Fate dealt Kendall Gill and the Minnesota Timberwolves a practically identical hand. As evidenced by hindsight, it was intertwined.
That's the way the ball bounces. The lottery ball, that is.
Timberwolves historians know all too well the frustrations the NBA lottery brought to Minnesota. On virtually an annual basis throughout the early 1990s, a select few marquee draft picks were available. But the Wolves — despite their horrid records — would always draw the lottery pick that guaranteed them the slot just after those prime-time players were selected.
The lottery ball winners dined on fine china and would choose from filet mignon, T-bone steak, New York sirloin or prime rib. The Wolves, it seemed, were always left nibbling on meatloaf with a plastic fork.
The 1990 draft, the Wolves' second ever, was true to form. Gill, an Illinois swingman who left a favorable impression on the Big Ten Conference thanks to a solid college career, was familiar with Minnesota and hoped to play for one of the NBA's newest franchises. The Wolves had drafted UCLA's Pooh Richardson in the first round the year before, and Gill thought he would be a perfect fit with Richardson in Minnesota.
But the Charlotte Hornets drafted Gill with their first pick (fifth overall) in that draft. The Wolves drafted Felton Spencer from Louisville with the sixth overall pick. The selection of Spencer sparked five straight years of Wolves lottery picks who went from brilliancy to busts: Spencer in '90, Luc Longley in '91, Christian Laettner in '92, Isaiah Rider in '93 and Donyell Marshall in '94. All five were chosen by Minnesota with the seventh overall pick or better. All five did not live up to their billing — at least not for the Wolves.
Who knows what might have been if Charlotte would have taken Spencer and the Wolves would have taken Gill?
"This is where I originally wanted to come before I got drafted," Gill said. "I wanted to come to Minnesota. I had visited it and I liked it. (Bill) Musselman was the coach there. I really liked the Twin Cities and it was close to my home in Chicago. And I really wanted to play with Pooh Richardson.
"Unfortunately, that didn't happen. But, hey, better late than never."
Even though this is his 13th season in the NBA, this is his first as a Timberwolf. Yes, at 34 years old with 12 years of NBA experience, he is joining the Timberwolves late. And yes, it is better late than never.
When the Wolves announced the signing of Gill on Sept. 25, it was perceived by many as nothing more than a minor tweak to a roster that was taking shape. Even though the Wolves had definite holes to fill — with Terrell Brandon's status unknown, and Chauncey Billups signing with Detroit — the acquisition of Gill was treated with little fanfare.
Yet more than two months into the season, Gill has proven to be a steady veteran the Wolves have needed, considering the unexpected absence of Wally Szczerbiak. Through the first quarter of the season, Gill has averaged 31 minutes per game. Only Kevin Garnett and Troy Hudson average more.
"I totally expected to play this much," Gill said. "I trained hard to get my body into condition to play this much."
It seems funny that a 34-year-old is sometimes considered one step from a nursing home, but the NBA is becoming a much younger league. On the opposite end of that spectrum are players like Gill, who know that experience should be considered an asset, not a liability.
"A lot of people think that because I'm 34 years old, I'm not capable of contributing," Gill said. "I don't believe that at all. I think when you get older, you get better sometimes."
After averaging double-digit point totals in each of his first 10 NBA seasons, Gill slipped in 2000-01 and averaged 9.1 points with New Jersey. Last season, he averaged just 5.7 with Miami. Naturally, the label was stamped across Gill's forehead. The sun was setting on his career, many said.
It hasn't been a dramatic turnaround, but still, the sun is shining on Gill. He is averaging more minutes, points and rebounds than he has in either of the past two seasons. So far with the Wolves, he is averaging almost 11 points and four rebounds. Gill has started more than two-thirds of the team's games. Even though his production doesn't match Szczerbiak, who was an All-Star last year, Gill's output has exceeded expectations.
By everybody but him.
"I came here with full intentions of contributing," Gill said. "I didn't know whether I was going to start or come off the bench, but wherever I ended up, I knew I was going to help."
To Gill, money wasn't the sole issue in searching for a new NBA team. Opportunity to play and the chance to win was high on the priority list, too.
"Flip (Saunders) said they needed a '2' guard that could play defense and score a little bit, and that's right up my alley," Gill said. "I knew we could win here."
With Brandon out indefinitely, that left Anthony Peeler as the only returning veteran on the Wolves roster that had more than seven years of experience. But with the signing of veterans Gill and then Rod Strickland, the Wolves got much older — and possibly wiser.
Sam Mitchell, the renowned veteran of the team, is now an assistant coach in Milwaukee. Quietly, Gill has assumed much of Mitchell's role not only off the court but on as well.
"With the exception of my rookie year, I've been a leader on every team I've been on," Gill said. "So it's kind of natural for me. I'm one of the older veterans on the team, and I've taken some leadership roles.
"We're starting to feel like a team," he continued, playing the role of a proud dad. "The guys are starting to feel comfortable together. We just have to keep sticking with it and wait for (Szczerbiak and Brandon) to get back, and when they do, we're really going to go."
On the court or off, there is little change from Gill. Casual observances reveal that he maintains a subdued demeanor around the Timberwolves that every team needs.
Gill, an avid reader of books, enjoys philosophy. That serves as yet another tool to help him improve in basketball and in life.
"I apply (philosophy) more into my life than to games," he said. "I try to go into games not thinking about anything. I try to go in not having my head cloudy. When you try to get into a zone, you can't be thinking about anything. It has to be automatic — you have to trust yourself 100 percent. Those are the things I take away from the philosophy that I read.
"I've always loved learning. I've always loved bettering myself in every way."