Saturday, January 18, 2003

Catching up with Wally Szczerbiak

Former RedHawk, back from injury, showing no rust with Timberwolves

By Dave Goldstein
Enquirer contributor

Wally Szczerbiak and his wife Shannon hold his jersey from Miami as #32 is retired in September of 2001.
(File photo by Ernest Coleman)
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Common NBA wisdom suggests that when a player attempts to come back from a serious injury, especially one to his feet, his confidence is the last thing to return. A doctor can give him a clean bill of health, but only after a few tentative outings will a player truly believe he is healed and capable of returning to his aggressive play of old.

Wally Szczerbiak of the Minnesota Timberwolves does not subscribe to that common wisdom. After missing nearly two months of play because of a dislocated toe, Szczerbiak was treated with the utmost caution by Minnesota's coaching and medical staff, being limited to 31 total minutes in his first two games back.

But Szczerbiak's playing time was the only thing that looked different upon his return. He maintained the offensive skills Miami University fans remember.

Szczerbiak scored 10 points in his first game back, Jan. 10, then had 13 points against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 12. He has averaged 14 points in eight games - four coming off the bench - and shot 50.6 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range.

"I've been working hard all season, staying in shape, doing what I could to be ready when called upon," he said. "(Confidence) is just the result of a competitive desire I have. To be able to shoot the ball, to do things on the basketball court, these are skills God blessed me with, and I'm just trying to take advantage of them."

Against the Raptors, Szczerbiak posted up and hit a turnaround jumper on his first possession coming in off the bench. After leaving and re-entering the game, he again scored on his first touch, this time driving the lane for a tough runner.

It was the kind of performance that reminds you why Szczerbiak is so important to the Timberwolves.

After leading Miami to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 in 1999, Szczerbiak was taken by Minnesota with the sixth pick in the NBA draft. He averaged 11.6 points a game his rookie season and finished seventh in the league in shooting (51 percent).

Last season, Szczerbiak earned his first NBA all-star berth and finished with an 18.7-point scoring average. He followed that by averaging 20 points a game in his third straight trip to the playoffs and began this season by signing a contract extension that will keep him in Minnesota through the 2008-09 season.

Though Szczerbiak admits this season has gotten off to a rocky start, he points out that a lot of basketball remains to be played.

The Timberwolves took a 21-17 record into Friday night's game at Golden State, which would be good for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. With Szczerbiak healthy and on the brink of unlimited playing time, teammate Kevin Garnett said Minnesota could be a team on the rise.

"We've got (Wally) back now and we're trying to get him in a rhythm, trying to incorporate him back into the team," Garnett said. "It's going to be a process, but we're glad to have him back. He's going to give us a big lift."

That's all Szczerbiak is asking for - a chance to contribute.

Chastised by some early in his career for demanding the ball too much and deferring to Garnett too little, Szczerbiak has put to rest doubts about his worth.

"This team is looking to me more and more, and I'm hoping I can answer the call," Szczerbiak said. "All you want is to be asked to do something great, to do something that people will remember. I just want to play hard, compete and win ball games, and I have faith in the management, the coaches and the players on this team that we're going to get there."

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