All these years after signing that huge contract with the Jazz, Andrei Kirilenko finally is justifying every bit of the money he’s making.
Too bad he’s doing it in Minnesota.
You just knew this would happen, right? Kirilenko spends a year playing professionally at home in Russia, returns to the NBA and is reborn as the A.K. of 2004.
“He’s getting points, he’s getting assists, he’s getting blocked shots. He’s all over the board,” said Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin. “He seems to be back to the old Andrei.”
The Timberwolves, 5-2 entering Wednesday’s game vs. Charlotte, are thriving largely because of him. They’re missing Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, and their injuries just keep coming.
Kirilenko’s 16-point, 11-rebound effort in 44 minutes Monday in a win at Dallas came after he posted 11 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists Saturday in a loss at Chicago. The night before, he delivered the game-winning assist against Indiana. Earlier, he recorded 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in a victory at Brooklyn, where Minnesota came from 22 points behind.
“I credit our character,” Kirilenko said of the Timberwolves’ resiliency.
As for Kirilenko’s success, I would attribute it to an absence of expectations. He’s at his best when the standards are low, unlike the second phase of his 10-year Jazz tenure that ended in 2011. He’s looking a lot like the player who drove a Jazz team with an Opening Night lineup of Matt Harpring, Greg Ostertag, Carlos Arroyo and DeShawn Stevenson to a winning record in 2003-04, his only All-Star year.
Nobody expected anything from that team, with John Stockton and Karl Malone having departed, and Kirilenko produced a remarkable season. He never was the same after that, thanks to his injuries and an upgraded roster that made him less of an impact player — except in terms of the salary cap.
All that money may have changed Kirilenko. It certainly altered the way the rest of us viewed him. He went from being celebrated as the refreshing, admirable A.K. to a legacy of unfulfilled promise, even as one of the top dozen players in franchise history.
His max contract crippled the Jazz, explaining why Paul Millsap is the only remaining player from the 2009-10 season. In Kirilenko’s last two years, while being paid a total of $34.2 million and missing 42 games due to injury, he averaged 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds.
In Minnesota, where he signed in July for $20 million over two seasons, Kirilenko is scoring at about that same level. It’s everything else he’s doing that inspired Corbin’s label of “the old Andrei.” He’s averaging 8.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.0 blocks. Kirilenko leads the NBA in blocks-to-fouls ratio, having committed only five fouls through seven games.
He’s appearing fresh and re-energized at age 31, after his season in Russia. “You can’t help but expect a guy like that to come in and prove himself,” Millsap said.
Kirilenko is among nine current NBA players who appeared in the Jazz’s final playoff game of 2010, when the Los Angeles Lakers swept them in the Western Conference semifinals. The alumni’s efforts cover both extremes, from Deron Williams playing at an All-Star level in Brooklyn to C.J. Miles enduring 0-for-7 and 0-for-6 shooting nights and then not getting off the bench in Cleveland’s last two games.
Two weeks into the season, Kirilenko is the biggest story of them all. The fans who once adored him in Utah should be happy he’s doing so well, even if this performance is coming one contract too late.
Life after the Jazz
2012-13 statistics (through Tuesday) for the players who appeared in the Jazz’s final playoff game of 2010 and remain in the NBA:
Player Team Pts. Reb.*
Deron Williams Brooklyn 17.6 7.6
Wesley Matthews Portland 16.3 3.3
Paul Millsap Jazz 15.6 9.4
Andrei Kirilenko Minnesota 11.9 8.1
Carlos Boozer Chicago 11.3 7.7
Kyle Korver Atlanta 8.5 3.5
Kosta Koufos Denver 7.4 6.0
C.J. Miles Cleveland 4.5 2.0
Ronnie Price Portland 3.2 2.2
* Assists for point guards Williams and Price.