by Farmer Jones / photo by Atiba Jefferson

In 2001-02, statistically his best NBA season, Tim Duncan averaged 25.5 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. Tim Duncan won the first of two MVP awards that season. A lot of people think Tim Duncan is the best power forward in NBA history.

As I type this, three-fourths of the way through the truncated 2011-12 NBA season, Kevin Love is averaging 26.6 and 13.9 per.

I know. I know. kevin love

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How good is he? It’s sort of refreshing that nobody seems to know for sure. There are his stats—both the obvious, old-fashioned ones I typed above, and the space-age digits that I tend to make fun of people for obsessing over but which, I concede, explain certain aspects of the game with wonderful clarity—which place him on the top shelf of NBA talent. Old math or new, he comes off pretty good.

Me, I’m a fan of intangibles. Like: How much time the broadcast teams in opposing NBA cities spend talking about him. I’m watching him now against the Bobcats in Charlotte—he’ll have 40 and 19 before I’m done with this post—and two people Wikipedia tell me are Steve Martin and Stephanie Ready sort of can’t shut up about Kevin. I watch just about every Wolves game on League Pass. I can tell you this is normal.

(As an aside, at least the Charlotte broadcasters aren’t obsessed with Love the way Matt Harpring is. Hatefully obsessed. That dude needs to reassess his life.)

But so the point is that whether you prefer scientific justification or a complete lack thereof, you can find plenty to back up the assertion that Kevin Love is one of the very best players in the NBA. I put that in italics to make it look dramatic, and also to emphasize the vagueness of that statement. Because again, really, how good is he? Top 10? Top 5? I don’t know. I don’t know.

I feel like I have a pretty good idea how he got here, though.

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Kevin Love has been simultaneously overhyped and overlooked since he was in high school, when he came up in the same class as OJ Mayo, Derrick Rose and Mike Beasley. Kevin was the guy we handed our Basketball Diary to, but OJ, with his insane personal and “career” trajectory to that point, was the guy we put on the cover before he started at USC.

Mayo, Rose and Beasley were also the first three players chosen in the 2008 NBA Draft, and the three guys we put on the cover that fall. All three played in the Rookie Challenge on All-Star weekend and made the all-rookie first team.

Love was the No. 5 pick. He didn’t make our cover (he would have if it had been up to me, which I state to clarify my bias in this case, not to imply I thought he’d be this good; I did not). He didn’t get invited to the rookie game. He made the all-rookie second team, not the first.

The Minnesota Timberwolves liked him enough to trade OJ Mayo for him, but not enough to give him more than 28 minutes per game his first two seasons.

So what we have is a first-team high school All-American (who anchored maybe the best AAU team in the history of AAU teams) who became a first-team college All-American and then a top-five Draft pick, and yet at every step, he’s been deemed to have less upside than a bunch of guys in his own class.

Rated as a star, and consistently underrated, all at the same time.

Why?

Because he lacks the lean, muscled build that we identify with people who are “athletic.” Kevin Love isn’t particularly athletic by NBA standards—not even after he lost those 25 pounds last summer—but you’re a fool if you don’t understand that he’s a world-class athlete.

Because he plays primarily below the rim. Because he’s not, or at least doesn’t look, particularly dynamic on the court.

Because he’s white. There’s a decent chance Myles Brown and I will discuss this at greater length soon. You’ve got that to look forward to.

The why is interesting, but ultimately not the point. The point is that, where Michael Jordan (just to pick a name) had to make up oversights and publicly shame his somewhat imaginary enemies, Love has quietly stacked these many invisible chips on his shoulder. The fact that people are nice enough to keep giving him chips—Peter Vecsey detailed some great examples in a recent column—helps explain why he keeps getting better.

Explaining that part is pretty simple. Kevin Love keeps working. He keeps adding weapons, and sharpening the ones he already has. The guy who one Minneapolis columnist called a “budding disaster” while he was still in the preseason of his rookie year, primarily because he couldn’t see how Love would ever be able to score against NBA bigs, now stands fourth in the League in scoring. He keeps finding ways.

Offensively—and we’ll skip his defense here; he’s a decent halfcourt defender, but he’ll never be elite on that end—Love seems to do whatever he wants. The game’s best scorers earn that designation because you can’t take their points away from them; there’s no single defensive tactic that will keep them from scoring. So it’s become with Love. Ultra-athletic though he’s not, he regularly beats defenders off the dribble because they’re overplaying him behind the arc… which they have to, because duh. Working outside in, off screen-rolls or simple ball fakes, he generally gets what he wants.

In the post? He’s hardly Olajuwon on the block, but he’s both quick and patient enough to beat defenders down low with increasingly regularity. He’s a savvy cutter. He has good hands. He wants the ball (he always wants the ball). He gets plenty of put-backs, and he gets to the line plenty, too. He’s got the instincts of a guy whose dad played in the League, which Stan Love did. And he’s smart—sadly an uncomfortable thing to write about a white basketball player from a comfortable upbringing, but also undeniably accurate here.

Put it this way: Where inside of 26 feet would you feel comfortable leaving him open at any time?

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Kevin Love’s SLAM cover debut was going to be a solo spot, but then the lockout happened and Ricky Rubio arrived, and it became a two-man game. A lot of what I’ve written above is along the lines of what I planned to write when I was planning to write only about Kevin. About motivation, and about how he and his game are perceived, about how good he’s gotten and how much better he might get.

When I interviewed him—first last summer for the solo story I thought I’d be writing, and then this winter for the Showbiz & KL story I eventually wrote—he was consistent in conveying the sense that he’s not surprised to be where he is now. He wasn’t shocked by his breakout 2010-11 season, and he wasn’t shocked to be heading to his second consecutive All-Star Game. He believes—has always believed, I think—that he’s meant to be doing these things.

Those interviews took place before he averaged 30-plus for the month of March, before the 51 against OKC, before he pushed his total of 30-and-15 games this season to 10, which is more than the rest of the League combined. (Which is nuts, people.) But of course, none of this shocks him, either.

So: How good? The Tim Duncan comparison is absurd for a lot of reasons, not least being Duncan’s defensive dominance and the fact that he averaged at least 20 and 11 for nearly a decade. Kevin Love is 23. He’s in his second year as a starter. He has yet to appear in a playoff game. He has much to prove.

But then, the comparison doesn’t seem as absurd as the numbers he’s putting up on a nightly basis. The numbers are as real as they are ridiculous. The same might be said of Love’s ascension: Ridiculous, and undeniably real.