Wally Szczerbiak: All-Star Looks To Improve

by Charles Hallman

Wally Szczerbiak made his 2002-03 regular-season debut against Milwaukee on Nov. 7, scoring 19 points.
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  • Wally Szczerbiak is a self-confessed perfectionist. No teammate or coach can be harder on him than himself.

    Szczerbiak is coming off his best season as a professional, a season in which he made the NBA All-Star Team. Still, after last season came to a close, Szczerbiak did a backward glance on his third NBA season. He evaluated everything — the good and the bad, the praise and the criticism.

    "I try to see how I can improve," Szczerbiak explained, "to see how I could do better."

    Being named to the annual midseason showcase, according to Szczerbiak, was a direct result of the Timberwolves' best start in team history (30-10 after 40 games). He played shooting guard full-time for the first time since he arrived in Minnesota in 1999.

    "It's a lot different," Szczerbiak said of his switch from small forward to big guard. "You are matched up with great players night in, night out. I felt I fared very well, but at the same time, you must lace up your shoes and be ready to go or you'll get burned."

    Nonetheless, Szczerbiak excelled at a position that many consider as the most athletic spot in the NBA. As long as he has played in the league, Szczerbiak has been among the best shooters. Last season, he shot .508 from the field, good for 11th in the league. That followed a seventh-place finish his rookie season and fifth his second year. He also shot a career-best .455 from three-point range — fourth in the league — and finished with a career-high 18.7 points per game.

    Szczerbiak led Minnesota in scoring 23 times last season, and scored 20 or more points 33 times. At 6-7, he used his size effectively. "I felt I had some advantages as far as size and strength, and I was able to utilize them," he noted.

    "He made it hard for a lot of people," his teammate Kevin Garnett said.

    The league coaches named Szczerbiak to the All-Star Game roster, only the third Timberwolf to earn such honors. Everyone in the Wolves organization was happy for him, but no one more so than teammate Terrell Brandon, who told Szczerbiak and the local media at the start of the season that he was going to do all he could to help raise Szcerbiak's game to another level.

    "It's the first time I ever told somebody that I was going to try to help (them become an All-Star). You look at Wally, and he has all the tools."

    Brandon, the 11-year veteran playmaker and two-time All-Star, got the ball to Szczerbiak in spots where he could do the most damage offensively, especially on the break, where the shooting guard excels in transition.

    However, after Brandon went down for the remainder of the season with a knee injury in February, Szcerbiak's easy looks at the basket soon became fewer. It also didn't help that becoming an All-Star apparently took on albatross-like status, as his torrid pace tapered off.

    Szczerbiak made his first All-Star appearance in 2001-02, a year after he was named MVP of the Schick Rookie Challenge as a sophomore.
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    "When we lost Terrell, it hurt Wally a little bit," explained Wolves coach Flip Saunders, "because of Terrell's ability to distribute the ball. Also, after he made the All-Star team, people keyed into him more."

    There were times that Szczerbiak seemed frustrated. But, according to Garnett, his determination never decreased. "You are not going to have 82 perfect games, but as for effort, he played his butt off every day," said Garnett.

    After taking some time off after the 2001-02 season ended, Szczerbiak went back to work. His perfectionist ways took over. He spent the offseason working on his ball handling.

    "At the two, you have to handle the ball more, and I wanted to get more comfortable handling the ball," Szcerbiak said. And, of course, Szczerbiak maintained his shooting touch. "I always work on shooting," he said.

    Regarding Szcerbiak's offseason self-improvement regimen, Saunders said he expected nothing less from his fourth-year guard. "He had a summer to really evaluate on how people are going to defend him," the coach said.

    Also, the guard is committed to improvement. "Every year Wally has been in the league, he has gotten better," Saunders continued. "This year should be no different."

    Furthermore, Szczerbiak was excited about Saunders' new offensive schemes, but only got one preseason game in which to get comfortable. He suffered a dislocated small toe on his left foot against Milwaukee on Oct. 8 and missed the remaining six preseason games. When the season began, Szczerbiak was still sidelined by the injury, snapping his string of 196 consecutive starts — 10 short of Pooh Richardson's franchise record.

    Szczerbiak celebrates after hitting a three-pointer late in the game at Memphis on Friday.
    Joe Murphy
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    He played his first game of the 2002-03 regular season on Nov. 7 vs. Milwaukee, scoring 19 points as a starter. Then, after sitting two games due to a sprained left knee, he rejoined the starting lineup on Wednesday vs. New Orleans. On Friday, his clutch three-pointer with 27.6 seconds left sealed Minnesota's four-point win at Memphis.

    Saunders predicts that Szczerbiak can be even more effective than last season. "We can have mismatches with Wally at the '2'," he said. "Wally will be able to get to the block and post up more."

    Szczerbiak has already surpassed the 1000-rebound and 3000-point career marks. He's certain to move into eighth place on the Wolves' all-time scoring list, as he needed only 169 points at the start of the season. He also should reach 200 three-pointers, needing only 59 more.

    Saunders said that Szczerbiak is capable of making the necessary adjustments to keep up his All-Star play.

    "You go down the list of all players who are good players in this league, and they always find ways to adjust to get to the next level," he pointed out. "Wally is a good player, and I think he will make the adjustment like all good players."

    But for Szczerbiak, it's all about the team, not the individual. "I don't love to talk about myself individually," he affirmed, "but I try to work on my game to improve."

    Recently inked to a contract extension, the shooting guard wants to continue whatever success he achieves in Minnesota.

    "I think I have a lot of improvement to make, and I am looking forward to doing that this year," he said. "I want to be able to help the Timberwolves improve."