Wolves’ Tolliver fills a role with players injured

MINNEAPOLIS – For Anthony Tolliver, the line between dedication and desperation must be a fine one.

Known for his work ethic, Tolliver nonetheless bounced from the D-League to Europe to brief stints with three NBA teams before landing with the Timberwolves in 2010. He’s good enough, but sometimes it seems just barely, and at times in his career, even that dedication hasn’t been enough to keep Tolliver’s spot on a roster. That’s enough to make any player just a little bit desperate, but Tolliver doesn’t seem to have crossed over that boundary.

Cue 2012. After averaging 21.0 minutes last season and 20.9 in the team’s first 18 games, Tolliver’s role faded by the end of January. Nikola Pekovic claimed some of the time that was once his, and with Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley backing up Kevin Love and the 290-pound center, Tolliver found himself on the bench more and more. In February, he averaged just 8.9 minutes and didn’t even play in seven of the team’s games, and it looked as if there simply wasn’t a role for him anymore.

“You’ve got to give him tremendous credit,” Rick Adelman said of Tolliver. “There wasn’t a spot for him… There just wasn’t any time for him.”

That all changed when Pekovic began to suffer from bone spurs in his right ankle last week, but without Tolliver’s dogged work ethic he might not have gotten the chance he’s earned. Even on those days after he’d ridden the bench for all 48 minutes of a game, Tolliver would emerge from practice dripping with sweat, the last player off the court and looking as if he’d practiced like the team’s hopes rode on his back. He stayed in shape, and he stayed positive, so when a temporary vacancy at center appeared, slotting him in over the player who’d held the starting job in December seemed like a natural choice.

That player: Darko Milcic. He’s the one averaging just 4.6 points per game, sitting in a chair at the end of practice while other players make trick shots and lift weights, the one who hasn’t played more than 10 minutes in a game since March 7. So far this season, his lack of enthusiasm and conditioning has first led to his starting job being taken from him, and now they’ve made it so he’s not even considered as a fill-in or backup. And through no fault of his own, Tolliver has made Milicic look even worse by comparison.

He’s done it with that constant conditioning, training everyday like he’ll see 40 minutes the next. But he’s also done it through a mental fortitude that players like he and Wayne Ellington – both of whom have stepped up recently after seeing limited minutes all season – have adopted. No matter how much he wishes he were playing more, Tolliver had to learn not to take it personally. The team’s roster had evolved past the point where he could create opportunities for himself, and Tolliver could only wait and hope for a chance.

“That’s what (bench players are) here for,” Tolliver said. “It’s been tough here for some of us that haven’t played as much this year, but when your number’s called you’ve got to be able to step up and deliver.”

And that’s just what he’s done, to congratulations and kind words and applause this past week. But that’s the thing about Tolliver: he’s not Milicic, a former starter and top draft pick who never seems to meet expectations. He’s the opposite, a little-known, undrafted player who’s turned himself from nothing more than a decent high school prospect into an NBA player, and because of that, it’s hard to notice the negative. No one criticizes him when he sits on the bench. No one even comments when he injures his wrist or has a poor-scoring night. There are no expectations for a man who’s doing everything he can do to deserve them.

Tolliver is never going to be an NBA All-Star, but he’s the kind of player who could have a job for many years in the future. He’s gotten a chance to show that in his past four games, when he’s averaged 14.8 points and 5.8 rebounds, proof that when given a chance, Tolliver can bolster his team.

He does it through rebounds and solid defense, his constant conditioning paying off with endurance and tenacity. He knows when to shoot and when to pass and how to grab a rebound when it comes his way. He’s not the best on the team at any of those things, but he’s mastered them all. He is solid.

“He just stays ready,” Love said. “He’s the type of guy that continues to work, just keeps working on his game, does whatever the team needs… He’s just a do-it-all type of guy that we love having around.”

If Tolliver has proven one thing this season, it’s that he’s ready whenever his name is called, and with the Timberwolves’ recent injuries, that trait might be worth as much as All-Star talent. Whether he likes it or not, Tolliver is building a set of expectations for himself, and it will be interesting to see how high he’ll rise in meeting them.

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