An offseason addition that many, including myself, underrated was the acquisition of 26-year old rookie Gary Neal. His summer camp performance caught the eyes of many as he was lights-out from 3 point range. As one who's been proclaiming "more 3-point shooters, we need more!", I was really pulling from him to make the team.
Sure enough, Gary Neal was given a contract and made a member of the San Antonio Spurs. I was elated, but also a tad ho-hum. Neal had just came over from Europe, no NBA experience, and a small sample size of success. Plus, Popovich is notorious for stashing such players into the D-league system, sometimes to never be heard from again.
Yet, here we are with Neal a surprising role on the Spurs team. Some call him a good bench player who can pop some 3's. But I call that a major underestimation of just how valuable Gary Neal has been. Dare I say, he may just be our fourth most important player on the team (that's huge when you have the big-3 as the top-3). Read on to find out why.
While I don't have access to these +/- stats, PER stats, so on and so forth; nor the ability to or desire to (way too lazy) to make up charts and such, I think Gary Neal's impact goes beyond the stat lines.
I had one concern at the beginning of the season. With Ginobili and Blair now starters, i wondered about how well the second unit would do without their leaders last year. Ginobili was that dynamic point scorer that torched tired first units and nowhere near as talented second units, while Blair brought a consistent rebounder and post scorer.
Without those two on the second unit, I feared for the potency of BAM. However, Gary Neal has proven me wrong (as well as great contributions from Bonner and Hill of course). What Neal does, is he brings this dynamic energy onto the court. He just goes out and turns his number of minutes played, into that number of points. 22 minutes in Dallas for 21 points, two 22 point games only a couple games ago in near the same minutes.
Ginobili did this when he was our sixth man. Now I'm not saying Neal is Ginobili incarnate, but it's a tad interesting to think of. Both are dynamic scorers, both shoot impossible looking 3's (usually decently defended), and both seem to elevate the play of others around them. Also both went to Europe for extended time before coming to the Spurs.
Neal isn't the great passer that Gino is, or the dynamic defender, but look at how defenses react when he's on the court. It usually starts off as a wave of relief for the opposing team, Gino's sitting down and some no name 26-year old rookie from Europe is coming on. Neal comes in, usually loosely defended by a guard who's gearing up to help defend on Hill, Parker, or Gino if he stays in. They get ready to back off to help, then BAM! (get it, BAM? Like the bench and the comic sound effect.....why do i bother?) A quick pass to an open Neal for a swish 3.
Now while that 3 is obviously some good points to add on the board and might get the defense backing out of the paint a bit, it also is so reliable a shot for Neal, that our offense is already back and set up on defense before the other team is even past halfcourt. Thus you see that great Spurs transition D is alive and well.
A couple possessions later, the opposing team makes the same defensive error as Neal sinks another trey. The defense now adjusts by tightening their D on Neal and not giving the help D to the other guard. Bad move, because Parker just blazed by his defender and snaked through the paint for a quick layup. There was no extra defender to cut him off and slow him down.
Later on, we see the help defense back on the guard opposite Neal. Swish! Another 3. The defense is happy to see him finally go to the bench. However, now a defense that's tired and confused from figuring out to cover Neal faces a fresh and rejuvenated Ginobili who's been watching and studying the other team. A dazed defense now faces an energetic and crafty Manu.
Around now, momentum is completely in favor of the Spurs. Gary Neal re-enters, sinks a couple 3's, and you know it's over. The game may still be in the third quarter, the score might still be close. But the other team is frustrated and making mistakes left-and-right. However, this is just a typical Spurs game versus a middle-of-the-pack team.
Against a tough Dallas team that we are basically equal with, a player like Neal, who can come in and be a threat that's very difficult to account for is vital. A player like a Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, or Matt Bonner may seem like a second or third tier player; but that's just what makes them so dangerous.
Underrated, and with a brand new wrinkle to account for that, unless you have a player with similar/greater than talent with a similar skill set, will kill your team in the course of the game. The aging Lakers can't account for Blair's high energy, most teams don't have a big man quick enough or a small forward long enough to cover Bonner, and very few teams can account for Neal without letting Parker/Ginobili/Hill get loose for a big night.