By Jon Krawczynski
AP Basketball Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Kevin Love's return to the court from last year's injury-plagued season has been a smashing success. He has reasserted himself as one of the NBA's best power forwards while unveiling a passing ability that is helping to make his teammates better as well.
The next phase in his development is asserting himself in the locker room as forcefully as he does on the court, and the Minnesota Timberwolves star is starting to take that task head-on the same way he does a defender in the post.
The latest sign came earlier this week, when Love called out a pair of teammates for their body language in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Phoenix Suns. Love was lauded by fans for holding teammates accountable and had the backing of the organization as well. But he's also new at this, and still learning how to deliver the message he wants to get across in the most productive manner possible.
"In this day and age you have to figure out how you say it," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said Friday night before the team hosted the Charlotte Bobcats. "Because it's going to be there forever. We dealt with it yesterday. We talked about it. Just trying to figure out how we're going to win the game tonight."
After the Wolves lost Wednesday night, Love took issue with J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham sulking on the bench in the fourth quarter because they were disappointed with their minutes. He said, "we all need to be in this together" and mentioned that if he would've done the same thing, "they would've aired me out. That's tough. It's two guys that we expect more from them. I think they expect more from themselves."
His intentions were met warmly by fans who have been looking for Love, a two-time All-Star and phenomenal talent, to become the big-time presence that Kevin Garnett was during his time in Minnesota. Timberwolves President Flip Saunders was supportive as well, having conversations with Barea and Cunningham about their behavior and downplaying Love's comments. Even Barea admitted that Love's critique was valid and "it won't happen again."
"I wish Kevin would've just came up to me, face-to-face, man-to-man and just said it," Barea said after the morning shootaround. "But it's no big deal. We're over it. We're done with that. We learned from that. If we want to win we have to play as a team and stay together as a team. We're done with that and we have a game tonight."
Cunningham was a little more tight-lipped about the situation.
"We've all got to learn and we're all learning together and we move as a unit," he said. "That's where we are right now."
One of the biggest lessons Love is learning through this is that as a star, his words receive more attention and scrutiny than the average player. He was clearly upset at the shootaround, keeping his answers short and plain.
"Keep it internal," Love said. "We all like each other. We had a great time at shootaround today and we'll be ready to go at 7 o'clock tonight."
Former All-Star Grant Hill said making that transition from star player to a star who speaks his mind can be a painful one at the start while the player figures out what works and what doesn't.
"A lot of it starts with building credibility with your teammates," said Hill, who recently sat down with Love to discuss leadership for NBATV's "Inside Stuff." ''Not just in games, but in practice and your work ethic. And then getting more and more comfortable with speaking out, whether it's encouragement or trying to light a fire. ... As you get comfortable with the league, comfortable with your status, that's the next step."
There will be bumps in the road as Love finds his voice, especially in today's media-saturated environment, where every word is dissected. It's the same way it was for players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and others.
"You have to sometimes say things and do things that people may not want to hear or aren't popular or make people uncomfortable," Hill said. "That's part of being a leader. It's a huge responsibility.
"I think a lot of times when you have your best player in that role, I think that makes it even better. When your best player's setting the tone and your best player's working harder than everybody and is holding everyone, including himself, accountable, that's a winning environment and that's a winning culture. But I think as a young guy coming in, it takes time to grow into that."