Exclusive: Nuggets coach George Karl uses former Sonics player David Wingate as example for reserves

David Wingate drives on the Nuggets as Dale Ellis is caught loafing. - Brian Bahr - Getty Images

Being a reserve in the NBA can be a difficult job, but one that George Karl cautions can change in an instant.

"I can't deny that that number [19 points] was surprising -- that he got that many points," said George Karl. "But in the same sense I wasn't surprised that he could contribute."

That's what Karl told me about Evan Fournier's performance March 29th against the Brooklyn Nets. In Denver's 109-87 win, Fournier scored a team-high 19-points -- not bad for a rookie who has only appeared in spot minutes during 31 of the team's 75 games.

'You gotta stay in games, there is sometimes a window of specialty that opens up in a playoff series.' I've been in it before. -George Karl


"We get Ty Lawson injured, we get Julyan Stone injured, and we always want to manage Andre Miller's time on the floor," said assistant coach Melvin Hunt. "We say, ‘Hey, why don't we just throw Evan in at point [guard].' And he's able to play. Whether it be in practice, shoot-around, or a game - we know he's versatile enough to play different spots."

The coaching staff credits Fournier's work ethic and Karl and Hunt are quick to point out that the other reserves have done an excellent job working on their games, despite the lack of playing time. It was Fournier's recent performance and Anthony Randolph's performances against the 76ers (7 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals) and Kings (8 points and 6 rebounds) that got Karl to take a trip back in the old time machine.

"I've talked to Anthony Randolph, Timo [Timofey Mozgov], Evan, and Jordan [Hamilton] - 'I'm not afraid to play you guys,'" said Karl. "I actually talked [April 2nd] to Anthony, 'You gotta stay in games because I don't know what playoff series it could be - it could be in the first round, it could be in the second round - but there is sometimes a window of specialty that opens up in a playoff series.'

"I've been in it before," said Karl. "Like David Wingate, who never played for me in Seattle. I don't know why, but in Game 5 of a series he had to play 25 minutes and that was the final game - that was a 2-2 [series] tie. I remember after the game, the whole team gave him the ball and signed it. I don't know if it was an injury, I don't remember why he had to play, but he had to play. The guy might not have played 100 minutes during the whole regular season - that's hard to do.

"It's hard to stay engaged; it's hard to stay confident," said Karl. "Working everyday and knowing that there's probably an 85-percent chance nothing is going to happen - other than sitting on your butt - but there is that chance that you might be important. But I'm not afraid to play them, I just don't know how to coach more than nine or 10 guys - it's just too hard."

I liked hearing the Wingate story. It's a feel-good tale that should serve notice to Hamilton, Fournier, Randolph, and Mozgov to stay on top of their game. But is it true?

Karl is 61 years-young - he's 30 years my senior. I started to think about it and I have a hard time remembering things from five years ago. This Wingate story supposedly happened sometime in the 1990's when Karl was with the Sonics and when his team was playing the Phoenix Suns. Could Karl really accurately recall this Wingate tale?

I took to the interwebs to find out just how clear Karl's memory is ...

Turns out the Sonics and Suns squared off in the 1997 playoffs - 16 years ago. And it was Karl's Sonics coming out victorious in the fifth and deciding game, like Karl said (back in 1997 the first round of the playoffs was still just a five-game series).

Wingate played a bit more than the 100 regular season minutes that Karl estimated, in fact he played a total of 929 minutes for Karl during the 1996-97 regular season. Wingate averaged 14.3 minutes, 3.6 points, and 1.1 rebounds per game. But to Karl's credit, the 929 minutes represents a very small role. To wit, JaVale McGee plays 18.2 minutes per game this season and Hamilton plays 10.2 minutes per game and averages 5.4 points per game. So, Wingate was somewhere around a Hamilton-type role player for Karl.

Now the true test - did Wingate come out of nowhere in Game 5 for 25 minutes against the Suns? Yes and no.

Wingate Minutes Points Rebounds
Game 1 8 min 3 pts 0 rebs
Game 2 18 min 8 pts 4 rebs
Game 3 19 min 8 pts 2 rebs
Game 4 17 min 3 pts 1 rebs
Game 5 21 min 19 pts 10 rebs

(Interesting sidenote: that Suns team featured Kevin Johnson, Jason Kidd, Danny Manning, former Nugget Wesley Person, former Nuggets front office man Rex Chapman, and a rookie who barely played ... Steve Nash)

Karl couldn't quite recall why Wingate was forced into action during that Suns series, but with a little research I found the answer. Nate McMillan suffered a right knee injury during that Suns series that ended his season and he wasn't activated until Feb. 17th, 1998 as he recovered from said knee surgery.

The 6'5" McMillan played 20 minutes in Game 1 off the bench, 15 minutes in Game 2, just 6 minutes in Game 3, and he was unable to play in either Game 4 or 5 or in the next series against the Houston Rockets. The 6'5" Wingate replaced McMillan and played a bigger role from Game 2 on and was in the groove in that final game.

Wingate was 6-7 from the field in Game 5, including 3-3 from three-point land, and 4-6 from the foul line. He also grabbed 3 offensive rebounds, 7 defensive boards (10 total rebounds), and 2 assists. He tied Gary Payton, that night, for the third highest scoring player for the Sonics behind Detlef Schremph (24 points) and Shawn Kemp (21 points).

The Sonics ran away with Game 5, thanks in part to Wingate's performance, and won 116-92. Pretty damn good memory by Karl with all the games that have come since (he was even close on the minutes played) and a reason for the Nuggets reserves to stay focused.

"When Jordan Hamilton is called upon, Julyan Stone, all these guys - we think these guys can play," said Melvin Hunt. "Masai [Ujiri] and Josh [Kroenke] have brought in a bunch of guys that can all play. Anthony Randolph, he had a little stretch where he played and helped us win some games - he's going to help us some more. Timofey Mozgov, if you put him in a game he's going to play well. These guys work on their games."

Karl even brought up how effective Mozgov was against the Lakers last season and knows his team might need a David Wingate in the post-season this year. And with the Nuggets reserves - they shouldn't haven't a problem finding the right guy.

Nate_Timmons on Twitter
ntimmons73@yahoo.com

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