Role players are important for a team. Not in the amount of usage or focus per say, but in providing the intangibles every team requires for success. So far, and once again, Gary Neal is establishing himself as an important role player.
Though, in his own right, usually a high three point proficient scorer, at this time the team as a whole is shooting below average in three point efficiency. That should improve as the season matures. As of now, minutes per game are a couple of minutes less than his average from a year ago, yet his shooting efficiency is a higher rate at .582. Neal is, at this point, the second most efficient scorer on the team. Needless to say, he’s off to a good start. Other positive signs are Neal’s personal fouls being down by three tenths per game. Perhaps a small sample being so young in the season, but none the less an important development which, if continued, affords Popovich to have at his disposal, a player ready to insert in case others may encounter foul trouble or cannot play. Also worth noting, his assists per game are slightly up while recording less time on the court, as rebounds have remained essentially the same with less duration on the floor.
But what stands out yet again for Gary Neal, besides his offense contributions, is his professional demeanor. Throughout his basketball life he’s been asked, if not forced, to change. Whether it was environment, style of play, or expectation of a coach, Neal has faced the adversity and trials only to improve and provide. This undrafted player out of Towson University first caught the attention of the Spurs while producing record scoring numbers in Europe. In his first season with the Spurs, Gary did not disappoint in his role as a back up shooting guard establishing a .451 FG% and nailing 3’s at a click marginally above 40%. What more could be asked from a rookie whose primary directive was to come off the bench and score?
Year Two A Different Role
The following season Neal was again asked to adapt. Being inserted into one of the most difficult positions to play in the NBA, Gary was plunged into the role of back up point guard after T.J. Ford suffered a career ending injury. Surprisingly, though at first Neal expectedly struggled with his placement in that capacity, he eventually performed dutifully productive while the Spurs established the best record in the league. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if he totally failed compared to a talented rich, point guard NBA. However, Gary did an admirable job executing best he could his newly dictated responsibilities while also maintaining his proficient scoring numbers. Indications so far this year, Neal has improved over last season in that position while, at the same time, increasing his scoring efficiency. What the Spurs have now with Neal’s abilities and improvements is diversity of placing him, with confidence, playing either shooting or point guard.
Defending the Lack of Defense
Present company included, Gary Neal is not the best perimeter defender on the Spurs. Present company included is Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Patty Mills. All of whom are good to above average defenders in this league, but that doesn’t mean Neal is the worst defender in the league. Body position, improper angles, and lack of lateral quickness have all contributed to Neal’s difficulty contending faster, more experienced players, but Gary has provided durable defense in the absence of those qualities. He’s a tough defender when positioned correctly, often taking the brunt of finely timed charges called against the opponent as well as being difficult to post up against by other teams guards and being a good defensive rebounder for his position.
This year, what we are witnessing early, if even slight, are improvements in Neal’s ability to defend overall. And compared to last season, be it miniscule, it benefits the team, Neal, and Pop’s ability to position line ups that can help mask more easily any deficiencies Gary may still possess in defending. As to what extent improvements in that area will peak are yet to be proven, but as Neal has consistently demonstrated during the course of his basketball career, he’s taken every challenge head on and succeeded in cultivating a positive result. He’s grown toward being an NBA player opponents have to adjust their defense against. Yet if Neal was to be traded, I would hope it were for a player with as much potential and proven professional attitude befitting of his departure for a player the Spurs could use as often, with as much positive impact.
So, taking everything into account, you can be assured Neal will remain the consummate professional and adaptation doesn’t seem to be a difficult challenge for this diverse and grounded member of the roster. Presently £r’s, I would consider it lucky to have him on the team; fortunate for his positive contributions; and hopefully, continued improvements from the changing of this guard.