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Nine years and 10,000 points later, Jamal Crawford is NBA's top sixth man

Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Jamal Crawford (11) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs center Pau Gasol (16) during the first half at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, on Oct. 18, 2017. Soobum Im / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — It was the summer of 2009 when Jamal Crawford decided it was time for a change — even if that change involved sacrifice.

Nine years he'd been in the NBA, and while he had scored plenty of points and made a name for himself as a special scorer, there was one thing he hadn't done — played in the postseason. Crawford wanted to check that box, regardless of the route he would have to take.

So that offseason, he signed with the Atlanta Hawks, not to be a starter, but to come off the bench.

"I was like 'I'll do whatever it takes to be part of a winning team,'" Crawford said, "and then it took on a life of its own."

Nine years later, Crawford has become the preeminent sixth man of his era. He is the only player to have won three NBA Sixth Man of the Year awards. Last week against Detroit, Crawford became the second player in the past 30 years to score 10,000 career bench points. The only other player in that time to hit that milestone was Dell Curry — Steph's dad — who finished with 11,147 points off the pine.

"It's crazy when you think about it, to be honest," said Crawford, 37. "I remember when I was in Atlanta, (my coach) Mike Woodson, who was in the league for a while, said, 'I got 10,000 points in this league, son,' and I didn't have it at the time, but to have 10,000 points just off the bench is a pretty cool thing."

In total, Crawford has 18,158 career points — 10,018 off the bench, 8,140 as a starter. When he was going through free agency this summer, Crawford said a couple of teams actually wanted him to start again. "I was a little bit shocked by that," he said. Not since he went to Atlanta has he started.

Thanks, but no thanks. Crawford liked the opportunity presented to him in Minnesota, even if it meant staying on the bench.

Crawford had a few sixth men he liked growing up. He admired guys like Kevin McHale, Detlef Schrempf and Ricky Pierce. "But even then, I didn't see myself being a sixth man," Crawford said. Now that label is what defines his career.

That first game coming off the bench in Atlanta didn't go particularly well. He scored three points, but he scored 16 two nights later and rolled from there. Crawford played 31 minutes a game that first season in Atlanta, averaging 18 points for a team that won 53 games and, yes, made the playoffs.

"It's hard, honestly, to come off the bench," Crawford said. "I'm used to it now, but when you're a starter, you can go 1 for 5 at first and kind of shoot yourself into a rhythm. (Off the bench), you might go 1 for 5 and not play for the rest of the second quarter, then halftime, the start of the third quarter, you look and that's like an hour.

"So imagine you go into the Life Time (Fitness) gym, playing a game, losing, then having to sit for an hour and come back. You're like 'Oh, no.' It's a little tougher. It's definitely tougher."

And, Crawford said, every opponent in the league knows he's coming in the game to provide instant offense, yet he still has to produce, which he has.

"The thing about him is that what you like about him, every role he's had, he's really starred in that role," Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Whether he started and played 35 minutes, whether he's come off the bench and played 25 or 20, whatever comes his way, he's going to handle it. He's a pro's pro."

Thibodeau said teammates and coaches recognize the value of having that productive sixth man, but Crawford acknowledges he has made sacrifices by coming off the bench.

"Just to put it out there, if you average 20 points, you start (and) your team is decent, you probably make the All-Star Game," he said. "If you make the All-Star Game, you probably get close to a max contract and it's pretty much set, you get more commercials and all that other stuff that comes with it."

But, Crawford said, at his core, he's "just a hooper." He doesn't care if he starts or comes off the bench, he just wants to win. Maybe he has given up playing time, maybe he has sacrificed dollars, maybe his brand isn't as big as it could have been, but he's fine with all of that.

Crawford has been one of few No. 11s in the NBA recently. So he knows when he sees kids wearing that number at different levels, it's probably because of him. Maybe switching to the bench has cost Crawford some things, but he's gained a lot, too.

"For me, it's been more than worth it, absolutely," Crawford said. "It's been very fulfilling. ... Now kids are like, 'You kind of helped me come off the bench. I don't have to start.' And that wasn't even part of my journey, but it is part of my journey now."

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