Big Man, Little Man

The euphemism most often used to describe the emotional demeanor of Timberwolves backup center Loren Woods is that he is "hard on himself." I guess to some extent that's true. But the phrase implies that someone is using self-criticism as a motivating tool--a way to improve and atone for imperfections. And given the immaturity and narcissism Woods has demonstrated during his inconsistent rookie season, I think it would be more accurate to say that he makes the game "hard for himself." Simply put, he is the King of Pout.

Consider the final two seconds of the third quarter in a January 15 home game against the L.A. Clippers. Woods, in-bounding the ball from the end line, inexplicably throws a football-style pass down the court. It sails out-of-bounds before anyone touches it--a bone-headed maneuver that gives the Clips possession with just enough time to run a quick play. Exasperated, coach Flip Saunders subs in Joe Smith and Woods heads to the sideline to berate himself, a frequent sight for fans at Target Center.

To further dramatize his self-loathing, Woods stares at the ceiling as the third quarter comes to a close. As his teammates huddle-up for instruction, he wanders adrift ten-feet away, head tilted upward. Even when assistant coach Jerry Sichting barks at him to get in the huddle, he doesn't snap out of it; instead, he laconically saunters over, still scanning the rafters.

For many players, acting out is a kind of ritual: Christian Laettner used to spout loud obscenities; Chuck Person banged his forehead; Kevin Garnett thumps his chest and screams at the ceiling. The point is to purge the bad and leapfrog into the good. Woods doesn't purge, though, he ostentatiously wallows, drawing attention to himself even as he is beginning to withdraw from the game mentally. This behavior goes a long way toward explaining his inconsistencies at both the college and pro level.

After two years at Wake Forest, Woods transferred to the University of Arizona--according to press reports, because he couldn't handle the constant comparisons to former teammate Tim Duncan, a steady star. The move to the desert seemed to be a tonic, as the lanky seven-footer enjoyed a sterling, if uneven junior year. Pro scouts began to speculate that Woods, if he left school early, could be a top ten draft pick. His decision to stay at Arizona for his senior season was a mixed blessing; while his team went all the way to the NCAA championship game, his own play fluctuated between dominance and disappearance--renewing questions about his focus and maturity. He didn't get a single rebound in the first half of the regional final of the NCAA tournament against Illinois, but had a monstrous effort in the championship tilt against Duke, racking up 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots.

Still, the consensus was that Woods would be drafted somewhere in the middle-to-late stages of last summer's NBA draft. Instead, he fell all the way to the middle of the second round. Word was that teams were leery about the health of his back, which was operated on in April of 2000. Sometimes, when one or two teams pass on a guy with that kind of physical question mark, a herd mentality sets in and he becomes less desirable than the risk-versus-reward warrants. Being labeled for having a "bad attitude" can produce the same result, as the late drafting of future football stars Randy Moss and Warren Sapp demonstrate. It's hard to know for sure whether Woods's old back ailments, his inconsistency, or a combination of the two, was responsible for his fall from favor.

During the preseason, it looked like the Wolves scored a steal by landing Woods as a 46th pick. From the beginning, it was apparent that he possessed the timing and instincts of a natural shot blocker. His sure hands and above average court vision made him a good fit for the Wolves' passing offense. And, after some initial confusion, his experience with zone defenses at Arizona helped grease his transition to Saunders's newly-instituted match-up zone scheme. Remarkably, in retrospect, his attitude was equally impressive. As Kevin Garnett was being interviewed in the locker room after one of the team's first home games, Woods leaned over the throng of reporters, a pretend microphone in his outstretch hand, and said in a funny voice, "What do you think of this new guy, Loren Woods?" It was the kind of moxie you like to see in a rookie.

As it turns out, Woods's precocious style on the court and in the locker room stemmed from a series of one-on-one workouts with KG just before the exhibition season. It put him ahead of other players who were just trying to work themselves into shape. Just before the Wolves opened the regular season against Philadelphia, assistant coach Randy Wittman warned Woods that the caliber of play would rise significantly now that the games counted in the standings. "I'm not sure he believed me," Wittman says.

In any case, after averaging 18 minutes a night during the first six games of the regular season, Woods found himself languishing on the bench, a clear indication that Saunders detected a decline in his play and practice habits. Rumors began to filter out that Woods was unhappy with the situation, and was complaining that he was better than rookies on other teams who were getting more court time. Coaches confirm that when he got down on himself, his play and his attitude suffered. After a particularly lackadaisical performance against Milwaukee in early January, when Woods hoisted up four poor shots in five minutes (including a 17-footer with 20 seconds left on the shot clock), Saunders addressed the situation in a post game press conference. Some rookies feel they warrant more playing time than they have earned he said, cutting the criticism some by noting that it happens to many players. He went on to explain that it's a learning curve that involves youngsters gradually getting better and accepting their roles: "Some players get it. Some never do."

As is usually the case, Kevin McHale, vice President of basketball operations, offers the carrot while Saunders wields the stick. "The hardest thing to do with the coaches and everybody else, is plead patience, because you've got to win right now," McHale says. "Very seldom do you get guys who come right in and help your team. You'll hear Loren say, `I see guys I know I'm as good as, and they're playing.' Sure, I tell him, you see a guy scoring eighteen points a game and it looks impressive but their team is only going to win 20 games. It is more impressive to see a guy average 9 points and 7 rebounds on a team that wins 55. We all just have to be patient with Loren. It will come."

For the moment, Woods is too talented for the Wolves to be anything but patient. The question that must be resolved over the next two or three years, of course, is whether Woods will grow up enough to honor the team's forbearance. There are flashes of brilliance--a nifty pass, an athletic blocked shot, a sweet bit of footwork for a lay-up--that usually come in clusters. Woods needs to bulk up to be a better-than-average defender in man-on-man coverage, though, and his offensive moves and shot selection need refinement. Most of all, he needs to realize that the mercurial moods and petulant bits of self-flagellation just make him look silly.

Last week, for instance, Woods didn't have a passport or any other basic identification, so he couldn't enter Canada with the team. As a result, he missed a practice in Toronto. Coming into the pros as a fifth-year senior, from a top-notch college program that went all the way to the championship game, his mental game should be better suited for the NBA grind. But at the moment, that simply isn't so.


Britt Robson posts his Timberwolves column online at every Monday during the NBA season--and maybe more frequently, if the mood strikes him.

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