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Throughout Anthony Edwards’ Absence, Wolves’ ‘Next Man Up’ Mentality Has Been Key

Wolves’ rotation pieces Naz Reid, Troy Brown Jr., Nickeil Alexander-Waker and Shake Milton. have taken this classic sports cliché to heart and made it a part of their identity while playing without star guard Anthony Edwards.

In-Season Tournament - Sacramento Kings v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards went down on November 28 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, no one knew how the team would respond.

I was at that game, during which Ant rose up for a thunderous jam late in the third quarter, only for Jaylin Williams to slide under him to try and draw a charge. Edwards’ knee went into Williams’ chest and the former No. 1 overall pick came crashing to the floor, landing hard on his right side. The crowd let out a collective “oooh,” before then holding their breath in dead silence as they watched him writhe in pain beneath the hoop. You could hear a pin drop in the Target Center.

As Ant was helped off the court, and fans hoped for the best, the collective mind turned back towards the game at hand with one burning question in mind: Who will step up in Edwards’ absence?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Luckily for Timberwolves fans, that answer would not have to continue in the long-term as Ant was diagnosed with a right hip pointer which usually does not sideline players for an extended period, but there was concern over how the offense would fare without one of its primary cogs in the proverbial wheel.

While the four games after the Thunder were against some of the more lackluster teams in the NBA – the Utah Jazz, Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies – there was still cause for concern because of how phenomenal Ant has been this season. He is averaging 24.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists. Those are not stats that are easily replicated by one plug-and-play guy off the bench. It would have to be a team effort in order for the Wolves to continue their dominant play and dismantle these lesser opponents – something we know from last season is not a given.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Rest of the OKC Thunder Game: Troy Brown Jr.

The team effort to attempt to replace Anthony Edwards started the second that he went down during this Thunder game. When Edwards exited, the Timberwolves were trailing by four with more than a quarter left to play. Ant’s hot streak earlier in the quarter got them back into the game but they needed someone to step up if they were to beat an OKC team right behind them in the standings.

Enter Troy Brown Jr.

Up until this point, Troy Brown Jr. had effectively been out of the rotation. He would only get garbage time minutes at the end of games with bench reserves. But, with Anthony Edwards out, he was thrust into a prominent role for a team that needed a spark. And boy, did he deliver.

TBJ scored 17 points on 5/6 shooting from the field including 12 points in the fourth quarter alone. He made a deep 3 from Duluth (thanks, Mr. Grady) with 1:39 left on the clock to raise the lead to five and then a minute later finished a circus layup to keep that lead down the stretch. It was a gutsy performance that basically solidified his place in the rotation. This was the first entry into the Timberwolves book on the “Next Man Up”mentality.

Utah Jazz: Nickeil Alexander-Walker

Coming off of that close matchup against the Thunder, the Wolves were set to matchup with a familiar trade partner from the last year and a half: the Utah Jazz. Utah came into the game very shorthanded, missing their best player in Lauri Markkanen and microwave scorer Jordan Clarkson. These were the matchups that plagued Minnesota throughout the entirety of the 22-23 campaign as they made a habit of playing to the level of their competition... Not this time.

While the Jazz put up a good fight in the first half, a 35-point scoring outburst for Minnesota in third quarter — in which the Wolves outscored Utah by 16 — crushed a young Jazz group’s spirit and allowed the Timberwolves to breeze to an 11-point victory. Many might think that this game was a revenge game for the likes of Rudy Gobert or Mike Conley but it was Nickeil Alexander-Walker who stole the show (and got revenge of his own against his former team). NAW stuffed the stat sheet with 20 points, seven dimes, five boards, five steals and two blocks in a masterclass of turning defense into offense.

TBJ effectively passed the torch to NAW from Tuesday to Thursday and thus completed the second entry of what has turned into a fairly long book for the Timberwolves already this season.

Charlotte Hornets: Naz Reid

Coming off these back-to-back shorthanded(ish) wins, the Wolves headed to the mid-Atlantic to take on the LaMelo Ball-less Charlotte Hornets. This game was much closer than it should have been and yet the sentiment remained the same: Next Man Up.

Nickeil and Troy Brown Jr. were gracious enough to induct a new member into their club: Naz Reid. Although to be fair, if we are looking at the whole season and not just these four games, Naz would be founder and president of the “offense off the bench” club.

All members of the three-headed unicorn came to play in this one, but it was Big Jelly who came up huge and provided a much needed spark off the bench. Knocking down threes, finishing around the rim, in-and-out dribbling, you name it. It was Naz Reid doing Naz Reid things. In a game where they were not at their best, every single point mattered and No. 11 contributed 23 of them on an efficient 9/14 night from the floor.

Memphis Grizzlies: Shake Milton

Yes I know that there was a game in between the Hornets matchup and this one, but Ant did play against the Spurs, so we are going to skip it. And let’s give a shout out Mike Conley for the 18-piece, too.

While Edwards returned against the Spurs, he was clearly not himself. He finally gained some traction late and helped Minnesota pick up a win against a sub-par San Antonio squad. We all thought that he was rusty and next game would be better! Unfortunately that would not be the case. Ant started the game and logged four minutes before re-aggravating his hip injury and being ruled out the rest of the game. The question of who would step up — which had briefly been cast aside — returned nearly as quickly as it had gone away.

If anyone reading this has run a track relay, they know that there are four legs to any race and they are ran by all different people. Troy, Nickeil and Naz had done their part and it was time to hand the baton to an unlikely closer: Shake Milton.

If you have watched the Timberwolves as religiously as I have, you know that Shake has left a lot to be desired this season. His shot has been off and he has been turning the ball over at a rate that is much higher than anyone’s liking – including his own. However, one of the funniest and best things about basketball is that all of a sudden, on some random Friday night in December, any given player can just have “it”. This was Milton’s time to shine. Shake went for 17 points on 6/9 shooting including, a trio of 3-pointers en route to a 24 point victory against the lowly Grizzlies. It was far and away his best game of the season and I hope it to be a springboard of his play down the stretch.

Injuries are not a pedestrian thing during an 82-game season and it is important to be solid from the top down. We hear the term “Next Man Up mentality” constantly throughout all of pro sports. It is a mantra that while cliché is ever-present as the injury bug rears its ugly head and wreaks havoc on the majority of teams in the league at one point or another. While we all hope that no one ever gets injured, especially for our favorite teams, it is an unavoidable reality that must be taken into consideration when constructing a roster.

The Timberwolves have ingrained this into the fabric of their identity this season and effectively navigated injuries during this first quarter mark of the year. This ability for different players to step up when needed is what good teams do. The Wolves do not win all four of these games without the contributions of these role players and it is very important to recognize those individuals for their help in giving the Wolves the best record in the NBA this season.

With that I have one final thing to say. Let’s keep it going!