Whenever he needs a break from basketball, or just a way to fend off boredom in isolation, all Naz Reid needs is a pencil and paper.
The pencil is the important part. Not a pen or markers. Those aren't what Reid feels most comfortable using. Just a plain lead pencil.
It's what Reid used back at Asbury Park Middle School in New Jersey when he spent multiple years in the art class of Jan McLaren, whose instruction helped Reid tap into a talent and interest that was lying dormant — drawing.
Sometimes Reid might use an iPad to draw — they have pencils too — but nothing beats old-fashioned pencil and paper, and the tactile nature of the pencil marking the paper the way he wants.
"It's just been a peaceful space from basketball or everywhere else," Reid said. "It keeps me focused and sane and things like that. It's something that's been important to me."
It's been important for nearly a decade for Reid, now 21 and entrenched as the Timberwolves' backup center behind Karl-Anthony Towns.
He can shoot from the outside (34% from three-point range) or take people off the dribble and because of that he earned a four-year deal after he went undrafted out of LSU.
Those are not skills you expect from most NBA centers, just as pencil drawing is not what you expect to be a primary passion of, well, most people.
His art class with McLaren changed Reid's life in that it inspired a lifelong passion — and informed the kind of player he became.
"I just never want to take away from that memory Mrs. McLaren brought to me," Reid said.
The 'gentle giant'
McLaren has been a teacher for 20 years, but she has had few students like Reid pass through her classrooms. For one, he was exceptionally tall for a middle schooler. That's not something you can easily forget. But McLaren remembers a lot more about Reid than his height.
"Naz was truly one of the sweetest gentle giants I've ever had," said McLaren, who now teaches at Asbury Park High School. "He was kind. He was funny. Everyone liked him. … He was just one of these people that everybody felt comfortable around. He didn't make himself seem above it all."
Reid connected right away with McLaren and would even stop by after school on occasion for some extra lessons.
"She was one of my favorite teachers, and it made me like art a lot more than I probably would have," Reid said. "Then from there, it just escalated."
Reid locked in on drawing as his main passion even though McLaren taught all other kinds of art.
There was just something about drawing Reid connected with on a deeper level. At first it was fun. As Reid has gotten older, drawing became a way to unplug from the world and relax.
In his first NBA season, there wasn't a lot of time to draw, but with coronavirus leading into isolation and the NBA's COVID protocols this season restricting how much players can do in their down time, Reid has more time to get back to it.
"You're away from everything and you go into your own space," Reid said. "When it's just you and a pencil and paper, or iPad, whatever you're using, it's so peaceful and it's an open mind where you can draw whatever you want."
Going his own way
There hasn't been a large departure in what Reid wanted to draw then and what he draws now — a lot of cartoons such as Scooby-Doo and animé. Reid is a big fan of the Japanese classic Dragon Ball Z, which revolves around the main character Goku and others trying to save Earth and the universe from various villains, and he even had Dragon Ball Z sneakers back in middle school.
"They were fire and ice," Reid said. "I just always liked Dragon Ball Z. That was probably my favorite, and I was just trying to put those two together."
Cartoons and animé with their exaggerated features can make for inventive and challenging drawing.
It also wasn't what a lot of kids in McLaren's class were drawing.
"He didn't follow the norm," McLaren said. "He did things his own way, and he was very creative in the classroom as well as on the court. He had his own style, his own path and you could see that right from the get go. In art as well as … on the court. He just had his way of doing things."
When it came to perfecting his craft, Reid had a methodical way of operating.
"He really kind of zeroed in on what he wanted, taking the appropriate steps and not trying to cut corners and say 'I want this, I want it now,' " McLaren said. "He was very mature. He's a very calm, deep person that doesn't get overwhelmed or frustrated. He's just like, 'OK this is what's happening. I can deal with this and I'll do it.' "
An artist at basketball
McLaren didn't realize it but she used a mantra that has been a part of the Wolves' philosophy since President Gersson Rosas took over — that they weren't going to cut corners in their development of young players.
That includes Reid, who has improved his efficiency from a season ago and took over the starting center job while Towns was out because of a wrist injury and his battle with COVID-19.
Former Wolves coach Ryan Saunders called Reid "the most coachable player I've ever been around in all my years in the NBA."
McLaren said Reid was more than eager to learn.
"I think he was comfortable in my class, so he expressed himself very confidently," McLaren said.
Reid has no problem taking instruction and constructive criticism
"I mean, I'm young," Reid said. "Those people mentoring me or coaching me have definitely seen a lot more than I've seen. They've been telling me right from wrong, and I have to do things the right way moving forward."
Reid is soft-spoken and even keeled in interviews, but the substance of what he says reveals someone who analyzes the game on a deep level — and in his own unique way. For instance, the Wolves are big on efficient shot values and try to eschew shots from the midrange. Reid said long before he joined the Wolves those shots never made sense for him to take. He wanted to either take threes or go to the basket from the time he was young.
"I never shot midrange," Reid said. "I hate midrange shots."
Reid has a knack for the rhythms of playing offense in the NBA. Not only can he shoot well from three-point range, which not a lot of big men can do, he can get creative in attacking the basket, and teams have to respect his ability to operate inside and outside.
When asked if he sees a connection between how creative he can be on the court and off it, Reid said: "I definitely do."
"Bigger guys are used to being in the post," Reid said. "Passing it is not something bigger guys can do, or handling it, so with things like that you get creative — just doing the things that big guys in our league normally don't do."
A lasting connection
McLaren still keeps tabs on Reid's progress in the NBA and said all of Asbury Park, a coastal city of 16,000, is behind him.
"We're a small little town and everybody knows his name," McLaren said. "Everybody is rooting for him because he's a nice young man and everybody is so proud of him."
That goes double for McLaren, who said she teared up when she heard some of the things Reid said about the impact she made on his life.
"She was just a good teacher to me," Reid said. "I tried to reciprocate that and be a good student to her."
Said McLaren: "It's so touching to me that he says something like this. It really is. You teach a lot of kids and to actually connect with somebody is just — it's wonderful."
It's a connection time can't erase, not even with the rubber end of a pencil.