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Monday, April 9, 2012
Love transforming before our eyes

By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com

Kevin Love
Dogged by weight concerns coming out of UCLA, Kevin Love has raised his game to an MVP level.

There are breakouts, and there are transformations.

In the NBA, breakouts happen every season. With more playing time, better understanding of the game and fewer limitations come surprise seasons. Think Jeremy Lin this season. Zach Randolph last year. David Lee, Rajon Rondo, Gerald Wallace. The list goes on and on.

What Kevin Love has gone through over the past two seasons isn't a breakthrough. It's a complete transformation.

It's a player deciding he's going to be nothing like what the experts project him to be, and instead becoming the player he envisioned from the very beginning.

Love has been acknowledged as one of the best players in the game. But what he's become, how he's gotten there and the precedent he's setting hasn't received nearly enough appreciation.

"People have asked me, even this year, 'Where do you see yourself in the league as far as top players go?'" Love said. "I feel like I'm right at the top.

Kevin Love
Love is averaging almost as many points as LeBron (26.5) and almost as many rebounds as D12 (13.5).

"They ask me the same question at my position. I say every time that I take the floor, I feel like I have the upper hand. My set of skills, and what I bring to the table, I think is better than anybody at my position. So I feel like I'm definitely one of the best players in the world."

Hold onto that last notion for a second, Kevin Love as one of the best players in the world.

Now take yourself back to 2008, right around NBA draft time.

Imagine someone then telling you that Love, the kinda chunky but fundamentally sound UCLA big man, would very soon be scoring like LeBron James, despite the fact that his best move in college was a hook shot he had trouble getting off against athletic defenders.

And that Love would be rebounding at the pace of Dwight Howard and leading the league in minutes, even though he was an unathletic 6-foot-9 and regularly got winded playing a 40-minute college game.

And that he'd be hitting more 3-pointers in a season than Kobe Bryant or Paul Pierce or Ray Allen.

Not to mention that Love would be fairly thin and arguably the best player at his position and be in the MVP discussion despite never playing a postseason game.

Chances are you would've stopped listening after about five seconds and continued to make a case that Brook Lopez or Eric Gordon or even Roy Hibbert should be drafted ahead of the kid from the Northwest whose most notable attribute was his impressive inbounds passes.

As it turns out, Love is all of those things. He is, indeed, one of the best players in the world.

Some of his stats may seem like empty numbers tallied on a fast-paced Minnesota Timberwolves team still struggling to become a winner, a task more difficult after the loss of Ricky Rubio.

But this season, in which Love has averaged 26.5 points and 13.5 rebounds, hasn't been some career year that he may never match again. This is just the early stage of a remarkable, almost unprecedented transformation that, even two years ago, no one could've seen coming.

No one but Love, that is.

"I always projected myself pretty high," said Love, whose statistical leap came last season, when he put up 20.2 points, 15.2 rebounds and made his first All-Star team.

This season, though, is when we've been treated to the true vision Love has had for himself.

It's hard to blame the 23-year-old for initially believing he needed some of that extra weight he carried at UCLA once he reached the pros. It makes perfect sense to believe that he'd have to match his opponents' hops with a little extra force.

People have asked me, even this year, 'Where do you see yourself in the league as far as top players go?' I feel like I'm right at the top.

-- Kevin Love

Problem was, that weight dragged him down. He was a tree trunk. A tired tree trunk that couldn't break the 30-minute average in either season. Combine that with a limited offensive game that included mostly mid-range jumpers and offensive putbacks and Love was fitting the exact template others created for him.

"If you told me he would look like he does now in terms of his body, I just really didn't think he could do it at this level," said first-year Timberwolves assistant coach Jack Sikma, who was an assistant with the Rockets when Love broke into the league. "But seeing what he's done and understanding how he ticks, he really doesn't put any limits on himself.

"Before I ever got here, you could see how skilled he was as a player. The challenge was, physically, could he do enough in the situation he was in, in terms of body type, physically and all that other stuff."

Some of Love's previous coaches, who included ideal mentors like Kevin McHale, Bill Laimbeer and Kurt Rambis, will tell you Love initially resisted the changes they presumed he should make. Love never figured himself to be a serious post threat because his athleticism would limit him.

Meanwhile, Love always believed he could extend his game to the perimeter, where he visited on occasion at every previous level he played.

"I don't think, necessarily, I tried to fight it," Love said. "But I knew what I could get away with in the league early on, and that was picking my spots, and like Kevin McHale would say, 'Go where they ain't.'

"Coming into the league I had certain coaches telling me not to shoot 3s and that I'd never shoot 3s in this league. I wanted to -- like I have my entire basketball career going back to middle school -- try to prove people wrong. I've proven my perimeter game belongs in this league, which is something that I wanted to show."

But even after the 20-and-15 season in his third year, Love still recognized that he wouldn't truly reach his potential without shaving some serious pounds.

Hence the now-famous offseason program in Los Angeles with trainer Rob McClanaghan. There are videos of his yoga training. There are before and after pictures that are usually reserved for "The Biggest Loser." (OK, maybe not that extreme, but if they made an NBA version of that show, Love would've been a favorite to win it.)

Kevin Love
Love took advantage of the long offseason by dropping 15 pounds.

He finished last season at 265 pounds. He began this season at 240. He took advantage of the extra time the lockout offered and he came back a different player. A player whose legs weren't weighing him down. A player who dared take on the heaviest of minutes, even in this nonstop season.

Suddenly that post game he shied away from seemed quite possible.

"For me, I think it was a lot of figuring myself out, putting in a lot of work in the offseason, and now I just have a whole repertoire of moves down there," Love said. "A lot of fakes and counters and stepbacks and step-throughs and up-and-unders, the baby hook still. As my game continues to expand, confidence definitely breeds success, not only in the post but throughout my entire game."

Suddenly no coaches were discouraging him from shooting 3s. Love is now taking more than five a game, two more than he did last season, and connecting on 37.7 percent.

"That definitely makes him unique, but if you notice with Kevin, he doesn't spend a lot of time on the perimeter," Sikma said. "He only goes there when he knows what's going to develop. But he doesn't waste his time out there.

"It would be really interesting to put a tracer on him on the offensive end. He's very efficient on where he spends his time."

Now the question isn't "Who is Love going to be?"

The more common inquiry is "Who, exactly, does Love compare to?"

There might not be a good answer.

George Karl tried to drop the Larry Bird comparison. It's one that immediately gets dismissed because of the level of adoration still held for the Celtics legend, not to mention the point-forward abilities of Bird.

But keep trying. What NBA player combined this versatile, and still growing, offensive game with relentlessness on the boards?

Laimbeer didn't score like this. Moses Malone didn't venture outside the lane much.

It's part of what makes this makeover so captivating. Love hasn't just shown a remarkable desire to improve, he's becoming some kind of hybrid big man with no apparent limits -- without the spring of Blake Griffin, or the reach of LaMarcus Aldridge.

What NBA player combined this versatile, and still growing, offensive game with relentlessness on the boards? Bill Laimbeer didn't score like this. Moses Malone didn't venture outside the lane much.

"He might not be the most athletic guy, but he's a very smart basketball player," veteran Heat forward Juwan Howard said of Love. "He knows how to use angles; he knows how to anticipate where the ball's going to bounce. I kind of compare him to a guy like Dennis Rodman, but with more offensive skills.

"[But] never in my wildest imagination did I think he'd be one of the better 3-point-shooting players, not just power forward, in the league. You have to give the guy credit."

This season, though, is weighing on Love, and not the way it used to when he was 30 pounds heavier.

It's the losing. A .500 team at the All-Star break, the banged-up Timberwolves have slid to 25-32 entering Monday's play, making a first playoff appearance since 2003-04 highly unlikely.

All that means is Love's work is nowhere near done.

"He's just not the type of player that figures it's just going to happen," Sikma said. "He thinks about things. He's got a plan. He understands situations he puts himself in, and whether he succeeds or fails in those situations, he absorbs the experience and can make adjustments.

"In saying that, he doesn't put any limits on himself. He can be more, and he wants more."

Four years into his career, that mold we all created for Love has long been shattered.

He's only 23, and nowhere near complete, in his eyes.

So don't even bother creating another mold for him now. Feels a bit pointless.

Israel Gutierrez covers the NBA for ESPN.com.