Gill couldn't even land a guaranteed contract this year. The Wolves signed him to a non-guaranteed deal in late September mostly to provide some veteran leadership and stability in the locker room in the wake of Sam Mitchell's retirement. After the team's first exhibition game, when I suggested that he had inherited Mitchell's role, Gill looked chagrined, and replied, "I hope I've got more left than that." Clearly, however, the team's expectations of him were modest. Even after guards Wally Szczerbiak and Felipe Lopez went down with injuries (Lopez is out for the season), Gill was behind Anthony Peeler in coach Flip Saunders's playing rotation.

But Peeler struggled mightily, forcing Saunders to throw Gill into the breach, with delightful results. Gill pumped in 22 points to lead the Wolves over Washington on November 5. Two nights later, his defense on Milwaukee guard Ray Allen keyed another Minnesota victory. Two nights after that, the Wolves were beating Boston when Saunders inexplicably rested both Gill and Garnett with four minutes left in the third quarter. The Celtics promptly went on a 14-0 run that effectively decided the outcome.

Szczerbiak's recovery from toe and knee injuries will undoubtedly rob Gill of some playing time, especially when the Wolves are going with a tall lineup that puts KG at small forward and Wally at shooting guard. Saunders can't sit Szczerbiak, who just signed a long-term, $60 million deal, and is a deadeye shooter on a team having difficulty adjusting to its new motion offense. But anyone who saw Indiana's Ron Artest score at will on Wally last Saturday night knows that his defense is still problematic. He's fast but not quick, and he has trouble defending aggressively and staying under control. On the occasions when Szczerbiak matches up better with opposing small forwards, Saunders should consider sliding Garnett up to power forward and sitting Loren Woods (or Joe Smith when he finally returns from his groin injury) in favor of getting Gill in starting lineup. At the very least, Saunders should cease his long-standing infatuation with Peeler and transfer more of AP's minutes to Gill. Granted, Peeler's ball handling, shot selection, and passing ability are better than many disgruntled fans want to admit. But as a scorer, he is fundamentally flawed, rarely able to draw fouls, create his own shot, or convert the shots he does create.

Figuring out ways to get Gill sufficient playing time isn't the only dilemma Saunders faces when determining his backcourt rotation. The situation at point guard remains unsettled enough that Troy Hudson, Rod Strickland, and Terrell Brandon all have a plausible chance of being the starter a month or two from now. The Wolves signed Hudson, the current starter, as a free agent from Orlando this summer to replace Chauncey Billups, who inked his own free agent deal with Detroit. It was a good exchange, given that Hudson is the better defender of the two, and cost Minnesota half as much as Detroit overpaid to land Billups. But, like Billups, Hudson is more adept at scoring points than creating opportunities for his teammates. A nice guy and a class act, he candidly acknowledges that developing a pass-first mentality has been a difficult adjustment that runs counter to his instincts and normal rhythm on the court. Strickland is obviously better at distributing the ball and running a set, half-court offense, but may not be as well suited to the more wide-open motion offense Saunders is trying to implement. Depending how well he recovers from a fractured leg injury suffered last year, Brandon will either step in as the starter or retire from basketball before the year is over.

Strickland and Brandon are each accustomed to commanding the offense as the starting point guard, while Hudson is more comfortable (and probably more successful) coming off the bench to provide instant offense. But playing Hudson as a sixth or seventh man would almost certainly mean fewer minutes for Gill, and thus less fiber in the team's perimeter defense. The guess here is that Brandon doesn't return, and that Saunders, notoriously demanding of his point guards, eventually opts for Strickland as the starter. Gill is then deprived of the minutes he deserves, and the Wolves, not coincidentally, continue to stumble along.

 
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