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Killer Looks
L. Jon Wertheim
December 03, 2001
All Wally Szczerbiak wanted was a few more shots a game. He's getting them now, and the Timberwolves are on a tear
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December 03, 2001

Killer Looks

All Wally Szczerbiak wanted was a few more shots a game. He's getting them now, and the Timberwolves are on a tear

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Crack Shot

Wally Szczerbiak's field goal percentage of .540 at week's end ranked fifth in the NBA and first among guards. As the box below shows, since Szczerbiak entered the league in the 1999-2000 season, only Shaquille O'Neal has been more accurate from the floor (minimum 1,500 attempts).




Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers




Wally Szczerbiak, Timberwolves




Rasheed Wallace, Trail Blazers




Karl Malone, Jazz




David Robinson, Spurs





There they were last summer in Brisbane, Australia, an employee and his boss, 9,000 miles from home on a business trip. During their weeklong stay at the Goodwill Games, Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Wally Szczerbiak and his general manager and coach, Flip Saunders, did their best to avoid awkward discussions of life back at the office. After Szczerbiak played a starring role on the Saunders-coached U.S. team that won the gold medal, the two went on a sightseeing trip to the Gold Coast. Small talk finally turned to shop talk when Saunders shared his thoughts on the upcoming NBA season. "Wally, it's time to take that next step," he said. "We think you can be an All-Star, but we want you to shoot the ball more often."

As Szczerbiak furrowed his considerable brow and nodded coolly, one thought consumed him: It's about friggin' time. In his first two years in Minnesota, Szczerbiak had shown an exquisite touch by making 51.0% of his field goals, yet he was an offensive afterthought, putting up only 10.3 shots a game. "If you have a guy who shoots that percentage—and he isn't doing it just on layups and dunks—it only makes sense to get him more looks," Szczerbiak says. "It was a no-brainer. If they got me more shots, I knew we'd start clicking."

One month into his third season the Timberwolves are clicking like castanets, leading the Midwest Division with a 10-2 record after a 99-94 home victory over the San Antonio Spurs last Saturday. Minnesota has thrived with a blend of poise and equipoise, winning close games with a balanced attack. Preposterously talented forward Kevin Garnett, now in his—gulp!—seventh season, was averaging 21.3 points and 12.4 rebounds at week's end. Having recanted his bizarre preseason proclamation that he was looking forward to coming off the bench in 2002-03, point guard Terrell Brandon had an otherworldly assist-to-turnover ratio of 6.5 to 1. Signed during the summer as a free agent after a year in exile with the Detroit Pistons, forward Joe Smith has evolved from an underachieving former No. 1 draft pick into a dirty-work warrior. "It's all for one on this team," says Brandon. "We have a lot of good workers."

The 6'7", 235-pound Szczerbiak, however, was the Timber-wolves' employee of the month for November. The reacquisition of Smith enabled Saunders to switch Szczerbiak from small forward to shooting guard, a move that has paid off handsomely. Through Sunday's games he was averaging 18.5 points, most coming on a hail of jumpers but plenty on aggressive drives to the basket. In a 104-94 win over the New York Knicks on Nov. 6, he poured in 35 points on 14-of-19 shooting, matching his previous career high of 28 by halftime. True to his coach's promise Down Under, Szczerbiak is getting more looks, shooting 13.6 times a game—second on the team to Garnett's 18.0—and draining 54.0% of his attempts, including 54.2% (13 of 24) from three-point range. The conventional wisdom is that an NBA contender must have a pair of scorers. "We knew we had one in KG," says Saunders. "Now we know we have one in Wally."

More than any team, the Timberwolves have taken advantage of the new rules permitting zones—no surprise when you consider that Saunders, while coaching the CBA's Sioux Falls Sky-force in 1994-95, wrote a 45-page primer on the finer points of zone defense. Deploying what Saunders calls a "hyperbolic paraboloid transitional floating zone" (essentially a matchup) about 40% of the time, Minnesota has confounded opponents, holding them to 41.7% shooting through Sunday, third best in the league. Garnett, Smith and improving 7-foot center Rasho Nesterovic can each reach halfway to Duluth, allowing the frontcourt to cover vast expanses. They also provide vital support to the quickness-challenged Szczerbiak, who can use his height and bulk more aggressively on the perimeter knowing that he has help if he gets beaten off the dribble.

Still, the new rules may be of even greater benefit to Szczerbiak when the T-Wolves have the ball. As teams have inevitably collapsed on Garnett, Szczerbiak has roamed the weak side unattended, often shouting, "Swing it!" and clapping his hands to demand the ball. "It's pick your poison," says the 24-year-old Szczerbiak. "Either Kevin's going to score, or he'll pass it to me and I will."

Szczerbiak's picturesque shooting form—he stands tall and appears to puff his chest proudly as he releases the ball—offers an insight into his personality: He doesn't suffer modesty gladly. Asked, for instance, whether his standout Goodwill Games performance imbued him with confidence heading into the season, he responds, "It's not like I doubted I belonged on the team."

Says Szczerbiak's father, Walt, a former ABA player and now the U.S. representative for the Spanish pro league, "Wally's always believed in his ability. As a kid he would watch me play in weekend games, and when we were done, he'd get on me: 'Dad, how could you have missed that layup?' "

Because he straddles that fine line between cocky and very cocky, Szczerbiak can be a lightning rod for conflict. Although all parties contend that the incident was blown out of proportion, Garnett took exception to Szczerbiak's lax defense at a practice last year and they twice had to be separated. Earlier that month Szczerbiak and Brandon had exchanged heated words at practice as well. Charlotte Hornets center Jamaal Magloire was so peeved at Szczerbiak during a game last season that he confronted him outside the Timberwolves' locker room afterward, screaming profanities. "Wally plays hard, he never backs down, and no matter who's on him, he thinks he can score," says Saunders. "That's what we like and what other people don't like."

Says the normally loquacious Garnett of his relationship with Szczerbiak, "We're cool."

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