When the season started, Tiago Splitter seemed to have regressed or at least stagnated in his development. In the first ten games, he averaged 6.5 points and 3.4 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game. His field goal percentage was down to 54% from 61% last season, and in all the shuffling Pop did with the big man rotation, Tiago even fell out of favor a couple of times.
In the eleven games since, Splitter has averaged 11.7 points and 5.8 rebounds on 65.7% shooting. His minutes per game also climbed to 21.4. So what changed? Well, we can say it all began with his back to back good efforts against the Lakers, in which Tiago started, and then the Knicks, when Tiago was a huge reason why the Spurs got the lead they then squandered. Tiago got Pop's vote of confidence (and the minutes that come with it) and delivered. But that is certainly not all there is to it.
In my opinion, the biggest reason Tiago turned things around comes from the place least likely to be associated positively with Splitter: the free throw line. Against the Knicks, arguably his best game of those first ten, Tiago had five trips to the charity stripe and he converted all of them. Still, in the first portion of the season, he was shooting 57% from the line on 2.1 free throw attempts per game. Since then, he's been shooting 78% on 4.3 attempts. Tiago started playing better when he started getting to the line more often and converting at a higher rate.
Now it's impossible to know that just looking at the stats alone. Maybe Splitter started playing better and then started going to the line a lot. Watching the games, though, it's clear that perhaps for the first time since he put on a Spurs jersey, Splitter actually wants to go to the line. That mindset has clearly affected how effective he is on offense for the better. I've often complained about how Tiago doesn't get calls, but over the last few games, Splitter is making sure the contact is impossible to miss. He's been looking for fouls instead of waiting for the officials to award them to him. That makes him a much tougher cover.
I usually hate the whole psychoanalyzing players from what someone sees on a TV screen, but Tiago simply seems more confident; having a reliable free throw shot seems to be a huge part of why. I know his wrist was hurt in last season's playoffs and that type of injury can turn a poor free throw shooter into a disastrous one, but Splitter's mental state clearly played a part as well. Tiago was dreading going to the line and that affected the rest of his offensive game.
Something Manu said, as a response to a question an Argentine journalist asked him during his first season in the NBA, has always stuck with me. The question was if he was ever scared of attacking the paint against guys like Shaq. His answer was that he wasn't afraid because there were three possible outcomes to going hard to the rim: he'd make the shot, he'd get fouled, or he'd get his shot blocked. Always the math enthusiast, Manu calculated that two out of three of those possible results were positive both for him and the team, and that was enough for him to decide to keep attacking. Not long ago it seemed Tiago could conceive only one positive outcome when attacking the basket: making the shot. I believe that outlook has changed with his improved shooting from the line and is a huge reason why Tiago seems to be on his way to improving on his terrific 2011/12 campaign.
As to who to credit for this development other than Splitter himself for putting in the work, I guess I have to mention Spurs' shooting coach Chip Engelland. It's hard to believe he could have actually helped that much in the limited time Tiago was available to him, but we've seen Chip use his wizardry before. DeJuan Blair's improved shot from the line is a testament as to how much the man can help correct the form of poor shooting big men.
Now that I mentioned Blair, he's probably the best test subject for this theory of mine, that becoming a good free throw shooter can open up a young big's game. I've harped on this before, but DeJuan gets to the line a shockingly limited number of times for a guy that plays near the basket a lot and is built like he is. When Blair was shooting around 60%, it was understandable that he would attempt to contort his body to avoid contact or try to shoot over his defender instead of going hard to the rim looking for a call. But now that DeJuan is shooting 76% from the charity stripe, there's no reason for him to still go to the line a paltry three times per 36 minutes as opposed to Splitter's 6.2. Hopefully we'll start to see Blair at the line more as he starts to trust his shot.
But I digress. This is about Tiago, and how a significant improvement in the one area of the offense that is almost unrelated to the rest of the game seems to have improved his confidence. Tiago still has work to do. His rebounding and decision making on defense as to when to help and when to stay in position, for example, need to improve. Slowly, these areas are coming around. But on offense, Tiago has become an even deadlier player because teams can't simply foul him and expect him to miss a free throw. If this holds in the playoffs, it would make a world of difference to have a confident Splitter fearlessly attacking inside and getting opposing bigs in foul trouble.
Defying the predictions of the most pessimistic among us, the Spurs' big man rotation seems to have legitimately gotten better through internal development. Along with the ridiculous depth at guard, that makes the Spurs even more scary than they were last season and ready to make another deep playoff run that will, hopefully, not include any Hack-a-Splitters.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats