Editor's note: Yesterday reader Suspicious Sal linked to a great piece about Robbie Hummel. Coincidentally, a couple of hours later, I got an email from the author of that piece, a Canis Hoopus lurker named Joseph Gill. He asked if it was possible to post the article on CH. I was very impressed with it, and so here it is. (Note from Joseph: All stats accurate through April 12th). Hopefully we will be hearing more from Joseph in the near future. --Eric in Madison
Robbie Hummel is the best 12th man in the NBA. Robbie Hummel is a championship piece.
The 12th man isn't for an individual producer. A Rasual Butler or Jordan Clarkson might start out as the 12th man, but after they start to put up even marginal individual numbers, they're quickly bumped up the depth chart and into greener pastures. Pretty much anybody who averages more than 5 PPG is never considered for the 12th man role, they're usually found in the 8-10th man range.
The 12th man isn't for a project. The 12th man, that's the role that doomed projects like Nemanja Nedović find themselves hopelessly impaled upon. Mortally wounded, they are fated to die an afterthought's death, bleeding out at the end of the bench over the course of a year, maybe two before drifting out of the NBA altogether.
The 12th man is reserved for the proletarians of the Association. Guys who are never really expected to get much-or any- better than they are now. Guys that are too slow, too short, too unathletic to ever be a contributor. Over the hill vets and late, late second round picks left to fill out a roster.
One of them languishes in obscurity on the second worst team in the NBA. And, improbably, he's the best 12th man in the NBA.
Robbie Hummel was chosen with the 58th pick of the 2012 NBA draft. Though he scored almost 1,800 points and grabbed over 850 rebounds during his 4 seasons at Purdue, NBA scouts weren't talking about the numbers, well, at least not those numbers. They were talking about his advanced age (23). They were talking about his quickness (not very). Mostly, they were talking about his right knee, and the ACL he had torn twice, first in February and then October of 2010.
He never missed a game his senior year, logging 1128 minutes which easily led his Purdue team. Didn't matter. He led his team with 16.4 PPG and 7.2 RPG—nobody else averaged more than 10.4 and 3.7 respectively—playing out of position as a 6'8" center. So what? In his final game, he went 9 of 13 from the field and threw up a 26/9/3 in the second round against a Kansas team that would go on to be the runner-up to Kentucky. Nobody cared. Due to his knee, Hummel was damaged goods. Scouts all knew he could play in college, but if he could play in the NBA was a different question, and if he could stay healthy was a question that everybody thought they knew: No.
Hummel was adrift in choppy waters. DraftExpress had him going 56th overall. NBA.com had him going at 57. As draft junkies know, if the lottery is unpredictable, the late-second round is chaos. Teams will often throw away picks in the 50's on guys in Europe who have roughly a 5% chance of ever playing in the NBA. Low-risk, low-reward, no monetary obligations they are forced to fulfill. The final ten picks of any NBA draft is often considered "why not?" territory.
Luckily for Wolves fans, Minnesota said "why not?" on the 23-year old with a twice-repaired ACL. If he ever managed to play a minute in the NBA, he would be only the 7th player in NBA history to do so after two tears, and the first who suffered both of them in college.
The Wolves decided to stash Robbie, and after a largely pedestrian 2012 Summer League (3.6 PPG, 10th out of 10 regular rotation players), he signed with Obradoiro CAB in Spain. A year later, after only starting 1 out of 28 games in Spain, he signed a training camp contract with the Wolves and entered into a competition with Othyus Jeffers and Lorenzo Brown for the final roster spot. Despite shooting 7 for 23 in his 4 preseason games, it was Hummel who secured the coveted final roster spot, and the NBA rookie minimum salary that came with it.
Soon, Wolves fans came to know what to expect from Hummel. The scouting report didn't lie for the most part. He didn't create much offense for himself, and what little he did create was off offensive rebounds. He wasn't that fast. He didn't jump that high. At least, not through the lens of the NBA. Furthermore, he might've led the NBA in shots attempted with a toe on the 3-point line his rookie year, a constant source of frustration in a frustrating season. He ended up averaging 3.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG in 12 minutes a night playing in only 53 games. He shot 38% from the field, and never scored more than 12 points in a game the entire year. A classic late-second round pick. A classic 12th man.
But, inexplicably, there was one stat that was a constant source of befuddlement: Basic plus/minus, one of the least considered statistics in the basketball. Despite his averages and his shooting splits, Hummel was a bona fide rockstar for a 12th man in the plus/minus column. He finished the season as a net +36 for the whole year, the only Wolves bench player to do so. In games he played more than 5 minutes in, he finished in the plus 24 out of 41 games. This is remarkable when you consider that the majority of his minutes were coming while playing with the Wolves' second unit, one of the worst in the NBA. The two players that he played the most with, JJ Barea and Dante Cunningham, were the 2nd and 5th worst plus/minus players on the Wolves. And yet, when they played with Hummel, they both wound up in the positive. Playing for one of the worst second units in the league on a team that couldn't crack .500, somehow the Wolves as a whole played better whenever Hummel stepped onto the floor. Robbie Hummel, who averaged 0.4 APG and shot 38% from the field, was somehow an X-factor.
This trend continued into this year. In 40 games that he played over 5 minutes, He finished in the plus in 20 of those games, a 50% mark. This is pretty remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, the Wolves are currently 16-64, and their average point differential of -8.5 is 3rd worst in the league. They're terrible, and it shows in the basic plus/minus. Out of the 9 other players who have spent the entire season with the Wolves, the next highest mark is Ricky Rubio with 9 out of his 21 (42%) games played having a plus figure in the plus/minus department. Second, despite the norm for the 12th man, Robbie's minutes don't show a massive skew towards mop up time. Usually head coach Flip Saunders plays the Wolves' rookies to close out games, and Robbie's stats reflect this. According to the NBAStatMachine at NBASM.com, Hummel only averages 45 more seconds of playing time in the 4th quarter versus in the 2nd quarter per game. His plus/minus isn't much affected either, as his 4th quarter plus/minus is only 12% better than his average, a pretty negligible difference. In fact, he's only a net +5 in the for all the 4th quarters he's played in this season, and he hasn't played a minute in the 4th quarter in 8 of his 43 games this year.
It's pretty extraordinary. The last man on the depth chart a scores personal "win" in 50% of the games he plays, all while his team only wins 20% of the time. I'm not oblivious to the knowledge that there are probably 12th men who probably have a better ratio in the plus/minus department. But, what Robbie Hummel is doing on a terrible team is well above and beyond what is expected of a player in his role.
The answer is surprisingly simple: Robbie Hummel is one of the most elite players in the NBA in a few oft-overlooked areas of basketball.
First, he never turns the ball over, and is doing so at a historical rate. In 655 minutes played in his rookie season, he turned the ball over only 10 times. His second year, in 683 minutes played, he has 18. According to NBA.com, he's had 2,111 touches so far in his career, so only roughly 1.3% of his touches ended as a turnover. By comparison, Chris Paul, who leads the league in assist-to-turnover ration this season, turns it over on roughly 2.5% of his touches. Obviously not a perfect comparison due to their respective roles, but still, an interesting benchmark. Hummel doesn't get many assists, but he almost never turns it over.
In fact, he's maintaining possession of the ball at, as mentioned, a historic rate. His 2013-14 turnovers per 36 totals were the 11st lowest out of players who logged 500 minutes or more since 1977-78, when the NBA started keeping track of turnovers. In fact, out of players who have played over 1,000 career minutes, Hummel has the 4th lowest turnovers per 36 rate in NBA history.
Second, Hummel never takes a bad shot. This is a hard claim to quantify, but there are a few ways to verify it. For one, his usage rate is incredibly low, meaning that he has great patience and knows his role. In fact, out of players with 500 minutes played, Hummel has the 11th lowest usage rate in the league. He isn't a remarkable midrange or 3 point shooter, but if an opposing team leaves him open, he's liable to make the shot at a high enough rate to make them pay.
Furthermore, he almost never gets his shot blocked. In 332 career FGAs, he's only been blocked 10 times. This means that only roughly 3% of his shot attempts are blocked, a rate almost half that of the league average (5.7%). This rate is comparable to LaMarcus Aldridge (2.7% this year), and Kevin Durant in his MVP season (3%). While those players obviously are shooting more shots at the rim, Hummel rarely gets blocked there either. In fact, he rarely misses there. This season, Hummel is shooting 93% from within 3 feet, on 27 of 29 attempts.
Obviously, there are a few different variables that collide to form this unbelievable statistic. This is much more a reflection of Hummel's playing style than his raw finishing ability. First, Robbie doesn't take shots unless he's open. In fact, according to Shot Tracking at NBA.com, only 11.6% of his shots occur when a defender is within 2 feet of him. When he's around the rim, you'll see him pass up shots that he doesn't think that he'll make, and they're usually the ones with 3 men looking for an easy swat. Second, he's a very decisive shooter, even for a catch and shoot guy. 87.7% of his shoots come within 2 seconds of him getting the ball, and 80.6% of his shoots come without a dribble. Finally, he's a deceptively good finisher around the rim, even though he isn't much of a leaper. This season, he hasn't had a shot within 5 feet of the rim blocked, and he's great at finding the angle, even over bigger players, like when he dumped in a layup with Ed Davis draped all over him on Friday night.
Third, Hummel does everything that is expected of a 12th man. Per Hoops Manifesto, he leads the Wolves in charges taken with 7. He is a constant source of effort and hustle. He's a great fouler, one of the most overlooked facets of basketball. He understands that with his 6 fouls he can stop 6 easy baskets from occurring in a way that's dangerous for starters to attempt. He rarely fouls away from the basket and is always looking to put opposing players on the line to earn their points. He's scrappy, keeping rebounds and loose balls alive, allowing for more explosive Timberwolves to go up and get them. He rarely comes down with the ball in a crowd, but he often gets a hand on it to keep it alive. When Andrew Wiggins soared for a dunk in a crowd of Lakers off an offensive rebound on Friday night, it was Hummel who originally kept the ball alive with a running tip from the weakside-baseline. Red Auerbach and Larry Bird once released a VCR video entitled Winning Basketball. Robbie Hummel would make those legends of the game proud, because he makes "winning basketball" plays like that every night.
Fourth, Hummel never takes a play off on the defensive end. He's not a lockdown defender, and often he gets beat off the dribble. But, his effort shines through when he hustles back into the play, refusing to let "beat' to turn into "burnt." I wouldn't say he is a plus-defender, but he never gives up easy baskets and he is a lot better than you would expect him to be. He only has 11 career blocks, but he's become a young master of the Shane Battier hand visor that blocks an opponent's view of the basket. This creates more than his fair share of bricks that careen hard off of the backboard.
Plus, Hummel is incredibly tough. He sacrifices his body in a way that few NBA players, especially ones who have undergone serious knee surgeries, are willing to do. Earlier today I tweeted at Hummel asking if any player in the NBA outside of LeBron or Westbrook takes more of a beating per 48 than him. I never heard back, but I like to think that a wry, knowing smile crossed his face as he read it. Scarcely a week goes by without Hummel taking an errant first/elbow to the face, or getting laid out on an attempted charge that elicits an appropriately massive amount of empathy from the Wolves' television team of Jim Petersen and Dave Benz.
There have been hundreds of players in NBA history who have performed the role that Hummel fulfills with the Wolves, and hundreds more who play the same style of basketball that Robbie does. But, few of them got their shots blocked as infrequently as Robbie, and none of them turned the ball over less.
When it all comes together, it's a thing of beauty to watch. Grantland's Zach Lowe coined the term "basketball porn" to describe the way that Marc Gasol plays both defense and offense despite being athletically-overmatched. Gasol frequently dominated with skill and smarts, not by being an athletic freak like many NBA stars. Now Robbie isn't comparable to one of the top 5 centers in the game, but he often unleashes his own brand of basketball porn on unsuspecting teams, like he did against the Celtics in his 7th career NBA game.
But, for all these contributions, Hummel gets very little praise. It's understandable, the Wolves have been terrible in Hummel's first two seasons and he doesn't make many highlight plays. It even appears among his own organization Robbie isn't appropriately valued for his contributions. During both of his two seasons, he's been treated like a 12th man the entire time. His rookie year he had to prove himself in training camp to earn a roster spot, and after becoming a free agent, he was the final player the Wolves signed in the summer of 2014—hilariously stealing the show from enduring Kevin Love hostage situation, if only for one afternoon. This summer he's a restricted free agent, with a $1.1 million qualifying offer. I fear that the Wolves' front office will allow Hummel to walk, feeling that his minimum-level contract has now exceeding his value on the floor. But, there's simply no way that's the case. A player who brings everything that Robbie does to the table is worth being locked up for the long-haul on up to a low 8-figure deal, paying between $1.5 and $2.5 million a year.
Throughout recent NBA history, there have been many players who perform the role that Robbie performs and have become champions. Mark Madsen, Brian Scalabrine, and Brian Cardinal have brought much of what Robbie brings to the table, and went to 7 NBA Finals, bringing home 4 rings. Obviously their contributions were dwarfed by the stars of the team who provided much of the production that carried their teams. But, we shouldn't discount the efforts of the 12th man.
Those players brought effort, toughness, desire, and were always willing to fulfill whatever role helped their teams win games. I have nothing but respect for these men. All throughout grade school, high school, and college, these players were definitely the best on their respective teams. Head coaches undoubtedly implored them to shoot at every opportunity. However, once they arrived in the NBA, the landscape was completely foreign. No longer were they the stars, they were even fighting to see the end of training camp from day 1. They weren't asked to shoot anymore, in fact, they were probably asked not to shoot unless they were wide open, and even then to be cautious. They did what few NBA players are able to do in their situation: swallow their egos, accept their roles, and focus on the big picture, not their personal plight. To NBA fans, who have suffered through far too many egotistical chuckers who refused to accept their roles, the players who put the team ahead of themselves are always a breath of fresh air.
However, those players have always been caricatured by casual fans, turned into memes and the butt of mean-spirited jokes. But, to the knowledgeable fans, they were important pieces in a way that most statistics can't measure, like Robbie Hummel. They helped to establish the winning culture of those teams with their team-first attitude. They provided small lifts to their teams in playoff runs, helping to shave or gain a point or two here or there. Not every player on a team can be a creator or a ball dominant scorer. In fact, with the salary cap, it would be impossible to assemble a team with 12 above-average individual scorers. Still, non-scoring role players are undoubtedly championship pieces. You don't build a championship team without a championship culture, and that includes all men, 1 through 12.
Even before teams are contending, the value of a championship 12th man is worth the sticker price. Sam Smith once described the phenomenon in his beautiful career retrospective of Brian Scalabrine. After Scalabrine signed a 5 year, $15 million dollar contract with the Celtics, who were losing 50-60 games every season at this point, he was often booed by the Boston crowd. "Those little things Scal did turned 30 points losses into 22-point losses," Smith wrote, "that makes his value harder to appreciate." Robbie Hummel is doing those things. Robbie Hummel is turning 30 points losses into 22-point losses. Despite what a cynic might claim, that's worth something, even on a team destined for one of the bottom 2 spots in the league. By the time that the Big 3 was assembled in Boston, Scalabrine was ready to once again give everything he had to the the team. That's the type of mentality that caused Kevin Garnett to say the following: "Scal is the ultimate professional athlete. I have uncanny respect for the guy ... I respect him more than anything. He's one of my favorite ex-teammates in my small 15 years [in the NBA]." That's incredibly high praise coming from a top 20 all-time player, especially when the recipient was a career 39% shooter.
Memes and tweets may mock and attempt to belittle them, but all of the championship 12th men, Madsen, Scalabrine, and Cardinal, are still NBA champions. They get one ring per championship, just like the Finals MVP. When those guys made winning plays, home arenas erupted, and it was often the loudest they got all game. Casual fans might've thought it was some sort of sardonic farce rife with ridicule, but that was never the case for the majority of fans.
Their cheers were of always of unwavering, triumphant, admiration. They watched as a guy who was probably too slow, probably too short, and probably too unathletic made plays that inspired their teammates and made those around them better. They cheered because they were watching a player make small plays that every NBA player has the capacity to make, but few do. They roared because they understood that every little 2 and 4-point swing provided by those 12th men brought their team one small, but tangible, measure closer to raising the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
In the 2014 playoffs, 32 out of 89 games were decided by 5 point or less, and 9 game went into overtime. It's a fact, guys like Robbie Hummel swing championships. Maybe if the Houston Rockets had a guy who was good for 2 or 4 points in little things every game he played, things would've been different. Maybe they would've beaten the Trailblazers in regulation in Games 1 and 5, wrapping up the series without ever giving Damian Lillard the chance to plunge a dagger through their hearts. They could've used a Robbie Hummel.
In fact, I am loathe to compare Hummel to Madsen, Scalabrine, and Cardinal. While they were fantastic basketball players, in the NBA their main attributes were that they were tall and they gave great effort. Robbie is so much more than that. None of them took care of the ball like Robbie does, and none of them did as many little things as him either. At some point this year, Hummel has played something that bears a semblance to all 5 NBA position. He brought the ball up the floor and set up the offense occasionally when the Wolves' guard corp was decimated by injuries, and he even logged some time at center as well. The team is 16-64, but still, that's very impressive that a deep bench player is equipped to handle playing every position, even if the minutes come in a time of desperation. That's something that none of the aforementioned players could ever dream of doing.
Nevertheless, I unabashedly believe Hummel will one day join those champions, be it in Minnesota or for a team that appreciates everything that he does. Really, Hummel is much, much better than the 12th man role. But, for the time being, that's where he is.
As I finished the rough draft of this piece, I settled in to watch the 2nd and 4th worst teams in the NBA play before a barren Staples Center. With a minute left in the 2nd quarter, Wolves point guard Lorenzo Brown, a player hoping to catch on in a Hummel-esque role in the NBA, turned the ball over early in the shot clock around midcourt. Hummel was the only Wolf who hustled back with enough effort to be ahead of the ball and set up to take a charge right above the restricted area. He was rewarded for these efforts with a knee to the chest from Jabari Brown, who was attacking the rim on a full sprint. Massive collision, one you don't often see in a basketball game. Hummel writhed in pain where he landed, about 6 feet from where he stood his ground seconds before, clutching at his back, his face contorted in pain. After about 20 seconds he was up, grimacing but determined to continue playing in this largely meaningless game. A day later, it would be revealed that he suffered a back contusion, a very painful injury to play through that sends the vast majority of NBA players instantly to the locker room for the night.
He gutted through 8 and a half more minutes of a Wolves' 106-98 defeat, their 63rd of the year. Hummel's statline: 3 for 6, 7 points, 4 rebounds, and of course, a +6. Another Hummel masterpiece.
Robbie Hummel is the best 12th man in the NBA.
Robbie Hummel is a championship piece.