Trenton Hassell: Defensive Stopper

When you open your morning paper to see how the Wolves did the previous night, one of the first things you probably look for is what kind of stats the big-name players put up, because that's how a player's value is usually gauged.

As you continue to peruse the boxscore, you may check to see what the star player for the opposing team did. If that player had a poor performance, you may think to yourself, "The Wolves must have played some great defense on him."

In your examination of the boxscore, you might not even consider to look at Trenton Hassell's line. "Who?" you ask. Hassell, Trenton. He plays guard for your hometown Timberwolves. He wears number 23. He has started in nearly all of Minnesota's games so far this season. Surely you have heard of him.

If you haven't, you need to know that Hassell is usually one of the main reasons that opposing player had a bad night.

With all the focus on Minnesota's "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, third-year guard Trenton Hassell doesn't often even register on the radar. But if the Timberwolves are going to get out of the first round of the playoffs and vie for a shot at the NBA title, then Hassell is going to be a key component.

"Trenton is very important," says Garnett. "He is probably our number-one defensive player. He brings intensity to the defensive side of the ball, and I think a lot of teams overlook him."

Hassell and Sprewell usually split the assignment of stopping the opposing team's best player. But Sprewell also needs to be a scorer, and playing exhausting defense can sometimes affect your offense. That's where Hassell comes in. His primary role is to play defense.

"I wouldn't call him a role player, though," Garnett clarifies, "because he is our defensive stopper. If we need to slow somebody down, we throw Trenton on him. I think he's probably a gift from God for us."

When asked to comment on how he takes players out of their game, Hassell just shrugs his shoulders, smiles and humbly says, "They just had an off night."

More than a few NBA superstars have had off nights against Hassell and the Wolves. Denver's rookie sensation Carmelo Anthony struggled, scoring just 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting in the teams' first meeting and 14 on 6-of-15 shooting in their second matchup. The Celtics' Paul Pierce shot 6-of-18 against Minnesota in Boston on Dec. 15, tallying only 15 points. And Tracy McGrady, the NBA's reigning scoring champion, had one of the worst games of his career against the Wolves in Orlando on Nov. 7, connecting on just 2-of-10 shots to finish with only four points.

"We play great team defense," Hassell said, downplaying the significance of his role. "One person can't stop any one individual in this league by himself. I don't care how good you are, you need help, because players can score in this league.

"You don't feel like playing it every night, because going up against guys like Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant kind of wears on you mentally. But once you establish that this is what you have to do, you just do it and it makes it easier. I know I have to go out there and be a stopper."

Garnett couldn't be happier to have a teammate who plays with as much dedication to defense as Garnett himself. "I'm so pleased to have someone like that on this team, because we really needed someone like that," Garnett said. "He's like our Ron Artest, our small version of Dikembe Mutombo."

Hassell didn't always have the defensive mindset he is known for now. In college he was a scorer. In his senior season at Austin Peay University, Hassell was ranked 13th in the nation in scoring, averaging 21.7 points per game. He could always play defense, but it wasn't his role. Now he plays defense out of necessity.

"I'm just trying to stay in the league, and my niche is playing defense," Hassell said. "I can score, but teams win with great role players. I just need to play my role. The only thing I have to do offensively is hit the open shots when they give them to me."

"Trenton has always done the little things, always played defense, and when you can do that, you are a valuable piece to a team," said Wolves guard Fred Hoiberg, who was Hassell's teammate the last two seasons in Chicago. "I was very happy to see us pick him up, just because I know all the little things he does for a team. And he never complains about it."

The move to Minnesota was special for Hassell because Garnett is his favorite player. "I was very excited to come here to play alongside him," Hassell said. "I have never played with a player who cares about you on and off the court like KG does. It is a good experience."

Being overlooked seems to be a common theme in Hassell's NBA career so far. But he says that it actually isn't a bad thing. "I don't feel under-appreciated," he said. "Everybody can't be a star, and not everyone is going to get his name in the newspaper, but I realize that. It is very humbling, but it just goes with the turf."

If Hassell continues to give the effort and play with the heart he has shown so far as a Timberwolf, he'll gain the respect of more than just his teammates. "I think I have started to earn some respect around the league," he said. "I don't really know, but I hope so."