This Is It

The future is now

Olowokandi's absence on the court has created more minutes for Mark Madsen, who appears primed to become the most pleasant surprise (and, at a salary of little more than a million dollars per year, the best bargain) of the Wolves' 2003-04 season. It's a safe bet that Madsen possesses the most exotic thumbnail history in the NBA--he's a former Mormon missionary with an economics degree from Stanford who started 22 games for the Lakers last year and has been nicknamed "Mad Dog" since the fifth grade. More to the point, the 6'9" center/power forward has a blue-collar sensibility, plays with nonstop energy perhaps best described as physical muckraking, and wouldn't care if he only touched the ball during steals and rebounds.

When the Lakers were in the process of drafting Madsen, the team's personnel director Jerry West made a real impact by telling the center that playing hard is a skill just like shooting and rebounding. "It made me realize that playing hard is the one thing I can control," Madsen says.

"He is going to be very important to our team," Sichting predicts. "I'm not necessarily comparing him to Dennis Rodman, but once in a while you'll have a guy like Rodman or Charles Outlaw, who can come in and change the tempo of a game just like you've seen quick, smaller point guards do. He's got a motor that goes all the time and there's nothing phony about him--the fans are going to love him. He's going to make us a better practice team and he's got more skills than I thought he had."

Clockwise from bottom left: Sam Cassell, Troy Hudson, Michael Olowokandi, Wally Szczerbiak, and Kevin Garnett; add in Latrell Sprewell, Mark Madsen, Fred Hoiberg, and Ervin Johnson, and the Wolves have their strongest roster in team history
David Kern
Clockwise from bottom left: Sam Cassell, Troy Hudson, Michael Olowokandi, Wally Szczerbiak, and Kevin Garnett; add in Latrell Sprewell, Mark Madsen, Fred Hoiberg, and Ervin Johnson, and the Wolves have their strongest roster in team history

Those skills should continue to improve, as Madsen has been staying after practice and soaking up pointers from McHale about footwork and spin moves in the low post.

Madsen isn't the only bit player who has turned coaches' heads during the preseason. In late July, the Wolves were able to sign eight-year veteran shooting guard/small forward Fred Hoiberg to a minimum contract. The 6'5" Hoiberg has served in roles ranging from captaincy of the Chicago Bulls to last guy off the bench. He bears some similarity to Anthony Peeler (one of Saunders's favorite players) in that, while he is known primarily as a shooter, his 41-percent career field goal accuracy may be the weakest aspect of his otherwise solid, all-around game.

"Fred Hoiberg has been one of the surprises of our camp," Saunders said in mid-October. "He is an exceptional defender and does a lot of different things well. I'd say right now he is going to push for a lot of playing time. It's important for Wally and the rest of the guys to know that I'm going to go with the five guys who play best together, and let the competition bring out the best and worst in individuals."

Having the coach call him out by name as a potential loser of playing time suggests that Wally Szczerbiak is losing prestige in the ball club. That's not a scenario anyone would have envisioned less than a year ago when Szczerbiak signed a six-year, $60-million contract extension that marked him as a cornerstone of the future, and the franchise's marquee attraction if the Wolves failed to re-sign KG to a new deal. Since then, Wally has figuratively and literally lost his footing. Garnett has inked a pact that he claims will keep him in Minnesota for the rest of his career, and Cassell and Sprewell have been acquired. The seemingly minor dislocated-toe injury Szczerbiak suffered in last year's first preseason game was slow to heal, and sidelined him for more than two months. Then there was his awful performance in last year's playoff series loss to the Lakers, who gave him no room to maneuver, overplayed his right side, and exposed his penchant for turnovers and his inability to create his own shot.

"Yeah, [the Lakers] kicked Wally's ass last year," McHale said on the day before training camp three weeks ago. "He got his butt whupped. They pushed up into him, made him go left, bodied him. But I think Wally understands that, and he is going to get better." But within days, the dislocated little toe had apparently altered the way Szczerbiak put pressure on his left foot, leading to plantar fasciitis, a painfully chronic inflammation of the arch that has again forced him out of action.

The optimistic scenario is that the inflammation will soon vanish and not recur, and that KG, Spree, and Cassell will occupy opposing defenders enough to free Wally up for what is still one of the league's most accurate jump shots. The reality is that a fairly one-dimensional scorer, no matter how deadly his jumper, is not as beneficial to the revamped Wolves as staunch defenders who can shut down penetration on the perimeter, intimidate interior shooters, and enable the offense without handling the ball.

The enthusiasm over Madsen and Hoiberg may be preseason infatuations that lose luster when the games start to count. But ever since the Wolves acquired Cassell, Saunders has been enamored with the prospect of pairing him and Hudson in the backcourt, compensating for their lack of size on defense by deploying his matchup zone. Unless he's planning to bench Spree or KG, or go with a very, very small lineup, that means Wally will sit.

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