Posted Jan 5 2010 1:41PM
If Jonny Flynn's rookie season were going to be any more challenging, he'd notice that the hardwoods of the NBA were at a 30-degree angle. So that, when he tried to push the ball upcourt, he'd really be pushing the ball upcourt.
Otherwise, the learning curve has been steep enough on its own, thank you.
The challenges began for Flynn before he even shook commissioner David Stern's hand and tugged on his Minnesota Timberwolves cap on the podium in New York. Although he was chosen sixth overall after two electric seasons at Syracuse, Flynn already was behind another rookie point guard on the Wolves' depth chart; their newly hired team president, David Kahn, had wrangled the fifth pick and selected Spain's Ricky Rubio, whose potential and international allure were too good to pass up. Which meant when the Wolves selected Flynn right on top of Rubio, the overriding reaction was: Huh?
Rubio, though, opted to stay in Europe for two or three more years. But the prospect of Rubio is always there, even if Flynn leaves it to others to seek out Rubio's FC Barcelona highlights on YouTube.
There's more: Flynn's size, an issue he got over long ago, is still relevant as long as sportswriters can think about posting him up. There is Minnesota's roster -- in a league of Westminster show dogs, the Wolves still are mostly mutts. There is the task at hand, somehow helping a team that's into serial rebuilding. Seventeen of Minnesota's 28 losses have been by 10 points or more, including a spanking at Indiana Saturday in which they gave up 73 points in the first half.
There is newness compounded by newness, with Flynn playing for a first-year coach who is proselytizing an exotic offensive system (the triangle) that few pros ever have run. A system that, in the two rare if impressively successful circumstances in which it thrived (Phil Jackson's Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers), minimized the need for a traditional point guard.
On top of all that, there is a question getting asked more and more in the balmy January climes of Minneapolis-St. Paul: If the Timberwolves get the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft this June and Kentucky's dynamic point guard John Wall is the no-brain consensus choice, will they take him?
Flynn met the question head-on.
"In the NBA, you always have to look at that. There's 60 guys coming in every year who could take your spot," he said. "Whatever a franchise can do to get better, they're going to do it. No matter if they drafted you last year. I just try to take care of the things I can take care of, and that's here at practice every day."
By NBA edict, the Wolves' braintrust cannot talk about Wall, an underclassmen. Chances are, they don't yet know what they would do if faced with the above scenario. For Flynn, he could wonder if he really fits in Minnesota. After all, it's not that different from what it was like for him last summer through all the will-he-or-won't-he Rubio agonizing.
"Sure, it was a very sensitive situation," Kahn said. "But I think Jonny handled it magnificently. Every quote or comment I saw from him was always positive or welcoming. That showed me a lot about him."
Some might say that Flynn is playing this season on the clock in a now-or-never opportunity to prove his worth. Beyond Rubio and potentially Wall, there's Ramon Sessions, a point guard who had big moments with Milwaukee last season before signing as a free agent.
Others might say that it's good that someone in the organization feels a little urgency. Kahn has been urging patience since Day 1, reminding fans who already have endured five consecutive lottery finishes that this latest makeover could take two or three more years. Coach Kurt Rambis has a deep-horizon, four-year contract. The Wolves are the youngest team in the NBA.
So the fact that Flynn isn't biding his time, and is putting a little pressure on himself, is refreshing.
"It's definitely challenging, especially coming into a system like this that's difficult to learn, especially for the type of point guard that I am," he said. "But I like to base my progress on wins, and we're now getting wins. So right now, the season for me is going all right."
That's a tough standard, though, for a guy drafted onto a loser.
"I think that's the only way you can judge things. When you look at people when their careers are over, you ask if they were a winner or not," Flynn said. "There are a lot of people who were great scorers or whatever, but they're not remembered because they didn't win a championship. I want to be known as a winner. Right now, it's tough but I'm going to get there."
Flynn has had his moments. He ranks third among NBA rookies in scoring (14.4 points), trailing fellow points Tyreke Evans (20.1) of Sacramento and Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings (19.3). The Wolves' newbie is fourth is assists (four per game), though his assists-to-turnovers ratio is a middling 1.5, and third in steals (1.14). Last month, he had his best scoring game, 28 points, while locked in a duel with Utah star Deron Williams and hit the game-winning layup. It was Flynn's second straight strong performance against Williams and the Jazz.
"He's a stud, man," Jazz forward Carlos Boozer said. "I didn't know how good he was until we played them ... He wasn't afraid of D-Will. You know, we have an all-world point guard and he wasn't afraid of him at all."
Flynn's winning basket that night in Salt Lake City came on a pick-and-roll with teammate Kevin Love out of the triangle offense. The triangle is a dramatic departure from what he's done his whole basketball life. "The biggest difference for me is, you don't have the ball in your hands a lot," he said. "You bring it up, you pass, you cut, you go to the corner. Then you might cut and come to the top, and you still might not get the ball. There might be five possessions where you might not touch the ball. That's definitely tough, me being a point guard who came into college dominating the ball.
"You're not in a position to make [traditional] decisions. A lot of things in this offense are dictated by reads, people slipping to get open, people coming off screens. There's not a lot that's dictated by the point guard knowing who to say yes or no to."
Flynn knows too that the Bulls and the Lakers ran things without a classic point guard.
"I definitely looked at that [once Rambis was hired]," he said. "I did my research. I was hoping that I could be the first real point guard who could be effective in this system."
Rambis seems fine with Flynn's progress, which still is spotty defensively and even in finding his wings on fast breaks. "I think he's having fun. But it's tough on him," Rambis said. "That's been my mantra with you guys all season long: Every situation, every environment, every arena is all new to him.
"It was funny to me that, when we were playing the Lakers, he tried to make a pass through Ron Artest, and Ron Artest just stuck his hand out and grabbed the basketball. Jonny Flynn came back laughing, saying, 'There was no way I thought he was going to get his hand on that ball,' and he not only got a hand on the ball, he caught the ball. That's the type of thing he has to learn in this league, what he can and can't do against the tremendous athletes."
Flynn has months before Kahn goes back into overhaul mode, with no one -- beyond Al Jefferson and Love, probably -- in a secure position. The point guard's best option: Look at this as a head start over the next guy ... whoever that might be.
"That will help me," Flynn said, regarding rivals known and unknown. "I'm just really now getting the hang of it, getting to know where my spots [are] at, where I can get scoring opportunities, where I can them for others. It's about 30 games in, and I'm just really starting to figure it out."
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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