Free agency is a weird time for players, team officials and fans. We all fantasize of some weird sign-and-trade that brings that desired piece to San Antonio, but in the end, it's just that: a fantasy. At least it is to everyone but a select few who actually do get those big fish. With the Spurs the frustration sometimes is more pronounced, as there haven't been big free agent signings for some time. The last I can remember being somewhat high profile was Antonio McDyess' arrival and even that was overshadowed by Rasheed Wallace signing with Boston.
This past off-season, it looked like the Spurs might try to bring Euroleague standout Erazem Lorbek over from Europe, but that fell through when he signed with FC Barcelona. So instead of shaking things up just for the sake of making a move, the Spurs stuck with the roster that dominated the second half of the 2011/12 season, and resigned Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills. Good, but not too exciting, especially considering Spurs fans have been waiting for that athletic big for years now.
But somewhat lost in the shuffle, the Spurs managed to convince Nando De Colo, their 2011 second round pick, to make the jump to the NBA for the bi-annual exception. De Colo wasn't exactly a star in Europe but he was playing for a Euroleague team and had responsibilities as one of the team's most featured offensive players. Unfortunately, his lack of ideal physical tools and the fact that the Spurs had five guards already in tow made the signing seem redundant at worst and the type of low impact move teams roll the dice with, at best.
The fanbase was not happy, which is understandable considering the positional overlap at guard, the perceived need for a front court player and Nando's interesting but less than impressive resume. But a handful of games were enough for the French combo guard to win the Spurs' faithful over and even get one of the biggest compliments a player can get from Spurs fans: comparisons to Manu. Surprisingly, those are not entirely off base.
Manu's per game stats (first row) from his first 32 games in the league vs Nando's per game stats so far (second row)
Manu's per 36 minutes stats (first row) from his first 32 games in the league vs Nando's per 36 minutes stats so far (second row)
Manu's advanced stats (first row) from his first 32 games in the league vs Nando's advanced stats so far (second row)
Nando has been, statistically, better than Manu in his first 32 games. Of course there are a million caveats, the biggest one being that Manu was playing close games while most of Nando's minutes have come in blowouts; that alone should provide some context. Manu was slashing to the rim and finishing at a high clip while Nando gets to the hoop less and is usually assisted. There's just a disparity in athleticism and a difference in playing styles between the two that will never be bridged. Nando De Colo is not as promising a player as a 25-year-old Manu. In fact, to my eyes, 25-year-old Nando De Colo is much more like 35-year-old Manu. They both have an uncanny ability to make strange, spectacular plays and they both have natural passing instincts matched by only a few players in the league.
But let's compare De Colo to his rookie peers. He ranks 5th among rookies in assist percentage, behind Damian Lillard, 35-year-old pure point guard Pablo Prigioni, Brian Roberts and Alexey Shved. He's 4th in true shooting percentage behind three big men and 5th in steal percentage. Unfortunately, he's also the most turnover prone of all first-year men, and that's what's holding him back from getting more minutes.
But hidden in those numbers is the fact that the Spurs have, once again, managed to turn less than stellar assets into a guy that has shown signs of potentially becoming an impact player thanks to his passing instincts, disruptive off-the-ball defense and surprisingly efficient scoring. Again, they selected him with the 53rd pick and brought him over for pennies and he has helped the team so far and will only get better. When people wonder how the Spurs have stayed relevant for so long, it's signings like this they should be pointed to. Usually, free agent acquisitions are about making a push to improve in the immediate future. The Spurs, knowing that their resources weren't enough to make such a signing and that they might not actually need one that bad after a great season, ignored perceived positional needs and got a young player with some upside that can contribute when used now but could grow into something special.
De Colo could end up being simply too mistake prone to get big minutes in the long run or could end up a Shved-Rubio combination that helps make the Spurs even more versatile (and scary) on offense than they already are -- perhaps as soon as next season. I know it's early, but my hopes for De Colo right now sit between just a simple role player and a star. There's be a place between Parker/Ginobili, and another uncovered gem like Gary Neal, where I think Nando Calrissian will eventually settle.
Maybe these high expectations are setting De Colo up to disappoint but I can't help but get excited about his prospects when he shows poise and talent in the few high stress situations he's been a part of. Not to mention his professionalism at accepting a much reduced role. De Colo will never be Manu and could just end up being a marginal player, but as far as quiet free agent signings that even the fanbase wasn't too sure about, you can't do better than De Colo. Let's hope he plays himself into a consistent role and keeps growing as a player. I, along with every Spurs fan and people who like unpredictable, fun, talented guards will certainly be watching.