Anthony Tolliver played three minutes in the Charlotte Bobcats’ opener against the Houston Rockets, then zero the next game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then he played 27 versus the New Orleans Pelicans.
He played three minutes Nov. 11 against the Atlanta Hawks, then 26 minutes two nights later against the Boston Celtics. He never played in back-to-back games against Milwaukee and Miami, then played 26 against the Dallas Mavericks.
This yes-no-yes-no pattern tends to throw off most NBA players. It’s what Tolliver has grown accustomed to over four-plus pro seasons. It’s become his NBA “skill,” and that’s part of why the Bobcats signed him as a free agent over the off-season.
“He knows who he is,” coach Steve Clifford said Monday. “There are not many guys who can not play every night, and still play well. That’s Anthony Tolliver.”
This sounds like no big deal: If you’re an elite athlete, making millions of dollars over your career, why would you not be ready no matter how long it’s been since the coach called on you to contribute?
But that’s not how it works. Athletes – and this isn’t so different from the rest of us – are creatures of habit. If you’re used to a certain rhythm, whether it be starting or coming in five minutes into a game or whatever, you prepare accordingly and develop a pattern.
For the 6-8 Tolliver, who plays both small and power forward, there is no pattern. He’s been smart and adaptive enough to accept that.
“Coach told me he wanted someone who could play multiple positions, and play at the drop of a dime. It’s a skill. Something I’ve tried to develop,” Tolliver described. “It’s an attitude thing, too. If you prepare to play a lot, and then you don’t, it messes with your mind.
“So for me, I just have to be adaptive. I prepare as if I’ll play a lot, but if I don’t, then I’ll help along the bench, giving encouragement.”
Lately circumstance has made Tolliver more than towel-waver. He started against the Golden State Warriors on Monday because small forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (broken hand) and Jeff Taylor (inflamed heel) were both out.
Point guard Kemba Walker singled out Tolliver for praise for how well he gave help defensively against the Warriors, while still getting out to his man. He’s more a power forward who can fill in as a small forward than a small forward. But the key word is “adaptive.”
“I don’t think I ever adapted to it until middle of last year,” said Tolliver, who was then playing for the Atlanta Hawks. That’s when Tolliver realized embracing the label “utility guy” could enhance his career.
“For me, it took a long time to adjust to not knowing when you’re playing and shifting positions. It’s a big change, whether you’re playing the (power forward) or the (small forward).”
But, hey, it’s kept him in the league when players chosen in the lottery are long gone. And Monday it earned him a start.
Wednesday against the Orlando Magic? Who knows? But Tolliver has learned to adapt.
Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_Bonnell
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