Warriors center Andris Biedrins garnering All-Star consideration
By Michael Murphy
On a Friday night in mid-January, the Golden State Warriors hosted an up-tempo Atlanta Hawks team before 18,000-plus fans at the Oracle Arena in Oakland and both squads were lighting up the scoreboard. The stats crew earned its keep as the combined 233 points kept the crowd pulsing.
Near the end of the second quarter, Hawks veteran playmaker Mike Bibby dribbled full stride across midcourt, spun away from his defender and ran off a high-post screen to create the mismatch that makes most 6-foot players drool. NBA point guards – some of the quickest athletes on the planet – look extra fleet when guarded by 7-footers, and there stood Warriors center Andris Biedrins, about to become toast.
Or so Bibby thought. Biedrins, a long, lean lefty with quick feet and instincts, controlled the 12-year veteran guard first by denying a baseline dribble-drive before forcing Bibby into a 17-foot, fallaway moon-shot, which Biedrins then went and rebounded.
Few NBA big men have the length and quickness to contain point guards then rip down missed shots from the perimeter. It’s even more elegant when centers also can score with authority using either shooting hand.
Two of the very best 7-footers with that capacity —Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett — were players Biedrins admired as a young man.
“I didn’t see so many NBA games back home [in Riga, Latvia]” recalled the 22-year-old. “We mostly saw the strong teams, like the Lakers, on the NBA telecasts. But I really liked Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan.”
Now in his fifth NBA season, Biedrins has shown signs he has the patient but steady composure of Duncan, the San Antonio power forward, combined with the determination and hustle exemplified by Garnett of the reigning NBA champion Celtics.
Biedrins even sounds like the Big Ticket when discussing rebounding.
“I think it’s really an effort thing,” he insisted. “Train your mind that you have to go for every single ball. It’s not an easy thing, it’s a lot of energy, but just go hard every time, and even if you get every fifth ball, you will get a lot of rebounds.
“I’m constantly aggressive.”
You live and learn in the NBA.
“It was kind of weird [to play against Garnett the first time],” continued the gregarious European. “Now, its o.k., but the first time I was like, ‘I need to guard him.’ And then we were pushing each other and fighting for position. It was cool. I was really excited.
“That’s all you wanted – to be like him or play with him, so now there you are. It was a special feeling.”
Biedrins enjoyed a confidence-building stint with the Latvian national team this past off-season where he was the focal point on offense. He arrived in Oakland for pre-season camp in the best shape of his young career.
“I think I had a really great summer,” he noted. “I was home, I was practicing and we played a lot of games. I was on the court all the time and got better when I came back here. I think that’s why I had the start I did, because I had a really great summer of practicing.”
Biedrins has rewarded the confidence Warriors executive vice president of basketball operations Chris Mullin showed in the first-round draft pick (11th overall) of the 2004 NBA Draft. The lanky left-hander signed a long-term contract during the summer then averaged 16.8 points and 14.9 rebounds over the first 10 games, including a 22-rebound effort at Memphis on Nov. 3.
“He has continued to improve every season,” observed Mullin. “It’s not easy to find quality young, big men in this league, but we certainly think we have one of them and he’s only 22 years old.”
Including the final seven games of last season, Biedrins racked up 17 consecutive double-doubles (10 or more points and rebounds), the most since Warriors legend Nate Thurmond averaged more than 20 points and 20 rebounds in 1967-68.
Head coach Don Nelson chuckled and boasted, “He usually gets [a double-double] by halftime.
“He’s improved his game offensively a little bit. He’s making his free throws a little bit better. We always knew he could rebound, and I think he’ll get nothing but better as we go along and we find out who we are and how we have to play to max out who we are, and he’s going to be a part of that. No matter what lineup I put out there, he’s a big part of it.”
The roster has changed since the magical 2006-07 run into the playoffs and upset of No. 1 seed Dallas Mavericks in the “We Believe” series. The injury bug has hit the Warriors hard, resulting in one of the worst records in the league. On losing teams, morale can get tested.
Biedrins has taken it upon himself to keep team spirits high and his own energy level consistent, especially after being named a co-captain and signing a six-year contract extension worth up to $62 million.
“It really means a lot to me to be named a captain,” he said. “This will be the fifth year I’ve been here and it was a real honor when the coach told me. This year we have a different team with so many young guys. I remember when I was a rookie and we had veterans telling me all this stuff, not only for on the court but off the court, too. It’s a totally different lifestyle and something the young guys have to learn.”
As for the big contract, Biedrins has not forgotten who was by his side on his path toward reaching his goal of being an NBA player.
“I came here for a week (in September) to sign the contract and then I went home again and I just celebrated with my family and friends and it was just a really great feeling,” he reflected. “Everybody was so happy about me and I was so glad to get my best deal.
“I’m building a house for my parents back home in Latvia, and that will be a special thing for them — and for me.”
The last outstanding Warrior from the Baltic area was Sarunas Marciulionis, who used his success and fame to build a children’s hospital and open a hotel and restaurant to stimulate business in Lithuania.
Biedrins also has plans to invest in his native land.
“When I was 20, I really didn’t have the opportunities and the time,” he said. “But now I am gathering information and seeing what’s going on. I have a long ways to go, but step by step, I’m getting there.”
The statistics reflect the center’s development on the court. Biedrins currently stands third in the NBA with 12 rebounds per game to go along with 14 points a night, both career-highs. After finishing first in the league in field goal percentage (63 percent) last year, Biedrins is shooting a highly respectable 56 percent this season as defenses have started to pay attention to the versatile pivot man.
On the offensive end of the floor in a game at Denver in mid-December, the Warriors were holding their own against a rejuvenated Nuggets team when Biedrins caught a foul-line pass going to the basket and viciously slammed home a right-handed dunk.
“You know, once in a while I can do something like that,” he assured with a smile. “That was actually a set-up play for us. Coach took a timeout and put it on the board and that’s what I did. I feel there are still so many things I can do on the offensive end, so I will just keep working and try to get better.”
Biedrins has developed from a little known Latvian teenager to a key cog for the Warriors by being a willing worker and improving his skill set every season. His tireless enthusiasm for the game and consistency has made him a favorite of NBA analysts who rave about his production.
Just don’t ask the humble Latvian to blow his own horn.
“I would love to be an All-Star. That would be a great opportunity,” he admitted. “But at the same time, I’m really not trying to put that too much into my head. I just do my job and see what happens.”
As an emerging leader with statistics near the top of the league in field goal percentage and rebounding, two of the prime indicators for successful centers, the Warriors finally have a man in the middle they can build their franchise around.