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The Ballad of Robbie Hummel, Backup Center

Nov 8, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) is pressured by Minnesota Timberwolves forward Robbie Hummel (4) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 102-92. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

There are cynics out there ready to call an article celebrating a smart, hardworking and selfless white guy who usually lives at the end of the bench due to his physical limitations as being trite, hackneyed drivel, but trust me, Robbie Hummel is the real thing. His teammates respect him, coaches love him and fans pull for him, and what does he get in return? This season, gets to guard much bigger, heavier and stronger players.

With the Wolves missing Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf due to injuries, and with fellow power forward Thad Young missing several games recently following the death of his mother, Flip Saunders has been forced to turn to the 6’8, 215 pound Hummel to play centerwhen Gorgui Dieng (the only healthy center on the roster) needs a break. A former Honorable Mention All-American and All-Big Ten player, Hummel’s value comes from his versatility. Last season, he made an emergency spot start in place of Kevin Martin at shooting guard, and has also spent time at small forward and as a stretch-four in his NBA career. This season, the shortage of bodies has necessitated that Hummel’s versatility extend all the way to time at the five.

“It’s just one of those things where we’re shorthanded,” Hummel said after a recent game against the Milwaukee Bucks. “A lot of guys are playing out of position, which makes it tough, but we’re still playing hard.” There are times when Hummel shares the floor with power forward Anthony Bennett while Dieng rests, meaning Hummel isn’t always left alone to deal with opposing bigs on his own, but it’s happened often enough to leave an impression. “(The matchups) are all tough,” he said. “(Larry) Sanders was tough, Amar’e (Stoudemire) was tough. You give up a lot of size and weight. You just make do with what you’ve got. I can’t add 30 pounds overnight.”

Teams sometimes adjust when Hummel enters the game at center, seizing the opportunity (or matching the Wolves’ personnel) by going extra small. The Kings, for example, played Carl Landry at the five during one recent stretch against Hummel and the Pelicans did the same with Ryan Anderson. But for every stretch like that, there have been ones against Brendan Wright, DeAndre Jordan and the aforementioned Larry Sanders.

Despite the unfavorable matchups, Hummel is allowing 56.3% of opponents’ shots at the rim to fall, which is hardly ideal, but is still better than Gorgui Dieng (61.1%) or Nikola Pekovic (59.3%) have been able to muster. Among players who have played at least 100 minutes this season, he’s 3rd on the team in Net Rating (-8.3 points per 100 possessions) and 1st in True Shooting percentage (55.7%). And it isn’t as though his advanced numbers were padded because he shared a ton of time on the floor with Ricky Rubio prior to his injury; they’ve spent a total of 3 minutes on the court together.

All of the injuries have made the Timberwolves tough to watch at times. Missing three of their top players for extended stretches, they’ve posted the 2nd-worst Net Rating in the NBA, they shoot a ton of midrange jumpers, and only one team (the Kings) shoot fewer threes per game. But beyond that, it’s tough to watch consummate professionals like Hummel or Corey Brewer (who has played some point guard) put in unfavorable positions game after game. Yes, it’s part of his job, but watching a guy like Hummel play out of position or against bigger, stronger players on a nightly basis takes its toll, and I imagine the extra bumps and bruises have Robbie feeling the same way.

Once Jeff Adrien, who Minnesota signed using their hardship exception, is up to speed, the days of Hummel at center might be over. But according to the coach, his willingness to do what the team needs him to do hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Robbie will do anything you ask,” Saunders said. “He’ll play center, he’ll play the four, the three, the two. He’s always ready to play. That’s why a lot of the players have a great respect for him, just because he’s ready to do whatever the team needs him to do.”

Hopefully soon, Hummel will be able to get back to his comfort zone – pick and pops, corner threes, swinging the ball and playing smart team defense against someone who is roughly his own size. Until then, chances are you’ll find him as the tallest guy on the floor with the Wolves’ second unit, mixing it up with the likes of  Nerlens Noel, Tarik Black, Aron Baynes and Marreese Speights, which doesn’t sound like fun, but he’ll do it, because that’s what the team is asking him to do.

William Bohl