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 Timberwolves'
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 Skyforce 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
Says the normally loquacious Garnett of his relationship with
Szczerbiak, "We're cool."
One can't help but wonder what role race plays in Szczerbiak's
popularity--or lack thereof--around the league. He's one of only
three white players who regularly start at two guard, a
distinction often noted by the opposition. In a game last season
Toronto Raptors swingman Vince Carter looked at Szczerbiak,
laughed and then turned to the Timberwolves' bench. "He said,
and this is a direct quote, 'You better get this white guy off
me or I'm going to score 40,'" recalls Szczerbiak. "I took that
as a slap in the face." (Carter, who scored 32 points that
night, denies referring to Szczerbiak's race.) In his book Shaq
Talks Back, Shaquille O'Neal lists Szczerbiak as one of his
favorite white players but adds, "If you get dunked on by a
white boy, you got to come home to your friends and hear it."
If being a white player in the NBA--in which more than 80% of
the players are black--consigns one to outsider status,
Szczerbiak has had a decade to become inured. In high school he
drove to the Bronx and Brooklyn from his home in the verdant
Long Island community of Cold Spring Harbor to play AAU ball
with Stephon Marbury and Lamar Odom. Often, he was the only
white kid on the floor. After Szczerbiak graduated from Miami of
Ohio in 1999, the players with whom he was compared at predraft
camps were Tom Gugliotta, Dan Majerle and Larry Bird. Does
Szczerbiak feel stigmatized because of his race? "I'm sure I get
put through the wringer a little more and scrutinized a little
more," he says. "That's fine with me. It makes me work harder.
Now that I'm getting more looks, I can go back at guys [such as
Carter], so it's not like I'm a punching bag."
Szczerbiak was constantly mentioned in trade rumors last
season--to the Chicago Bulls for various combinations involving
Ron Mercer, Ron Artest, Marcus Fizer and Khalid El-Amin; to the
Seattle SuperSonics with Brandon for Gary Payton--and he's
elated no deal came to pass. He and his wife, Shannon, live in a
well-appointed town house in downtown Minneapolis during the
season and have fallen for the charms of the upper Midwest (you
betcha!). Plus, the Timberwolves are back on solid footing after
a shaky 2000-01. Though Minnesota made the playoffs for the
fifth straight time and won 47 games, the most ever for an
eighth seed, the year was fraught with bad mojo.
In May 2000 forward Malik Sealy was killed in an auto accident.
Then the NBA got wind of the team's sub-rosa deal to sign Smith
to a seven-year, $86 million contract that made a mockery of the
salary-cap rules. The league's sanctions included suspending
owner Glen Taylor for one year, fining the T-Wolves $3.5
million, voiding Smith's contract and ultimately taking away
four first-round draft choices. "I'm proud that we persevered
last year," says Szczerbiak, whose option for 2002-03 the club
picked up in September, "but the vibes are much better this year."
The season is still young; Szczerbiak's barely faded summer
tan--cultivated while he cruised Long Island Sound on his
20-foot boat, Wally World--attests to that. Nonetheless,
Minnesota, a team that hasn't won a playoff series in its
12-year history, has already penetrated the consciousness of the
other top teams. "People are aware of what we're doing," says
Garnett. "They might not come out and say it, but you better
believe everybody has a tape of the Timberwolves, because we're
Likewise, the word on Szczerbiak is out. "No question," says
Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Andre Miller, who was also a
member of the Goodwill Games team. "Other teams know that Wally
is a player you need to watch."
Szczerbiak's not hard to spot. Just look for the white guy who's
locking and loading, shooting the lights out.
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).
FIELD GOALS FIELD GOALS FIELD GOAL
MADE ATTEMPTED PCT.
Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers 1,901 3,334 .570
Wally Szczerbiak, Timberwolves 899 1,752 .513
Rasheed Wallace, Trail Blazers 1,234 2,446 .504
Karl Malone, Jazz 1,530 3,045 .502
David Robinson, Spurs 975 1,943 .502
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
score or he'll pass it to me, and I will."