On Monday night, newly-signed Minnesota Timberwolves big man Greg Monroe became the 541st NBA player to suit up for a game this season, breaking an all-time record. Drafted seventh overall in 2010, Monroe hadn’t played in an NBA game since 2019. Leading up to Monday’s matchup against the Celtics, Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch was asked how many minutes Monroe could provide.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask him,” Finch admitted. “I just met him about 30 minutes ago.”
In 2021, COVID-19 has proved to be the most difficult obstacle for all 30 NBA organizations. As of Wednesday morning, over 120 players are in the league’s health and safety protocols, either testing positive for the virus or coming in close contact with a positive individual. Nine games in December were postponed after teams simply didn’t have enough players to suit up. Others were played as usual despite shorthanded lineups—the Magic defeated the Nets on December 18, a game that saw 17 players available between the two teams.
Some teams have been more affected than others, but one thing remains true across the NBA. Players are getting second chances to prove themselves at the highest level.
Like Monroe, veterans have proved vital in teams’ day-to-day fight to stay afloat in this year’s increasingly dicey season. The Lakers signed Isaiah Thomas, Stanley Johnson, and Darren Collison to 10-day contracts to fill the gaps in their COVID-depleted roster. Thomas (now with the Dallas Mavericks) and Collison have been space-fillers, but Johnson made a legitimate impact on Christmas Day against the Brooklyn Nets. The former lottery pick stuck to James Harden like glue in the fourth quarter, playing valuable minutes that impressed interim head coach David Fizdale.
“I don’t know if we even could’ve [played small] if Stanley wasn’t here,” Fizdale said. “The way [the Nets] run the floor and the way they run their routes. You see Patty Mills. He never stops. He’s made his career on that motor, but we figured it out early on that this isn’t a game for our bigs tonight.”
The Boston Celtics drafted Joe Johnson tenth overall in 2001, giving him a 48-game audition before dealing him to Phoenix the next February. Twenty years and over 20,000 career points later, Johnson returned to Boston on December 22 on a 10-day deal. He suited up that same day, sinking his trademark mid-range jumper for two points in the fourth quarter of a win against the Cavaliers.
While the 40-year-old Johnson may be relegated to garbage-time minutes, his presence should be extremely beneficial in Boston’s locker room. At 16-18, the Celtics have been marred by inconsistent play and selfish basketball from their two-star core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Johnson can dole out some wisdom and provide his experience with chemistry issues.
Opportunities haven’t been limited to the vets, though. Myles Powell, a former four-year Seton Hall mainstay with the most 3-pointers in school history, signed a deal with the Knicks after going undrafted in 2020. He held his own playing for their G League affiliate in Westchester over the last two seasons, patiently awaiting the day that he would suit up in the pros.
Last weekend, the call finally came. The Philadelphia 76ers had signed Powell to a two-way contract, and he would suit up for his first NBA game on December 20. Though he played eight minutes without recording a stat, he was beyond ecstatic to take the court.
“I got to play with the Blue Coats for a game, and then right after, we flew out, and I was here," Powell said. "So that happened within probably the last 72 hours. It's been a dream come true, though. If I could do it all over again, I would. Like I said, it's definitely something I'll be able to tell my family and my kids about."
COVID-19 is a pervasive and ever-changing situation that the NBA has been forced to adapt to. But it’s also been a boon for so many players that never would have imagined reaching the big stage. It’s clear that these “replacements” will be essential in a war of attrition that the league has never seen before.