(Andrei Kirilenko image courtesy ESPN.com)

Kirilenko: The nearly undefinable, the “beautiful bastard”

There’s an ages-old joke about the United States and the former Soviet Union’s approaches to technological innovation during the “Space Race”-dominated era of the 1960s which feels no less true in spite of its almost certain apocryphal nature.

Before those days of text-messaging, tweeting and desktop computers larger than actual desk, NASA had set out, as the story goes, to develop a pen that could write in zero-gravity conditions where ink doesn’t properly flow. After thousands of man-hours and surely millions of dollars were invested to no avail, one day a devastating bit of news came from intelligence. The Russians had not only already solved the problem at a fraction of the US’ cost, the solution had proved 100% workable in the demanded conditions. That solution? Use a pencil.

Again, the story is likely untrue in terms of sheer fact, but it does illustrate the tendency of certain cultures at this point in history to throw money at propositions thought best addressed with high-tech.

Thus, today we have Fox Sports Net blogger Joan Niesen using a new high-tech camera to tell us something the Russians (and any international hoops devotee) could’ve figured much more cheaply: That Andrei Kirilenko’s skills are so intangible yet so omnipresent as to defy easy statistical analysis. Niesen uses STATS’ SportVU 3-D camera system to produce some wider-ranging statistics to better express how much AK-47 means to this year’s Timberwolves.

Notes Niesen, among other things:

• “Kirilenko possesses the ball an average of 49 times per game, for an average of 80 seconds per game. That’s the largest amount of time holding the ball for any player on the team that does not play at the point guard position.

• “Kirilenko averages 29 dribbles per game and 0.6 dribbles per touch.

• “Kirilenko averages 9.4 field goal attempts per game to go along with his 13.3 points, and among qualifying players (those who have attempted 600+ field goals this season), no one averages that many points on fewer attempts than he.

• “Kirilenko is patient with his shot, touching the ball an average of 5.4 times per field goal attempt; to compare, Derrick Williams touches the ball an average of 4.3 times per attempt, Kevin Love 3.9 and Nikola Pekovic 3.3.

• “In addition, 73.4 percent of Kirilenko’s shots come when he has not dribbled the ball, and 48.0 percent come when there is not a defender within four feet of him at the time of the shot.”

Incredibly selfless play well-defined. Fine. But simple observation alone can confirm Niesen’s contention that Kirilenko is enjoying his best NBA season in seven years. BallinEurope consistently goes back to what he considers the definitive piece ever written on the AK, Norm Schiller’s “There’s No Place Like Home”, posted on Hardwood Paroxysm in November 2011 shortly after the former Jazzman reentered the Euroleague with a bang.

Described Schiller in that piece: “Kirilenko has long been a frustrating case of a mind that just can’t keep with the frenetic pace set by a unique combination of physique and talent. His lean build masks his athleticism well, but accentuates his length, and enables him to deftly maneuver between the gigantic men that share basketball courts with him. Between the speed, the quickness, the surprising vertical outbursts that stand in sharp contrast to his appearance, the entire basketball court is often just a single step away from Andrei’s long reach. In his purest form, Kirilenko was created with omnipresence in mind.”

Whereupon Schiller notes that “Somehow, in the NBA, this raw tendency has always been obstructed” and that “Placing Kirilenko in any semblance of a ‘natural’ position is severe miscasting, as Kirilenko is in every way the positional revolution incarnate. Clearly, he isn’t a guard, and isn’t a center, but he isn’t really a forward either … If anything, the disservice to Andrei is not that the prefix to his ‘forward’ listing is the word ‘small’ instead of ‘power,’ but that he’s been cast as anything at all.

Ironically, because of this rare reality that Kirilenko faces, the stopgap role he’s been forced to occupy all season for the Minnesota Timberwolves is perfect for his talents. While T-wolves fans would surely dig on seeing Kirilenko as the rangiest no. 3 in the NBA as Love and Pekovic do the dirty rebounding work, he doesn’t need to. Kirilenko has played quality minutes in the 3, 4 and 5 spots in seeing more time than any ‘Wolf except Luke Ridnour, his only teammate to have not missed a game thus far – and his average line is the typical smorgasbord we’ve come to expect: 13.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.54 steals and 1.12 blocks per game for 18.2 PER. It seems position is, as Schiller postulates, irrelevant to Mr. Kirilenko, who seems destined to turn in such stats until retirement.

What’s odd is the lack of serious deviation by the Wolves when Kirilenko turns in a statistical outlier: In games when Andrei goes for fewer than 10 points this season, Minnesota is 4-5; when he’s topped 20, they’re 3-2.

(A little further noodling shows that Kirilenko’s PIR per Euroleague’s formula would be 20.86 or 24.47 adjusted for 40 minutes, good for sixth-best overall in the European league. The point, as ever: The man seems born to defy the stats.)

Wild it is that once again distinctly team guy is pigeonholed into becoming a focal point for the offense – and while Kirilenko is demonstrating smart, selfless play that should serve as a textbook example for all those proverbial “young kids watching out there,” his efforts get little viral-type headline publicity. That’s too bad, because Kirilenko’s game *looks* better than ever, even if the statistics (and Minnesota’s record) just don’t bear it out…

And incidentally, BallinEurope wish Andrei a happy 32nd birthday today!

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