NBA Unsung: Andrei Kirilenko | The Original Swiss-Army Knife
NBA Unsung is an ongoing series where we take a look at players, that for some reason or another, fly under the radar. Some current and former players just don't get their due.
In our post "Who Will Be the Worst Player to Get Their Jersey Retired?", we went through every team in the league, identified their best players, cross-checked it with which players had their jersey retired, then argued for or against the differences in those lists.
In the Utah Jazz section, instead of sticking to the script, we essentially wrote a love letter to Andrei Kirilenko, saying:
"You brainwashed ignoramus, listen to the truth. Say goodbye to your false conceptions of NBA History. This website is an AK-Truther site and it’s time to end a generation of next to no recognition for greatness.
There wasn’t a single thing Andrei Kirilenko couldn’t do. He was clinically well-rounded, and in ways that don’t receive enough glory, incredibly gifted."
and then after brief arguments:
"I have said nothing yet to remind the shameless dolts who disagree that his nickname was 'Wild Horse.' Good lord, the waterfall of greatness never ends and my cup runneth over."
Let me say this again: This is an AK-Truther site. That's the bottom line. It only makes sense that this series kicks off by taking a look at one of the most criminally underrated players in modern NBA history: Andrei Kirilenko.
Who the Heck Was This Dude?
Let's start at the beginning. The career beginning, that is. No one cares how many square feet AK's childhood home was.
Kirilenko started playing professional basketball at age 14 in Russia (he's Russian). When he was 19, he was the Russian league MVP. That was 2000. In 2001 he joined the NBA and played for the Utah Jazz, who drafted him in 1999.
For 10 years, (2001-2011) Kirilenko played for the Jazz, tallying up 1 all-rookie team nod, 1 all-star game appearance, and 3 all-defensive team placements.
After his time with the Jazz, Kirilenko signed with the Timberwolves and after a year, signed with the Brooklyn Nets. He spent 2 years in Brooklyn as a bench player, signed with the 76ers, and was released. He announced his retirement shortly after.
Kirilenko was a lanky, 6'9 small forward, who is sometimes referred to as one of the first "point-forward" types. Many people believe AK was forced to play up a position and would've been much more productive at power forward.
He was far ahead of his time. He guarded multiple positions, made plays for his teammates, and was a Hall of Fame level defender.
In his best year, Kirilenko led the Jazz in:
- total points: 1284
- points per game: 16.5
- total rebounds: 629
- rebounds per game: 8.1
- blocks: 215
- blocks per game: 2.8
- steals: 150
- steals per game: 1.9
- free throws made: 392
- free throws attempted: 496
- three-pointers made: 68
- three-pointers attempted: 201
That same year, he ended the year with a 7.5 VORP (value over replacement player, which is, from Basketball-Reference, a box score estimate of the points per 100 TEAM possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level (-2.0) player, translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season).
Do you know the names of players who have finished a season with a VORP of 7.5 or more? Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, David Robinson, Gary Payton, Chris Paul, Hakeem Olajuwan, Shaquille O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, Karl Malone, Bob Lanier, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Grant Hill, James Harden, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and one Andrei Kirilenko.
He's all over the place. He's a swiss army knife.
Kirilenko and Hakeem Olajuwan are the only NBA players to finish a game with 6 blocks, 6 steals, 6 rebounds, 6 points, and 6 assists. Kirilenko is second only to Olajuwan for career 5x5 games, often considered the hardest statistical feat in basketball.
His numbers profile more as a defensive-minded big...who can pass?...and sort of shoot? Look at the blocks per game below.
He's also bringing in a solid number of rebounds and giving you ~15 points a game. These numbers are coming from a player who spent a good deal of his defensive time on the perimeter. He did everything right, and during his era in the league, there were few players who had a larger positive impact on their team than AK-47.
Imagine a freakishly athletic Draymond Green who could shoot. He had no real weakness and one truly elite skill: defense.
His numbers in context/trivia:
- Exactly 25 players in NBA history have averaged 3 blocks per game in a season. Only 3 of those 25 were below 6' 9: Ben Wallace, Bob McAdoo, and Andrei Kirilenko.
- 6 players in NBA history have had a VORP (value over replacement player) of over 7 and averaged more than 2.8 blocks per game. Shaq, Hakeem, Kareem, Duncan, Bob Lanier, David Robinson, and Kirilenko.
- 7 players under 6'9 have averaged >15ppg and >2.5 bpg: Josh Smith (wow), Bob McAdoo, Gar Heard (who), Elvin Hayes, Pervis Ellison, Elton Brand, and Andrei Kirilenko.
- From www.fan-insider.com: "According to Bleacher Report, during AK’s 10-season run with Utah, only one player across that span matched his point (8,411), rebound (3,836), assists (1,919) and block (1,380) totals. That one player was Tim Duncan, one of the greatest players of all-time."
Kirilenko was a crazy intelligent, unselfish, and well-rounded player, and he might be the greatest help defender in NBA history.
He is overlooked because of injuries, the coach he played for, and the era he played in.
His greatness doesn't live in a spreadsheet. You have to watch this guy play.
Let's Watch Him Play.
To make rough chops of AK's game, he was an elite defender and playmaker, along with being a good scorer.
Do you remember when I told you a few recently-scrolled digital inches ago when I said AK might be the greatest help defender in history? Watch this. He sees the play developing for a few seconds, correctly anticipates where he will have to meet the ball, gets there, and gets a block moving away from the ball. Few players could ever do this, be it the athletic feat, the instincts, or the awareness.
I hate that this clip is interrupted. Pay attention to where AK is on the break, watch how fast he runs, and and times his block masterfully. He doesn't jump until the ball is almost coming down. The timing is unbelievable.
Notice where AK is looking at the start of this clip. It's nowhere near the ball. He is aware of the entire court, and he quickly reacts to poke the ball from the passing lane. He is always, always looking around and watching plays develop.
Not only is he defending off the dribble, he pokes the ball out at the perfect time. Notice his footwork. His feet are always moving, and it allows him to be in the right spot to react and get the steal.
I love this clip, too. Here, the 6'9 forward is defending prime Kobe Bryant, and is with him step for step, then goes up and gets it. There are hundreds of these instances.
This is the other truly elite skill AK brought to the table. He was a crafty, intelligent, and sometimes flashy passer. But even when he put some snaz on his passing, they always seemed like the right play, because they rarely served as only flash. They were often more efficient or looked off a defender. Everything had purpose. His game was a constant display in economy and efficiency. Playmaking is no exception.
This play is the perfect example. It registers in your head as a flashy pass. It is, but it's also the only way that pass could've happened, and he had the awareness to make it happen. That is the synthesis of AK's game. It is knowing exactly what needs to be done, and simply doing it. If this ball is a second later or thrown in any other way, it gets tipped out of the passing lane.
On the money outlet pass.
Again, this is another pass that immediately says "Wow!" After watching this an ungodly amount of times, I realized something: he has to make that ball fake. Notice the defender that picks him up is already shuffling to his left, which would cut off AK's chance to get the ball to the runner up top that AK already sees. When he makes that ball fake, that defender stops his shuffle and shifts, and AK pounces.
Of course all of what I just typed out happened in his head over the course of 2 seconds.
Lots going on here. Same situation. This is what had to happen to get buckets.
When AK is coming downcourt, he's in a 3 on 2 fast break. He has 3 choices: keep it, dish it to the man at the bottom of the screen, or to the man behind him. The passing lane to the man at the bottom is somewhat closed off, but a skip pass over the D could've made it. There could be an easier option. AK could probably make one move and go to the left of the defender that picks him up.
But AK realizes that the man in front of him is positioning himself too close to the baseline and he's actually setting up for a charge, not making a defensive play. Because of this, AK isn't going to be able to make a move quick enough.
Now, he knows there's a man trailing in, really, a horrible spot. How AK knows this man is directly behind him, I don't understand. The logical assumption is that this man has trailed to the top corner. Either way, AK knows where this dude is, and knowing that he isn't going to be able to beat this charge that he just realized is being set, he dishes the ball straight behind him then sort of sets a screen on the screener.
It's remarkable. Every time I watch this, it's more impressive.
Feels like Larry Bird. Again, awareness. He is falling down and figures out how to make this work.
Difficulty level: high. This pass can't be anywhere else. He sees the post is fronted, but there's two defenders between him and where the ball has to go. The ball needs to be high enough to not be swatted out of the air, it has to be quick enough that the help can't make a play once it's received, but if the ball is too high or too deep, the post player is too deep to score. It's perfect.
A large portion of AK's scoring came at the rim. Per Basketball-Reference, almost half of AK's shots over his career were within 3 feet of the basket.
How he got to the basket was extremely varied. Despite his size, he could easily put the ball on the floor and get around his defender. Look at these examples.
Less than 20% of Kirilenko's shots over his career were from behind the arc, and of those over 94% of those attempts were assisted on. He wasn't a great 3 point shooter, a career 31% shooter, but they looked really good. The important thing here is that he knew his long ball wasn't his best weapon, so he didn't rely on it. It also means that he almost never took a pull up jumper. He took 3 pointers when he was spotted up on the line and open. When it was the right shot. That's smart playing. Not all players can claim that.
Putting it All Together
As I was gathering clips for this post, I knew basically what I was getting into. I'm a big AK guy. But I found something else that I must've just either a) not seen when I was younger or b) didn't appreciate it.
Kirilenko has several examples of turning his defense into playmaking, which is a wildly efficient, fast, and economic way to play basketball. He had a crazy level of stamina, and he was doing stuff like this late into games. There's not telling how many quick 2 point plays he gave his team by never giving up on a play.
This play blows me away. Again, this lanky forward picks up a guard at the perimiter on a fast break, stays with him, blocks his shot, then sprints down court, only to get fouled on a layup attempt. I hate that this word is so cliche, but this dude is hustling. It's remarkable. He truly was the Wild Horse.
This one is a favorite, too. He grabs the rebound and takes off. He looks like a point guard. It's remarkable. He has a crafty finish at the end. And this dude was huge.
Andrei was ahead of his time, which is exactly why he doesn't have a solidified position in the collective memory of NBA fans. His game was made for the modern NBA: a point forward who was a perennial DPOY candidate. The league, Jerry Sloan, and the game as a whole didn't know a whole lot about how to use that player 15 years ago.
AK was special. Long may the Wild Horse run.
Andrei Kirilenko was better than Gordon Hayward - Mychal Lowman for SLC Dunk (@My_Lo)
Andrei Kirilenko - Land of Hoops
Ode To The Underrated: Andrei Kirilenko Edition - Neil Paine for FiveThirtyEight (@neil_paine)
Andrei Kirilenko had Hall of Fame talent, even if few noticed - Tim Falkis for Sporting News (@timfalkis)
Andrei Kirilenko - Basketball-Reference