MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Kevin Love always heard the whispers.
Even as he was piling up rebounds by the bucketful, knocking down 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip and asserting himself as the best power forward in the game, his critics would chortle.
He's just a numbers guy. A stuffed stat sheet on a bad team. A paper All-Star who was happy as long as he was getting his.
Fair or unfair, Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman told his star before the season started that to become a truly elite player, Love had to start raising his teammates' level of play along with his own. And with a flick of the wrist, he's doing just that.
After a massively disappointing, injury plagued season a year ago, Love has made a triumphant return to the court with a level of all-around play that has been among the very best in the league. He's averaging 27.1 points, 14.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists, more than double his career average, to help the Timberwolves to a 6-3 start.
''He has so much court presence,'' Wolves shooting guard Kevin Martin said. ''Everybody's always wanting to take their best shot at him, double-team him, everything. He opens up the game a little bit. And that's what we're seeing.''
After playing in only 18 games last season because of a twice-broken hand, Love threw himself into grueling workouts last summer. He was determined to lift the long-suffering Wolves to their first playoff appearance in nine years. He returned in superb shape and embraced the role of team leader and facilitator that Adelman thrust upon him.
''I believe for me, I was going out there trying to make myself so much better and make the right plays that I thought that was the only way to make my teammates better,'' Love said about his earlier years. ''But I think it's been a progression for me really the last three years to be more vocal with the guys, look to pass the ball a little bit more.
''The passing on this team, especially this year, has been very contagious. We've actually all made each other better, myself included.''
With leak-out artists Corey Brewer and Martin on the wings, Love finally has two receivers capable of tracking down his full-court outlet passes, a skill that is among the most unique and dangerous in the league.
''The guy can throw a chest pass 100 yards,'' Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. ''He should be an NFL quarterback and he can throw chest passes to the receivers. I remember Wes Unseld. Love is an equal to him in terms of his ability to outlet the ball quickly. It's a phenomenal skill.''
And a lost art. When he was young, Love wanted badly to play football, but his parents wouldn't let him. So he played basketball with his older brother, who was three grades ahead of him, and needed to use the chest pass form to get the ball up to the 10-foot rim.
''I'd make the shot at a very high rate,'' Love said. ''That's how that came about.''
The precise passes have ignited the Wolves' offense, which is among the leaders in pace of play. He's also shown an ability to make passes from the elbow to cutters at the basket and play solid defense.
''Every great player in this league gets better every year at something new,'' Adelman said. ''They just don't do one thing and that's all they do. That was his next step, be a facilitator. He's going to be on the court long enough that he'll get his points, he'll get his shots.''
Love is second in the league in scoring and rebounding, but he's also making his teammates better. Both Martin, who came over from Oklahoma City this summer, and Brewer are averaging career highs in scoring.
''After playing with Kevin (Durant) and Russell (Westbrook), guys that can score 30 in their sleep, I wasn't going to another team without a superstar,'' Martin said. ''That's what I have in Kevin Love.''
Love credits the additions new president Flip Saunders made to the roster, and the improvement of players like Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, with allowing him to make the leap he has made this season. In his sixth season in Minnesota, he's happier than he's ever been, and more comfortable being the leader than he was early in his career.
Love's start this season has him being mentioned in the same breath as the NBA's elite. It's where he feels he belongs. Now that the Wolves are winning, he might be there to stay.
''I'd be lying to you if I told you it wasn't important to me,'' Love said. ''I put in a lot of work throughout the offseason. I pride myself on being one of the most well-rounded players and one of the best players in this league and I try to go out there and prove it every night. But I'm not going to sacrifice the team by doing that. I don't think that I have this year.''
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