Kevin Love was not supposed to be this good, at least not this fast. He was not supposed to be the NBA's leading rebounder just three years into his career, let alone the first player ever to record 53 consecutive double-doubles. But that is exactly what the 23-year-old power forward has been doing up in Minnesota.
The consensus on Love when the Minnesota Timberwolves made him the No. 5 overall pick in the 2009 draft was that he was too slow and too much of a below-the-rim player to ever excel. To be sure, this is not some Jeremy Lin rags-to-riches story. Love was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year and a consensus first-team All-American as a freshman at UCLA. But still, there were serious doubts about his NBA ceiling and even about his floor during the pre-draft process.
In May 2008, NBAdraft.net wrote that Love's "lack of speed will make it extremely difficult for him to play for a running style of team. ... Was able to get away with overpowering opponents in college, yet questions remain how his game translates against bigger, quicker and more athletic opponents at the next level."
The well-respected player evaluation website Draftexpress.com added that "for all his skill on the low block, Love does run into some problems in the post, specifically when he's going up against a longer defender. He is prone to having his shot blocked, and has trouble trying to score over bigger defenders. He doesn't show much in terms of vertical explosiveness, being a mostly under the rim player."
Given Love's broad six-foot-nine frame and prodigious rebounding numbers as a collegian, Minnesota was sufficiently confident that he would become an effective rebounder and, at the very least, a great glue guy on a winning team. He has already exceeded those modest expectations. With an ultra high basketball IQ and a rare blend of skills, Love is averaging 25 points and 14 rebounds per game, second only to Orlando's Dwight Howard, entering the All-Star break.
"He just has a gift," Timberwolves Assistant Coach Bill Bayno told The Huffington Post. "Whatever that is, he has an unbelievable nose for the ball that you can't teach."
With a deft transition point guard in Ricky Rubio leading the break, Love has become a shockingly effective up-tempo player, particularly in trailing Rubio for his patented catch-and-shoot triple from the top of the key. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Love has scored a healthy 86 points in 68 transition opportunities, shooting 54 percent from the floor.
But perhaps his best overall value lies in the half-court game, where he has become a legitimate go-to threat on a vastly improving T-Wolves team, which at 17-17 at this point in the year is set to blow by its 17-wins total of last season.
Per Synergy, Love ranks in the 88th percentile of the entire NBA in half-court efficiency, converting 230 field goals, shooting a very respectable 43.3 percent, and displaying solid ability in the post and the two-man game with Rubio.
"Kevin has one of the most unique skill sets. I don't know if there's another player in the history of the game to have his rebounding and three-point shooting ability," Bayno said. "He's starting to become a first option. He's a threat pick-and-pop. He puts so much pressure on the defense because you have to guard him.”
According to 82games.com, Love has the highest plus-minus on the team, at nearly plus-10, compared to Rubio's plus-4, and Rubio is one of the frontrunners for Rookie of the Year alongside Cleveland's Kyrie Irving. Besides being an elite rebounder, Love is a dominant scorer and, according to Bayno, is developing into a highly effective defender and passer.
"I really questioned his defense, coaching against him last year," said Bayno, who was then with the Portland Trail Blazers. "But he's such a coachable player, and it's really improved. He wants to be great. Because defenses are sagging and collapsing, we've also asked him to get his passing game up, and he's done that too."
Or as one Eastern Conference scout told HuffPost, "I believe the most impressive thing about Love has been his work ethic to get to the level where he is now."
Already a two-time All-Star, Love is still just in his fourth NBA season. Considering his substantial growth as a player so far, it seems foolish to try to forecast where he'll be in another few seasons.
At this point though, he is as close to a franchise face as Minnesota has had since a certain "Big Ticket" donned the canis lupus uniform.
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