Boost Off The Bench

In addition to the obvious permanent visual reminder, Timberwolves guard Rashad McCants remembers his first tattoo very well. “My first tattoo was ‘Born to Be Hated, Dying to Be Loved.’ I got it when I was 21 and in college,” McCants said. “I was going through a lot of controversy. People said I had a bad reputation and a bad attitude. I just wanted something that kind of said where I was at.”

With all due respect to McCants, a 2005 college national champion and a fourth-year player with the Timberwolves, the tattoo that would best describe where he is at some four years later would best be one word: Crossroads.

Like many young players on a struggling team, it is tough to determine whether individual players are going up or going down.

To better understand where McCants is going, let’s re-examine where he came from.

Tobacco Road is a long way from Target Center. In his junior season at North Carolina, McCants helped the Tar Heels win their first national championship since 1995, when North Carolina beat Illinois 75-70. It was controversial on campus since they didn’t want to see him leave, but McCants opted to go pro after that junior season.

“I would love to [stay] but financially, for my parents, and for my passion for the game, just to go to the next level I think right now is as good a time as any, especially now that we’re on top,” McCants explained to the press when he made himself eligible for the NBA draft. McCants left North Carolina as the 14th all-time scorer in Tar Heels history.

As a rookie with the Timberwolves, McCants averaged 7.9 points in 17 minutes. The Timberwolves struggled, and the rookie found himself on a team in transition. A year later, McCants suffered a knee injury and missed well over half the season.

“You basically rehab every day 24/7 and you don’t get to travel with the team,” McCants said. “But I was fortunate when I got to talk to players like Grant Hill and Jason Kidd about their injuries and how they came back. When I talked to players like that, who have gone through with it, I got a lot of confidence about coming back.”

The summer before the 2007-08 season, Garnett was traded. McCants saw the identity of Timberwolves shift tremendously.

“It was kind of crazy,” McCants said of the sudden departure from the Wolves’ den. “We had been talking about it for two years because of the rumors every year… KG was the type of guy that always said I had talent. But I really never had the opportunity to show what I could do. And for that support, it always made me want to get better and better so I could show that I can use my talent for the betterment of the team.

“[Garnett] loved Minnesota and he loved everything about it and didn’t really want to leave, but when the decision is made you just have to move on. He’s the type of professional that will do his best no matter where he is.”

Garnett did his best and led the Boston Celtics to an NBA title last year. Meanwhile, McCants bounced in and out of the Timberwolves’ starting lineup and averaged 14.9 points in 75 games — a respectable season considering he was returning from a bum knee. But for the second time in his three-year career, the Wolves went through a coaching change; this time, from Dwane Casey to Randy Wittman.

McCants will be the first to admit the NBA grind is a demanding one.

“The mental grind of staying focused and staying consistent...when the days get long and games come back to back, your mental focus can go away and it’s hard,” McCants said. “Everyone wants to go out and have a ball, but at the same time you have to rest your body. It can be tough to distinguish between what you should be doing and what you want to be doing sometimes.”

McCants started this season with the defined role of being the team’s sixth man — instant offense off the bench, if you will. McCants is averaging just more than 10 points a game, but the Wolves have struggled out of the gate, winning just two of their first 10 games. “It’s tough, but it’s something everybody has to go through,” McCants said. “You have to fail to succeed. You have to start at the bottom to get to the top.”

Considering the slow start, it’s safe to say the Wolves have started this season on the bottom. So, McCants figures, there is nowhere to go but up. As he looks around, he sees a chemistry experiment. It is a combination of veterans and youth that he hopes will gel soon.

“Our problem was that we hadn’t played together long enough to actually have trust in each other,” said McCants, who next to Mark Madsen has been here longer than any other Timberwolf. “When you really know that your guy is going to be there, you don’t have a problem with really getting down and playing hard. But if you’re thinking that when I move here and my guy might not be there… That’s the thought process of what young players think about: ‘I have to cover my own butt.’

“But with a year or so together under our belt, we’re more comfortable with each other. We have a couple new guys, but they’ve proven they can play defense on a high level. It’s all about getting everyone on the same page now, getting our schemes right and playing hard.”

McCants is at a crossroads in his young career. As a Timberwolf, he has morphed from rookie to injured sophomore to a third-year player looking for a defined role. Now, as a sixth man in the early stages of his fourth season as a professional, the expectations have been issued but the proverbial jury has yet to issue its verdict.

“The people who don’t know me assume things about me,” McCants once told “INK,” a tattoo magazine. “I’m a private person and a lot of times people take that the wrong way. When I step on the court, I’m there to get the job done and win. Some people are all smiles, but I take my job seriously as a professional, and some people don’t understand that.”