Cole Aldrich used the word repeatedly Thursday: grind.
He talked about being in grind mode prepping for the season. He talked about being able to grind through the tough times to get where he is today. Asked why he and new Timberwolves boss Tom Thibodeau were such a good fit, Aldrich said: “The grit and the grind basketball. I love to get my nose dirty. As you can tell, I’ve got a few scars and I’ve got a missing tooth.”
With that, he pulled out the fake tooth and grinned for the cameras.
Having signed his three-year, $22 million contract with the Wolves, Aldrich — the former Bloomington Jefferson standout center — met with the media to talk about joining the team he grew up watching. With his wife, Britt, and his father looking on, Aldrich talked of what got him here, and the wisdom to know better than to let it go to his head.
After paying his Development League dues and playing for five NBA teams over six seasons, the 6-11, 250-pound Aldrich emerged last season with the Los Angeles Clippers as one of the more efficient big men around. Backing up DeAndre Jordan, Aldrich averaged 5.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in only 13.3 minutes. On a per-36 minute basis, those numbers become 14.8 points, 13.0 rebounds and 3.1 blocks.
So, perhaps, Aldrich has arrived. But his feet are still firmly on the ground. On a Wolves team that under Thibodeau, the president of basketball operations and coach, promises to be a hardworking, defense-oriented outfit, Aldrich and his blue collar should fit right in. Aldrich is nothing if not the son of Walt Aldrich, a sheet metal worker, from whom he learned the value of work.
“I finished six years in [the league] and sometimes I wonder how the hell I even made it this long,” he said. “Because the average career is 3½. It’s just a blessing.”
Aldrich knows what it was like to play on an unguaranteed contract in New York, sweating out the final days before the deadline when that contract would become good for the season.
“For me it’s always just to come in every day, same time, work hard and when you get that opportunity, just go out and play hard,” Aldrich said. “It’s great to have security, in a sense, where I have a three-year deal. For me, I’ve gone through pretty much my career on one-year deals.”
He and his wife were on vacation when the Wolves deal began brewing. Aldrich recalled getting a call from Thibodeau and started to think a return home was possible. Then the offer came and finally, the deal was done. Aldrich nearly went to Chicago to play for Thibodeau years ago. He always felt the coach would be a good fit for his style.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said.
When the deal went down, he texted his parents instead of calling. He texted: “Dad, I’m coming home.”
Said Walt Aldrich: “I thought you were coming home from vacation.”
No. Coming home, period. It’s been nine years since Aldrich’s friends and family could make a short drive to watch him play, and the thought is thrilling. To join a team filled with talented young players ready to make a jump in the standings just makes it better.
“I’ve been a Timberwolves fan all my life,” he said. “Whether it was in another city, playing for New York or Oklahoma City or wherever, I always tried to keep tabs. You root for your city. For me to be home, I’m going to go out there and play hard. I’m not going to guarantee a championship or anything like LeBron [James], but I’m going to try to do all I can to help us win games.”
One bonus, Aldrich said, is not having to play against new teammate Karl-Anthony Towns in the years to come.
“I hated guarding him,” he said. “I’m glad I’m on the same side.”
Aldrich appeared confident, honest and refreshingly self-deprecating Thursday. There was the gap in his teeth. Then he told a story about being mistaken for another Minnesota big man at the State Fair last fall. “Somebody was like, ‘Hey, are you Joel Przybilla?’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘Well, it depends. If you want me to be …’ ”
Aldrich figures to be just fine with who he is. When the news broke earlier this month, Jeff Evens, Aldrich’s coach at Jefferson, talked about all the things Aldrich did for his old high school. He works out with the Jaguars during All-Star breaks. He always plays in the program’s charity golf outing.
“He hasn’t lost touch with his grass roots,” Evens said.