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The NBA’s Replacement Players Are Enjoying the Ride. They Don't Want It to End.

Called into action because of the coronavirus pandemic, some of the league’s newest faces—and a few familiar names—are proving they belong.

Two seasons after the bubble and one season after playing games in empty arenas, the NBA was supposed to return to a sense of normalcy in 2021–22. Instead, LeBron James took the floor on Christmas Day with Darren Collison and Stanley Johnson, while 40-year-old Joe Johnson drilled a pull-up jumper in his first game with the Celtics since 2002.

The reason? In December, with the highly transmissible omicron variant making its way through the country, hundreds of NBA players entered “health and safety protocols.” According to Fansure Sports, more than 280 players—over half the league—have spent time in the protocols this season, with more than 2,000 player days lost to the coronavirus.

Intent on continuing games and minimizing postponements, the NBA instituted a special hardship exception to counteract the pandemic’s impact. Teams that lost players to COVID-19 were required to add 10-day contracts to their roster, ensuring games could go on. It’s created opportunities for new faces and familiar names, some of whom could be here to stay. Here are their stories.

‘I’m here because I belong here.’

Chaundee Brown Jr.’s stint with the Lakers earlier this season was bittersweet. On Dec. 19, he scored his first NBA basket (after childhood hero LeBron James passed him the ball) and took his first NBA charge. He watched film with his all-time favorite player, Rajon Rondo, and absorbed tactical advice from Russell Westbrook, who kept reminding him to keep his hands up on defense so the refs could see them while guarding the ever-crafty DeMar DeRozan. And then, in the blink of an eye, his two-way deal was snatched away.

On Dec. 21, the Lakers let Brown know they wanted to go in a different direction; that even though he didn’t get a genuine opportunity to show what he can do, they preferred a more experienced player in his spot. It was hard for Brown to digest the news.

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“I was stressed out,” says Brown, who had appeared in five preseason games with the Lakers and played six games for their G League affiliate before making his NBA debut on Dec. 17. “I didn't know what I did wrong.”

Soon afterward, Brown flew to Florida and spent Christmas with his family. Thinking he’d be there for only two days, the 23-year-old packed just a couple of T-shirts and shorts. But at 9 a.m. the following morning, his agent called to let him know the Hawks, who had worked out Brown before the 2021 draft, wanted to sign him to a 10-day contract.

The very next night Brown logged 30 minutes, starting alongside Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanović, Clint Capela and Cam Reddish. The following day Bogdanović and Gorgui Dieng joined Hawks forward John Collins in health and safety protocols, bolstering Brown’s temporary role on the team. In Atlanta’s next game on Dec. 29, he finished with a career-high 16 points in 32 minutes.

Young later told reporters he didn’t know who his new teammates were, but by New Year’s Eve, Brown had figured out where to find his spots in Atlanta’s offense, setting screens as a small-ball four, drifting into open space along the perimeter where he knocked down a pair of fourth-quarter threes.

Brown’s future is the same as most other hardship exception signings: entirely unknown and out of his hands. Two hours after the Hawks’ team plane landed in Portland on Saturday afternoon, Brown was so mentally locked into every moment of this ride that he didn’t know what day it was. He wears a mask everywhere he goes and washes his hands constantly, doing his best to avoid a positive test. Brown knows it could end before he’s ready for it to. But, he says, “It’s also like a blessing because I worked so hard to get here, and now I’m actually in the moment and actually playing with some of the best players in the world.

“I always try to tell myself during the game that it’s just basketball. I tell myself I’m here because I belong here.”

A memorable Christmas present

When Quinndary Weatherspoon signed his 10-day contract with the Warriors on Dec. 23, he wasn’t sure if or when he would see the court. But Christmas came right on time for Weatherspoon, as Golden State threw him into the fire during their Dec. 25 matchup against the Suns.

Weatherspoon’s minutes were so unexpected he didn’t even tell his family he could play against Phoenix. (Fortunately, they were watching the game, anyway.) Weatherspoon played 14 minutes, hitting all three of his shots for six points, adding a block, a steal, a rebound, a turnover and four fouls for good measure. He was tasked with hounding Devin Booker and picking up Chris Paul 94 feet from the basket.

“It was my first game on Christmas; it was just a special moment,” Weatherspoon says. “I tried to do everything I could to take advantage of it.”

Playing against Paul was particularly memorable for the 25-year-old guard, who grew up attending CP3’s basketball camps. After honing his skills under the tutelage of the Point God, Weatherspoon spent four years at Mississippi State, making first-team All-SEC his senior season. The Spurs selected Weatherspoon with the 49th pick in the 2019 draft. But he appeared in only 31 games across two seasons with San Antonio, spending the majority of his time in the G League on a two-way contract.

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The Warriors scooped up Weatherspoon in October and signed him to their own G League affiliate. That proved to be especially fortuitous for Weatherspoon, as part of his time in Santa Cruz was spent battling with Klay Thomspon, who was on a rehab assignment working his way back from a torn Achilles.

“Me and Klay got close,” Weatherspoon says. “I just wanted to make it as hard as possible for him, trying to help him get back in game shape, make him see the type of defense he would see. I was just doing my part.”

The “friendly competition” between Weatherspoon and Thompson helped raise the former’s profile. According to Weatherspoon, Thompson even relayed to the Dubs’ coaching staff how practicing against him in the G League was helping him get back in shape. After his Christmas Day stint against the Suns, Weatherspoon earned plaudits from Stephen Curry and Otto Porter Jr. On Jan. 3, the Warriors signed him to a two-way contract, a nice pay bump from his G League deal.

“It takes a lot of pressure off,” Weatherspoon says about going from a 10-day to a two-way. “Playing in the G, everybody’s just trying to make it out. Having a two-way, it helps me a lot in the mental space. I can work with the team on the things I need to get better at.”

Weatherspoon hasn’t seen much action since his run against the Suns, but he’s the latest in a line of role players who’ve thrived alongside Curry and Draymond Green. The organization is clearly willing to give its younger players some opportunities, as they’ve done with Gary Payton II and Jonathan Kuminga, but for now, Weatherspoon is happy to be a cog in the larger machine.

“Everybody knows their role, everybody knows what they’re supposed to do every single day, that’s what makes the team so much better,” Weatherspoon says. “It makes it easier playing around great players. Everybody talks about Klay and Steph and their scoring, but the little things sometimes stick out, too.”

Kyle Guy

Kyle Guy wants the league to know that help is just a call away.

How the Heat found their Guy

Shortly before he was set to travel to Las Vegas for the G League showcase, Kyle Guy tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, four teams contacted him about signing a 10-day contract but, of course, he had to turn them all down. By the time he was out of quarantine, everyone initially interested had already filled their slots, so the 24-year-old guard had no choice but to wait by his phone, while his season with the Cleveland Charge was on pause.

On the surface, the timing of his positive test could not have been worse. Then Guy got a call from his agent at 11 p.m. asking whether he could catch a flight to Texas the following morning. The Heat wanted to use one of their hardship exceptions on him. The news was so sudden that Guy wasn’t even able to pack his own sneakers, which were at the practice facility. (He bought a new pair after his flight landed.)

“Divine timing, it worked out the way it was supposed to,” Guy says. “I think the Heat needed me probably a little bit more than those other teams. And the fact that I’m playing so much is a representation of that. I’m not upset that I got [COVID-19] when I did anymore.”

The fit has been snug. Before stepping into this 10-day, Guy had 34 NBA games and 13 threes under his belt. In three games with the Heat, he’s drilled eight threes on just 16 tries, earning Erik Spoelstra’s attention after that first game. “How I’m playing is what they’re asking me to do,” he says. “If they asked me to never shoot and just pass the ball, I would do it. And I would do it to the best of my ability. But luckily what they want me to do is what I’m best at.”

Guy has taken to his new coach’s intensity, how Spoelstra constantly reminds the team during their walk-throughs that they have everything in their locker room needed to win. He also said the organization’s culture reminds him of the same underdog mentality he embraced as a national champion at the University of Virginia. “Kyle Lowry says it before every game: It doesn’t matter how many 10 days we have, or if we only have four players,” Guy says. “The Heat are out here to win.”

To prepare for moments like this and help stay present during such a high-stress time, Guy, who’s battled anxiety attacks, spent his offseason studying Wim Hof breathing exercises and meditation with his trainer. As well as he’s played, Guy knows the Heat are a championship-contending team with a loaded roster. He acknowledges he may not stick around for the entire season. But he believes this experience has allowed him to showcase all he can offer at the highest level.

“Ten-days are an audition for 29 other teams, and for the Heat in the future,” Guy says. “I don’t want to be anywhere I’m not wanted. I’ve already had to deal with that in the league. ... I know what I deserve and what I’m about.”

From 2010 lottery pick to veteran journeyman, Greg Monroe is grateful to be back in the NBA.

From 2010 lottery pick to veteran journeyman, Greg Monroe is grateful to be back in the NBA.

The former lottery pick who stayed ready

Greg Monroe had not competed in an NBA game since his Sixers were defeated by the Raptors in Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals. As Kawhi Leonard’s corner three jostled its way through the rim, the last thing on Monroe’s mind was the fact that his career might be in jeopardy. He saw himself as a skilled big on the right side of 30 with nearly a decade of NBA experience and plenty left to offer.

Instead, Monroe spent the next two and a half years playing overseas and in the G League. It wasn’t until last week that he got the news he’d been waiting for. Walking out of the Washington Go-Go’s practice facility following a workout on the day after Christmas, Monroe received a call from his agent: The Timberwolves had interest in signing him to a 10-day contract.

The 6' 11" center immediately drove home, packed, and, the next morning, found himself on a 7 a.m. flight to Minneapolis. When he landed in Minnesota, he took a COVID-19 test and arrived at Target Center around 4 p.m. A few hours later, he tallied 11 points, six assists and nine rebounds in 25 minutes of action.

Monroe, now 31, credits his 12 G League games this season for helping him stay ready and recapturing the game rhythm that otherwise wouldn’t be there. “We came in every day, we tried to get better, we worked on things we needed to work on,” he says. “We’re trying to win games, you know, so I wouldn’t be here without experiencing that. Who knows? I might be back down there with them [soon]. But it’s all part of the process. I’m grateful for the experience.”

Apart from familiarizing himself with a few new names and faces, reacclimation hasn’t been too difficult on the larger stage. In Minnesota’s system, Monroe’s only concern was making sure he didn’t mess up the flow in a league that generally operates with even more space than it did the last time he was in it. But in many ways it’s like riding a bike. “The game is more open and stuff like that,” he says. “For me it’s more so just being available to make plays for others, playing off of these guys. You know, it’s still pick-and-roll. It’s still the same game.”

Carving out a productive role in the NBA won’t be easy given his defensive limitations and inability to space the floor, but that doesn’t mean he can’t provide positive value. Monroe is an arbiter of state secrets, a gracious book of big man wisdom that young Timberwolves teammates (like Nathan Knight) have taken advantage of. Monroe’s first three games back were against three elite shot blockers: Robert Williams III, Mitchell Robinson and Rudy Gobert. Throughout those matchups, he slipped Knight a few tricks to offset their aggression and help make finishing around the basket a bit easier.

At the forefront of Monroe’s mind, though, as someone who just flew into a locker room that had several players test positive for COVID-19, he knows landing in health and safety protocols could actually end his NBA career. Before he signed another 10-day contract with the Wizards on Wednesday, Monroe stayed in a Minneapolis hotel and didn’t spend any time outside his room or the hotel’s gym when he wasn’t with the team.

“I’ve definitely been trying as much as I can to just stay safe and not do anything more than I have to do outside of basketball,” he says. “And it’s kinda working so far, so I’m just sticking to it.”

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History in 180 seconds

When Jaime Echenique checked in for his first career NBA game on Dec. 30, he recorded zero points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, fouls and turnovers in three minutes. He also made history. Echenique, who signed a 10-day contract with the Wizards that same day, became the first Colombian-born player to appear in a regular-season game during his stint against the Cavaliers.

“You have a dream, and when it comes true, I don’t know how to explain it,” Echenique says about his first taste of NBA action. “It’s such an amazing feeling, you can’t describe it. But obviously I’m not satisfied with that. I want more.”

Echenique was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, and didn’t move to the United States until 2016. He says he didn’t watch a full NBA game before moving to the U.S. He played two years at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas before transferring to Wichita State for his final two seasons of college ball. Initially, Echenique didn’t speak a word of English, only able to communicate with his teammates through what he called “the English of Basketball.”

Echenique’s parents were happy to see their son pursue his dream, but it was more important for them that he secure his education before his basketball career.

“My parents are coming from really low socioeconomic environments,” Echenique says. “For them, success is going to school, graduating from university, and all this kinds of stuff. They want me to be somebody educated. I proposed to them a different way, and they were a little bit [resistant] about it because they didn’t know nothing about sports.

“When I graduated from Wichita State, they were like, now you can do anything you want.”

Echenique went back to Texas to work out, facing stars such as James Harden and Russell Westbrook, which he admitted brought out the fan in him. He then spent a year overseas in Spain, where his awe was replaced by the realization that he was competing for something with other grown men. Echenique joined the Wizards for Summer League last August and was starring for Washington’s G League affiliate in December (putting up 12.6 points and 9.2 rebounds a night) before he was finally called up to the NBA squad. After signing his 10-day contract, he cried in his car in the parking lot of the Wizards’ practice facility.

Echenique, 24, is still somewhat raw as a prospect, considering he’s only played basketball since he was 13. He says he’s gotten plenty of encouragement from his new Wizards teammates, including Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma, who are trying to ensure he makes the most of his opportunity.

While Echenique certainly wants more, he’s already overcome barriers nobody else from his country has before.

“Man, being Latino, being Colombian, being an immigrant, people are going to doubt your talent. People are going to doubt what you bring to the table,” Echenique says. “The obstacles has been all my life. This says a lot for the community.”

Davon Reed

Davon Reed has earned three 10-day contracts with the Nuggets.

From Taipei to Denver

By the fall of 2020, Davon Reed had appeared largely in garbage time across 31 games over two seasons for the Suns and Pacers. He had even spent a year in the G League, signing with the Heat affiliate Sioux Falls Skyforce in 2019, never getting called up to the big club despite posting some impressive numbers. So when Reed’s agent presented him with the opportunity to play in Taiwan for the ’20–21 season, he was excited about the chance to play somewhere he would be counted on.

“It was really a blessing because I was finally able to get back to having the ball in my hands,” Reed says. The former Miami guard lived 20 minutes out of Taipei (and added he was impressed with the country’s restaurant options for his pescatarian diet). “Playing in Taiwan gave me a chance to find my confidence. I found my game again offensively.”

With his reignited confidence, Reed explored every avenue to get back into the NBA. In July, he played with fellow Miami alums for Category 5 in The Basketball Tournament, before joining the Nuggets for Summer League and training camp. Though he didn’t make the roster at the time, Denver coach Michael Malone said then that Reed belonged in the NBA.

He wouldn’t have to wait long to get a phone call from the Nuggets. With Denver reeling from both injuries and COVID-19, the Nuggets signed Reed to a 10-day contract on Dec. 4. He immediately made an impact, appearing in six games and helping the depleted Nuggets to a 4–2 record. On Dec. 19, Reed signed a second 10-day deal. And on Dec. 30, he inked his third. There’s buzz about Denver signing Reed for the rest of the season.

Through 11 games, Reed has averaged 17.7 minutes a night, chipping in 4.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists a game. He’s started twice and played key stretches of the fourth quarter in multiple games. His three-point shooting (36.8% so far) has shown promise, as has his defensive tenacity on the perimeter. Despite relishing his role on the ball in his last job, Reed knows his success in the NBA will rely on his being able to fit in.

“I’m here to promote winning, and at the end of the day, I’m good with whatever my team needs me to do to win,” Reed says, as coaches everywhere nod in agreement. “I’m still figuring out and learning where to pick my spots, when to be more aggressive. But I’ve always been that sacrificial piece. If we’re winning and I’m contributing, whether it’s scoring, defending, making plays for others, I’m good.”

Reed, 26, says he’s still getting used to consistent reps in the NBA, something he’s never had until his three consecutive 10-day contracts. He’s getting to do so by playing next to reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, who he describes as one of the best basketball players he’s ever been on the floor with. There’s no guarantee Reed finishes this season with Denver, but at the very least, he’s put enough valuable play on film to make him attractive to one of the other 29 teams in the league.

“I’ve always had an underdog story. Everybody’s always catching on late,” Reed says. “That’s how my whole career been.

“I’m looking forward to continuing to show what I can really do, because it’s just getting started.” 

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