MINNESOTA (NBA) - There weren’t many smiles going around this time last year for NBA players because of the lockout.
The team owners shut down league operations and kept most of the players off the court.
By the time the lockout did end, and when the first games were played on Christmas day, NBA veteran Andrei Kirilenko was nowhere to be found in America.
Instead, the former Utah Jazz star was in Russia, putting together an amazing season with his old club CSKA Moscow.
AK47, fresh off being named an All-Tournament selection at EuroBasket 2011 following Russia’s bronze-medal triumph in Lithuania, spent the entire season with CSKA and earned the honor as the Euroleague’s MVP.
Not everything went according to plan for Kirilenko, who broke his nose in a game with CSKA.
He and his CSKA teammates also blew a huge lead late in the third quarter against Olympiacos and lost in the Euroleague final.
For the most part, the year in Europe was excellent.
Clearly still one of the best players in the world, judging from his performances at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Caracas, Venezuela, and the London Games, Kirilenko decided to accept and offer to play for Minnesota.
So how is he feeling? Does Kirilenko, for example, have the sort of back pain that bothered him in his last season with Utah?
“My back is feeling great,” he said.
“Last year, I didn't have any problems.”
Was a less demanding schedule in Europe good for his body?
“I think it helped and that's probably one of the reasons why I didn't come back last season,” he said.
“I feel like I'm refreshed and I feel that I'm ready to play an 82-game season.”
A cosmopolitan line-up
What Kirilenko has done in signing for Minnesota is to become one of several international players in the Timberwolves squad.
The club has also signed his Russia and former CSKA teammate, Alexey Shved.
Montenegro’s Nikola Pekovic, Puerto Rico’s Jose Barea and Spain’s Ricky Rubio are all the T-Wolves, as well as Americans like Team USA’s Kevin Love.
Kirilenko says players are players and the mix of nationalities will pose no problems for Minnesota.
“In Moscow, I've been playing with two Lithuanians, two Serbians, two Americans and six Russians - it's not a big deal,” he said.
“Right now, basketball is so international.
“We know each other from the different national teams and from different teams playing before.
“We are very good friends so I don't think it's going to be a huge problem to adjust to each other.”
Building on a solid season
Minnesota were terrific for much of last season but faded in the latter part of the campaign.
It didn’t help that the team lost Rubio to a serious knee injury.
Kirilenko is optimistic the T-Wolves will be much better this year.
“I think this month is going to be very important for us,” he said.
“Last year, coach Rick Adelman didn't have much of a chance to practice with his team because of the lockout and the shortened season.
“I think this year, he has a very good chance to work with the guys and create a team.”
Adelman, a veteran tactician, is one reason why Minnesota took a step forward in 2011-12, when for much of the campaign they were on the fringe of the playoff positions in the Western Conference.
“He's the kind of coach who likes to work with players,” Kirilenko said, “not the type of coach that likes to terrorize players. Really work and build a good chemistry between the coach and the players.”
On the other hand
The downside to Kirilenko’s presence in the NBA is that his fans back in Russia won’t be able to see him in person.
“You can never be good for everybody,” Kirilenko said.
“There is always someone who feels bad about it.
“I had a great season and we had a great season as a team. Unfortunately, in the (Euroleague) final we lost but that's sport and that's why it's so interesting.
“All the fans were nice and supportive of us but it's time for me to go back to the NBA and I think it's going to be way more interesting for them to watch right now.”
Kirilenko, 31, does not appear to be slowing down at all.
He’ll have a chance to play for Russia next summer when they attempt to qualify for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
Kirilenko doesn’t know how many NBA seasons he has left.
“I don't know,” he said.
“I don't have any idea.
“I've always been thinking that at 30 years old, I'll start retiring but no, it doesn't feel that way.
“I still feel a lot of energy. I have no idea when I'm going to be done.”