Utah Jazz: Will Minnesota's Andrei Kirilenko be greeted by cheers or jeers in return to EnergySolutions Arena?
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Paul Millsap looks forward to catching up with Andrei Kirilenko before tonight's game between the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves.
But Millsap admitted it will be weird to see AK-47 in T-Wolves gear after the small forward spent the first decade of his NBA life in a Utah uniform.
"It's going to be good to see how he gets out there and plays and how he responds to our crowd, which was his crowd for 10 years," Millsap said. "It's going to be a little different. I can't wait to see what happens."
Kirilenko is eager to find out himself.
“I can’t imagine how I’m going to step into the EnergySolutions Arena and go to the guest locker room, not the home locker room,” he told Minnesota media Tuesday. “It’s going to be different, but I have a lot of friends, tons of friends from 10 years there. A lot of fans that I probably know. I probably know the first 20 rows around the arena. I know all the fans."
It remains to be heard how those fans will respond to his quasi-homecoming.
Cheers? Jeers? Maybe even tears?
Cheers for the unique versatility he provided while averaging about 12 points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks per game from the Stockton-and-Malone days to the post-Sloan era?
"A tremendous guy, first of all. A really, really good teammate. He had a great run here with us," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said of Kirilenko. "The guys seemed to really enjoy having him on the team. We really enjoyed coaching him. I thought he did some good things for this organization."
Jeers for missing almost two full seasons worth of games (13.9 per season) and for not putting up consistent All-Star numbers while consistently cashing the checks in his six-year, $86-million max contract?
Or maybe even tears a la the infamous playoff situation in which he broke down in Houston back in 2007?
Millsap is curious how Jazz fans will treat the Ivan Drago lookalike, who was affable and considered Salt Lake City his second home even while drawing the ire of critics during his Utah tenure.
"They might give him the Jimmer treatment and cheer him. Or they might give him the D-Will treatment and boo him," Millsap said. "Who knows? We'll just wait and see what happens."
The two players were teammates in Utah from the time Millsap entered the league in 2006 until the end of the 2010-11 season, before Kirilenko returned to Russia to play for CSKA Moscow and the NBA went into lockout mode.
Kirilenko didn't play in the NBA during the shortened 2011-12 season, but he's now playing with a two-year deal in Minnesota where he's averaging 13.3 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Reminiscing about Kirilenko brought a smile to Millsap's face — not unlike it did before he talked about Deron Williams and Mehmet Okur last season leading up to their Beehive State returns.
"He's actually a great teammate," Millsap said. "He's a good teammate on the floor (and) off the floor. On the floor, he was very unselfish."
Corbin said the Jazz organization considered Kirilenko an integral part of the franchise's success when he played like that.
"We always talked about when he played well and was being active on both ends of the floor, we were a pretty good ball club," Corbin said. "Because he can affect the game so many different ways."
On offense, Kirilenko was able to get teammates involved. He could slash, finish at the basket and hit the occasional jumper.
On defense, the quick and lanky 6-foot-9 forward was credited for playing solid defense on his own guy and providing extraordinary assistance on help defense.
Marvin Williams said he's only seen one guy in his NBA career who is as versatile of a player as Kirilenko, and that's his former Atlanta teammate Josh Smith.
"He was really able to help this Jazz team win a lot of games. He's so versatile. He can really shoot the ball. He can pass it. He can guard," Williams said. "He was able to do a lot of things at this position. I'm sure Jazz fans will be excited to see him back here."
Some will be thrilled to applaud the 2004 All-Star, who was instrumental in helping the Jazz make six playoff appearances, including the 2007 Western Conference Finals.
And some won't be so ecstatic to see a player whose Jazz career was riddled with injuries and inconsistencies.
Even so, Corbin and Millsap laughed remembering how Kirilenko was a good locker room guy, who got along with teammates and who always had his nose in some Russian novel.
"Off the court, he was always having fun, joking around," Millsap said. "You can't really see that when you see him, but that's who he is."
Corbin anticipates a positive response for Kirilenko.
"The people really enjoyed his time here. He enjoyed being and interacting with the fans in his time here," Corbin said. "We wish him well. He's with a different team now, but it will be good to see him back on the floor."
And likewise for Kirilenko.
“It’s a big deal. I learned a lot from there,” Kirilenko said. “Jerry (Sloan) is the guy who basically created me and gave me an NBA career, like, it’s a lot of good words about it.”
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