Andrei Kirilenko is a soccer midfielder trapped in a basketball player’s body.
Unlike the basketball player, tasked with endlessly wringing the last percentage points of efficiency out of each and every set piece, the midfielder’s primary task is to invent, to endlessly tinker in hopes of discovering the one experiment that the opponent could never have conceived; to find that singular alchemy of possibility that will leave the defense bamboozled, an answer that will render the scrambling recovery futile.
Most passes in a basketball game have the same vanilla function of most passes in a soccer game: to retain possession, passively cycling a safe distance away from the defense’s outer shell. Most of Andrei Kirilenko’s assists use a magician’s misdirection to plunge directly into the heavily trafficked heart of the paint, solving the riddle of the defense instantaneously, a key’s teeth effortlessly fitting into the lock’s chambers. Kirilenko’s passes are the kinds of unforeseen solutions that, on a grass pitch, would spring the striker forward and into freedom, leading to ecstatic and revelatory goals:
It’s probably been a few years since you’ve thought about Andrei Kirilenko, or felt his influence shape a basketball game. Despite being an active, everyday player in the NBA, he somehow manages to feel like a relic from the last basketball era, like he’s still supposed to be tinkering with his bleached-tip, gel-sticky hair-dos while playing alongside John Stockton and Karl Malone, in Utah’s old electric purple uniforms. His lone All-Star Game, in 2004, also featured Steve Francis, Sam Cassell, and Jamaal Magloire. It was a long time ago.
But, aside from playing in his native Russia for all of the partially locked-out 2011-12 NBA season, Andrei has never left an NBA rotation. If Twitter existed during Andrei’s early twenties, when Kirilenko was unfathomably leading the league in blocks from the small forward position, we no doubt would have showered him with the same bug-eyed praise we heap on wunderkinds Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis today. Instead, we were just learning to use email, and Kirilenko’s home games were tucked away in Salt Lake City, which currently has the 124th-largest population in America. His prime slid by before we even realized there was something for us to miss.
Kirilenko’s movement this last offseason was bizarre—turning down a one-year $10M option from the Minnesota Timberwolves so he could earn $6.5M over two years with the Brooklyn Nets—and couldn’t not lead to the jokes about patriotic Russian backroom collusion between Kirilenko and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. But Kirilenko has as much in common with Prokhorov as I do with Donald Trump, a billionaire who is, yeah, okay, from the same country as me. I prefer to think that Kirilenko was willing to take a pay cut in order to finally play for a team whose season-ticket holders carry a bit more social cachet than the pastiche of orthodontists and regional sales managers that Andrei had always played in front of. A team that gets nationally broadcasted with regularity because of the location of their home gym, regardless of the quality of their record.
Indeed, it’s Andrei’s first time residing under the bright, trending lights, playing for a team that hasn’t left the epicenter of burning-hot NBA buzz for a solid year. There was the tectonic-shifting trade with Boston, the barrier-busting acquisition of Jason Collins, the soda spill heard ’round the world, and, all throughout, the perpetually dissected on-court shortcomings of the team with the most comically outsized payroll in NBA history. And Andrei has managed to sit quietly in the storm’s eye, attracting even less attention than ever.
When Andrei signed with Brooklyn my first thought was that his experimental style would draw the ire of a team and fan base desperate to win now. That his sensitive, chord-less free jazz was doomed to clash with Kevin Garnett’s confrontational, soul-baring slam poetry or Joe Johnson’s gratuitous piano solos. And, it’s true, Andrei is currently posting career lows in nearly every statistical category, from your basic counting stats on up through the advanced metrics. The era of Kirilenko’s manic box score artistry—he’s responsible for three of the league’s six five-by-five games in this century—has passed, leaving us with sane and sober numbers: per-game averages of 5.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists.
This doesn’t mean that Kirilenko’s usefulness as a basketball player has already passed—nor is his usefulness necessarily nearing its end. At age 33, Kirilenko could just be starting an era of providing a team’s second unit with brief splashes of multidimensional ingenuity. The correlation may be far from causation, but the Nets’ pedestrian 43-35 record hides a revealing split: Brooklyn has gone 14-23 when Andrei is out with injury and are 29-12 in games he’s played in. Within the Nets’ bench unit Andrei has found a fruitful artistic cohesion with Shaun Livingston—himself no stranger to defying positions with his improbable wingspan—and the Herzegovinian marksman Mirza Teletović, a brethren of Kirilenko’s in that he has constructed his own attractive style of play despite his home country’s lack of NBA pedigree.
Kirilenko has dished out 60 assists this year. A modest number, sure, but a disproportionate amount of these assists belong in a highlight package, a wizardly conjuring the ball into a teammate’s hands the split-second they find themselves open underneath the rim. (This is where Andrei scores most of his own baskets, with his jackal’s propensity to claim-jump the one piece of real estate the defense swore they would keep an eye on.) Kirilenko has also turned the ball over 49 times, an assist-to-turnover ratio that should only belong to frantic rookies and brick-handed big men. Most of the turnovers are either barely perceptible traveling violations—his feet unable to keep up with the rapid solutions his mind produces—or deflections off his teammate’s hands, themselves unable to corral the wickedly flung pass, wisps of smoke curling in the ball’s path.
If you want to invent at Kirilenko’s heady level, some crumpled sketches are going to end up underneath your drawing board. Mistakes like these are the price of entry. The show is more than worth it.