It's difficult for established international stars to transition to the NBA. They often go from being adored by fans to immediate anonymity, from team leader to the end of the bench. Most players go through some rough patches early on, moments of doubt and trepidation, and according to a recent interview with Brazilian sports site Globo Esporte, Tiago Splitter was no exception.
To truly understand the journey, we start from the beginning. Splitter was under the microscope from an early age, as he left his native Brazil to sign with Baskonia when he was just 15 years old. He developed through the years and slowly became a more complete player. All that dedication paid off when, at 25, he became the MVP of the second-best domestic league in the world after leading his team to the tile. And that's when he made the jump.
The transition wasn't seamless. Splitter was essentially the team's fifth big, behind Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner. After playing 27 minutes per game in Spain, he barely averaged 12 during his rookie year in San Antonio. Dealing with the disappointment was one thing, but the stress from outside was an altogether different proposition:
"There was a lot of pressure from the Brazilian and Spanish media asking me why wasn't I playing, what was going on, and whether I had done the right thing by going to the NBA. Then I had a conversation with (Gregg) Popovich and he told me: "Look Tiago, you're working well.You're a very hardworking guy, but we have a team that is already established and I'm not going to change it now. Keep working and you'll get your chance." I was pissed off that day and wondered: "What am I doing here? I'm wasting my time! "
When asked about those early days, Pop is quoted as saying:
"Tiago is the kind of guy who always works hard. One that every coach loves to have in his team. He's a great team player, has a great sense of humor. We're very lucky to have him. At first he didn't play that much, like it usually happens with every rookie who arrives to the NBA, no matter if he is from the United States or if he's coming from another country. It takes about a year for them to feel comfortable and understand how they should play. But he was different; Tiago learned faster."
And that's the curse of the young international veteran. It's hard to blame franchises for not bending over backwards to accommodate what could be considered marginal talent. But providing a proper setting for that talent to develop is the team's job and is extremely important in those early years, and every organization handles that in different ways.
There is a long list of international standouts who couldn't find a place in the league, and not for lack of talent. Unlike typical U.S.-born rookies, international players always have the fold-back option of returning home and making a living playing high-level basketball. So when they don't find the support they need on their new endeavor, they go back to Europe and don't look back despite having the tools to help an NBA team. Tiago didn't and from what he said, it was at least partially because the Spurs made an effort.
Splitter says it all starts with Pop, both on the court and off:
"On TV he looks like a sergeant, but off the court he is totally different. He is like that cool grandpa that you have. He's that guy that says 'How're you doing Tiago? Is everything okay? How's your son, growing up? Do you need anything?' If you have a problem he calls you personally. And that is something that I never had from a head coach."
Equally important for Splitter's adaptation was the presence of a mentor who successfully made the transition from European star to NBA star. Here's what Manu Ginobili said of the role he played in helping Tiago out early on:
"We had several friends in common and everyone spoke very highly of him, so when he arrived I felt compelled to welcome him and help him to adapt."
According to that interview, Manu even helped Tiago get settled in the city of San Antonio, as well as helping him find his bearings on the court, just like he had done with Fabricio Oberto before him. Tiago again:
"What I had to do, what Popovich liked, what he didn't like, what I was supposed to do on the court, how I had to behave. All those details -- Ginobili taught me most of that."
Splitter succeeded because of his work ethic, talent and determination. But hearing about the help he needed from the Spurs is reassuring, especially since there's no shortage of horror stories about what happens to Europe's best when they join the NBA. And since nothing suggests San Antonio will stop drawing talent from the FIBA well, it's invaluable that Tiago understands how big an impact the support and advice of a teammate can be, especially one that's already gone through the same situation. The Spurs might soon need him to be the one doing the mentoring.
The Spurs have the rights to Davis Bertans and Livio Jean-Charles, two youngsters who seem on their way to international relevance sooner rather than later. There's also always a chance that PATFO will try something unconventional like going for international free agents no team owns exclusive rights to. No matter who they bring in from overseas, their careers are more likely to resemble Splitter's than Tony Parker's.
As Splitter's story reveals, the hurdles young FIBA veterans face when trying to make it in the league are unique. And the Spurs have for years been one of the few teams ready to create an environment conducive to success. While Pop is expected to guide the team to the next era of Spurs basketball, Manu might not be there to provide guidance.
Looks like Tiago has learned enough to keep that tradition alive if the team needs him to pass along what's been shared with him.
All quotes from this Globo Esporte interview. Translation by AsGoodAs. Story by Jesus Gomez.