Michael Olowokandi: Ready To Thrive

When his agent informed him in July that he was going to be a Minnesota Timberwolf, Michael Olowokandi could only think of Kevin. When thinking of the Timberwolves, most do.

After all, "KG" is the franchise, the "Big Ticket," the heart and soul of the Timberwolves organization. He is a six-time All-Star, an All-NBA First Team honoree twice, All-Defensive First Team four times. So naturally, Kevin quickly comes to mind for any free agent when signing with the Timberwolves.

But upon further review, as he contemplated the possibilities of playing in Minnesota, Olowokandi wasn't talking about Kevin Garnett, "The Franchise." Instead, Olowokandi's thoughts kept returning to Kevin McHale, the general manager of the franchise.

Certainly Olowokandi couldn't help but drool when he dreamt of playing alongside Garnett, one of the game's greatest forwards. Yet he drooled just as much when he pondered the practice sessions he could have with McHale, one of the game's all-time greatest inside players who possessed some of the best footwork in the game.

"When I heard the news about coming to join the Timberwolves, I immediately thought of Kevin McHale and the glory days he had back in Boston," Olowokandi said during a news conference announcing his signing in July. "His moves, his up-and-unders... It's an exciting opportunity."

Unlike most NBA teams, whose general managers show up in suits and ties, the Timberwolves are different. Their GM would rather be playing basketball on the hardcourt with his players in practice than playing hardball from a conference room with a player's agent. McHale expects big things from Olowokandi. After last season, the Timberwolves knew what they lacked inside. "That's one of the things I said to Flip (Saunders) at the end of last season," McHale said. "We had to get better defensively. We had to protect the paint more."

In McHale, Olowokandi — the No. 1 pick in the 1998 NBA draft — saw the potential for a teacher-student relationship. "I was with my former team for five years and I did develop," said Olowokandi, a former Los Angeles Clipper. "But I think there are so many more tools to learn here. We have a GM who is one of the best low-post players ever. I don't think I could have picked a better situation."

Olowokandi attributes some of his early-season success to McHale, his GM and instructor. "It's huge. He teaches from experience and those are the things that work. It's great that our general manager is on the court in shorts every day and is in getting treatment. Not many GMs do that."

Olowokandi, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in February, spent a couple of days during the summer working out with McHale. But in September, Olowokandi was still feeling pain and swelling in that knee, so he had a second procedure done before the regular season started. He missed practically all of training camp. He spent one-on-one sessions working with McHale, but was afforded just three practices with the team before the regular season opened on Oct. 29.

History has shown that Olowokandi, at 7-0, 270 pounds, hasn't been prone to injuries. In his first four seasons with the Clippers, he missed just nine games. But his knee flared up one year ago and he still isn't 100 percent. But he's getting closer. "It definitely wore on my patience, but patience is a virtue," he said. "I do have to be patient. I think it makes it a little bit easier to accept because I feel pretty confident in my ability as a basketball player."

Save all the Clippers jokes. Olowokandi, 28, doesn't want to hear them. He takes pride in the contributions he and his teammates made during his five seasons in L.A. In 323 games as a Clipper, Olowokandi averaged 9.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots in 30.4 minutes per game. Clearly, Olowokandi hadn't reached the potential expected from a No. 1 pick, but most big men don't for several years.

"In my first year with the Clippers, we were winning and feeling very confident," he said. "We played defense pretty well and our offense was sharing the ball really well. In my last year with the Clippers, that was different. The team was in somewhat of a disarray in terms of who was staying, who was not staying. It was a very fragile situation. Going into last season, I figured we could win any game we went into. I had that mind-frame and I think that's important. You have to have that mentality. I've never gone into a game where I had a mentality that we were going to lose. I've never had that, so I think that's a good thing that I bring with me."

His environment has changed. There is no ocean nearby, just 10,000 lakes. There are no beaches to hit during the season, just boat landings and ice fishing houses. The geographical change from sunny California to snowy Minnesota is almost as dramatic as the personnel change on the court.

Olowokandi is almost always flanked in the paint by Garnett. Latrell Sprewell is nearby. Sam Cassell is running the dynamic offense. Everywhere he looks, Olowokandi sees all-star potential. "There is a lot better personnel here," he said. "The main guys who were brought here this year — myself, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell — you look around at the teammates we have and the caliber of players we have and there is some pressure to win, but that makes the pressure fun.

"It's good to be with a team that's won 50 games the past three or four seasons. That's obviously very successful. Now we have to get over that hump and get out of the first round of the playoffs. That's where I think of myself as valuable to this team."

Olowokandi doesn't feel the pressure of comparisons to the Wolves' previous center, Rasho Nesterovic. "Rasho's a good basketball player; it doesn't bother me that people will compare," he said. "I hope the best for Rasho, but all I'm concerned about is this team. The only time I'll be paying attention to him is when we play the Spurs."

He doesn't feel the pressure of being a No. 1 pick, either. "I don't think there's pressure," Olowokandi said. "I understand that this is Kevin Garnett's team. I can contribute to this team in a winning way. For me, it's about being patient and staying healthy."