WINNIPEG - At 31 years old, closer to the end of his career than the beginning, Andrei Kirilenko is getting a chance to start something new.
And he sounds pretty happy about it.
The 6-foot-9 Russian is hoping for a smooth transition back to the NBA after spending last season in his native Russia, and he’s doing it after spending his entire 10-year NBA career knowing only one franchise. On Wednesday, he’ll lead the Minnesota Timberwolves into town for the pre-season game against the Detroit Pistons, the league’s first trip to the city since a Portland-Toronto tilt in 2007.
Kirilenko averaged 11.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in 2010-11, his last season with the Utah Jazz who selected him 24th overall in the 1999 NBA Entry Draft.
Last season the NBA’s lockout convinced Kirilenko to head home, and his performance suggested it was a wise move. He was named the Euroleague MVP playing for CSKA Moscow, where he averaged 14.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.
“To be honest, I never lost my confidence. I was always pretty sure what I could do on the floor but with the lockout last year I was put in a unique situation that I can play for the Russian team. I really enjoyed that time and when the lockout was over I was thinking about the Olympics in the summertime, so I stayed in Russia.”
Everything Kirilenko is experiencing in Minnesota is new to him, which can be invigorating for a veteran player such as himself.
“I’ve never been with another team in the NBA except the Jazz, so for me it’s a very new experience,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. We’re kinda building a new team, we’ve got a lot of young faces.”
The Timberwolves finished 26-40 last season but provide some intrigue this season after retooling with the addition of Kirilenko and guard Brandon Roy, who is joining the team after coming out of an injury-forced retirement that lasted a year. Add in a bona fide star in Kevin Love — who is unfortunately sidelined with a wrist injury for the next four to six weeks — and there’s reason for optimism going forward in the Twin Cities.
“I think it’s a lot of fun to watch this team. It’s a very young team, and that’s one of the reasons I came to Minnesota because there’s a lot of young, ambitious guys,” Kirilenko said. “It really brings perspective in my eyes, I can see the professionalism and I will do my best to bring a lot of energy to ignite it and bring a spark to the game.”
To that end, Kirilenko is absolutely fine with filling whatever role is required.
“I’ve never been a big scorer who’s scoring 20 points a night,” he said, “but I’ve always been a guy who’s very energetic and trying to be everywhere on the floor — defence, offence, helping, passing the ball, doing dirty work on the floor, guarding people. I think it’s very important when you can have those guys on the team you know who doesn’t even really need the ball.”
It only took Andrei Kirilenko a few seconds into an interview to mention he likes hockey.
With that kind of talk, it’s safe to say, he’ll get along just fine with Winnipeg fans.
Kirilenko, who will be in town Wednesday with the Minnesota Timberwolves in an NBA pre-season game against the Detroit Pistons at MTS Centre, spoke to the Winnipeg Sun on Sunday from Minneapolis after a team practice.
It will be Kirilenko’s first visit to Winnipeg, but he said he’s aware of the hockey passion here and, although there’s no real time for them to explore the city, he’s looking forward to seeing something new. And he has one small goal, too.
“Definitely I want to buy a jersey,” he said, undoubtedly endearing himself to Winnipeg Jets fans.
“It’s a very rare opportunity because I’ve never seen the other parts (of Canada) but I like hockey.”
Born in Izhevsk, in the western portion of Russia, Kirilenko was curious about the Russian influences on the Winnipeg Jets and then listed off his favourite players.
“(Ilya) Kovalchuk, (Alexander) Ovechkin, (Evgeni) Malkin, those are the three I cheer for,” he said.