‘I just couldn’t see much’: His vision finally restored, Kyle Anderson is again playing a big role in Timberwolves success

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DALLAS – Minnesota led by two with five minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

Karl-Anthony Towns had just nailed a triple on the possession prior.

Kyle Anderson had begged Anthony Edwards to make the skip pass to the open corner shooter throughout the game.

In this situation, Anderson knew what needed to happen, and he was going to make sure it played out as he intended.

Towns was standing on the wing as the play developed, and Anderson waved and clapped his hands to get the sharpshooter’s attention and direct him to the corner. Anderson then planted himself a few feet in front of Towns so no one could get in the big man’s vision.

At this point, Edwards had taken a few probing dribbles to get near the paint on the opposite side..

“He’s out there. I was dribbling the ball,” Edwards recalled. “I damn sure was about to shoot it.”

Then he made eye contact with Anderson, who was vehemently waving in Towns’ direction. That was where the ball needed to go.

“I’m like, ‘OK, cool,’” Edwards said.

The guard passed it over the top of the defense to Towns. Anderson used his body to prevent Dallas guard Kyrie Irving from entering Towns’ air space, and Towns calmly knocked down another triple – the third of four he hit Tuesday – to put the Wolves up by five.

“Kyle made that play happen tonight,” Towns said. “He made a lot of plays happen.”

On both ends of the floor. Defensively, Anderson has the length, physicality and craft to be able to put up as good of a fight against Luka Doncic as anyone on Minnesota’s roster.

But, offensively, Anderson is a particularly needed cog – especially in this series, especially with the game on the line. Throughout the first three games of the Western Conference Finals, Minnesota struggled to generate any sort of good offense with the contest in the balance. But Anderson helped direct a number of possessions like the one that ended in that open Towns’ corner triple.

“I mean, some of it is just Kyle with the freedom that we give him to run the offense,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said. “He got us into some really clever stuff tonight. Just understanding how to get guys involved.”

In this series, Anderson has 14 assists to just two turnovers. He had four dimes and zero giveaways Tuesday. Over the course of the four games, Anderson is one of just three Wolves players with a positive net rating – Minnesota is out-scoring Dallas by 1.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor – and he touts the team’s lowest turnover ratio and highest assist ratio.

Anderson played 10 minutes in the final frame of Game 4. He logged two assists, two steals and zero turnovers. Keep in mind, nothing showed up in the box score for Anderson when the forward conducted the play resulting in the Towns’ corner three.

Towns used one apt word to describe the 30-year-old reserve: “Special.”

“He’s just so smart. He finds the right spaces, he gets the ball to the right people. Handling, screening, he’s playcalling,” Finch said. “Yeah, I mean it’s something.”

Anderson has long contested he’s a point guard in a 6-foot-9 frame. And, when he’s on the floor, he’s often Minnesota’s quarterback – who can scan the floor and read the defense far more clearly when he can … well, see.

Anderson earned Finch’s complete trust a campaign ago. The versatile forward trailed only Jordan McLaughlin in net rating among rotation players a year ago – with the Wolves out-scoring opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions when Anderson was on the floor.

Folks were debating where Anderson ranked among the franchise’s all-time free-agent acquisitions. He shot 41 percent from deep while serving as one of the team’s primary playmakers and was a strong defender.

Anderson was a major reason the Wolves reached the playoffs last year.

Which made his struggles this season all the more confounding. He made so many plays that left you scratching your head. Like a pass in San Antonio in mid-November, in which Anderson came off a ball screen, dribbled into the heart of the paint and then kicked out to Naz Reid – or, where Reid was standing seconds earlier, prior to relocating. By the time Anderson threw the pass, there was no one in the vicinity of the ball’s final destination.

It was as though Anderson was passing to where he assumed Reid was, because he didn’t exactly know where Reid was.

“I just couldn’t see much. I couldn’t make reads. In some arenas, it would be blurry. The lights would mess with me from up top,” Anderson said. “San Antonio, in particular, it was very hard for me to see.”

It was Game 4 of the first round of the West playoffs a year ago when Anderson – in the midst of one of his best seasons to date – was inadvertently smacked across the face by Edwards. Anderson missed Game 5, which Denver won to end Minnesota’s campaign.

But Anderson’s issues remained. His eye was severely injured. Doctors within the state raised questions as to whether Anderson would be able to continue his playing career. The forward admitted he was “spooked.”

Additional opinions received in California and Pennsylvania suggested otherwise and Anderson did have surgery on the eye in mid-May.

But vision issues weren’t immediately resolved. Anderson wasn’t cleared to play basketball until July. He noted at the beginning of training camp that he’d play pickup games in small New Jersey gyms and not be able to see a thing.

Weeks after he was cleared to play, he was off to the World Championships to compete for China. He didn’t play particularly well in the competition. His sight – or lack thereof – made it difficult to carry out any play he envisioned.

Still, Anderson didn’t seem worried heading into the NBA campaign. He was confident in the progress he’d made and believed he could turn things around.

“I wasn’t just going to quit,” Anderson said. “I didn’t want it to end like that.”

On media day, he noted “in an NBA arena with great lighting, it should be fine.”

Not the case.

“Missing easy shots, I couldn’t make reads, I couldn’t playmake and things like that,” Anderson said. “My depth perception was so messed up. Like the rim looked so far (away).”

The struggles were all evident in his play.

Through the first 52 games of the season, Anderson sported the worst effective field goal percentage among rotation players (48.3 percent). His turnover ratio rivaled that of Towns and Rudy Gobert. He was hitting 19.4 percent of his 3-point attempts.

It was ugly, and a stark contrast from the brilliance Anderson delivered the year prior.

“It was super frustrating,” Anderson said. “Just the player I was this year, I think people know that’s not who I am.”

The past three and a half months have been a far more accurate depiction. He did a number of rehab exercises with assistant athletic trainer Erin Sierer, which helped him acclimate to playing under and adjusting to the lighting of NBA arenas. It all helped him “make reads, process things and be able to make that connection stronger with my eye and my brain.”

Just prior to the all-star break, Anderson felt a true breakthrough. In road games in Los Angeles and Portland he felt like he could see more.

“When I catch the ball,” he said, “I can see the rim.”

That does help.

He had six assists and zero turnovers in a Feb. 12 win over the Clippers. The next night, he had eight dimes and zero giveaways against the Blazers.

With the eye issues largely resolved, Anderson was able to go home for all-star break and truly work on his game and regain his comfort on the court. He returned to Minnesota a better player. So much of his post-break revival was attributed to the absence of Towns, which allowed Anderson to play more of his natural position – power forward. But Anderson said Towns’ meniscus injury simply allowed him to log more minutes. He attributed the return to form to his re-established vision.

“I was able to get more minutes, more comfortable. I think I’ve played well since the all-star break,” Anderson said. “I think I was able to turn my season around.”

Certainly, Anderson has been imperative for Minnesota this series. He’s shooting 59 percent from the floor in the West Finals.

But he won’t say he’s back to the player he was a year ago – not yet. He noted his lack of offseason work last season, which was derailed by both his lack of vision and the death of his shooting coach, Bob Thate, who passed away at age 76 in early June due to COVID-19 related complications.

“So this year was super tough for me,” Anderson said. “I just wasn’t the player that I know I can be.”

The player everyone remembers, and is getting a glimpse of in this series.

“It’s great to see. I know how good he is,” Edwards said. “I used to play against him early in my career when he was on Memphis, and he was killing it. It’s great to see him getting back to that.”

Whenever this season ends – be it with Thursday’s Game 5 at Target Center, after a championship parade in Minneapolis in June or sometime in between – Anderson, who will be a free agent in the offseason, vows to have a “great summer” in which he can truly regain his shooting form, among other things.

“And really get back to myself,” Anderson said.

The future — so uncertain a year ago — is something he sees quite clearly.

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