Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina had an excellent observation about his team's most dominant performer Monday night. "When he started playing at the beginning of the year, he was more of an attraction," he explained. "Now people understand that he is a valuable basketball player."
Of course he was talking about Boban "The Destroyer" Marjanovic, their 27-year-old, 7'3 Serbian rookie.
Indeed Marjanovic was very much treated as a sideshow during camp and his first few weeks in the league by fans and media alike.
I certainly was as guilty of it as anyone else. Looking at grainy YouTube clips of his highlights in the Serbian league, he didn't look like much of a prospect, especially on defense. I had visions of springy randoms dunking on his head during garbage time of blowouts, like what we saw often happen to Shawn Bradley or even Yao Ming. I figured he'd be awkward and uncoordinated on offense, bumbling the ball off his knees and drawing moving screen violations by the bushel.
There's a reason I'm not a scout. Marjanovic is second in the NBA in PER, behind only Stephen Curry, who's about as big as one of his legs.
It was easy to predict that Marjanovic would be a crowd favorite. He was the biggest player in Spurs history and was charming and good-natured during interviews despite his limited English. And early on in the season he very much played to type, hardly ever playing and not doing very well when he did. He saw action in just nine of San Antonio's first 21 games and scored 18 points total in that time.
Then, really out of nowhere, everything changed for him practically overnight. The Spurs sent him to Austin for a two-game stint and he totaled 50 points and 22 rebounds in the D-League, including a 34-point, 13-rebound performance against Reno where he showed off the full gamut, with nimble post moves, baseline fadeaways, rolls to the rim, expert seals, even a behind-the-back pass.
The Spurs called him up and he immediately scored a season-high 18 at Philadelphia, downright schooling Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor at times, and making Gregg Popovich look almost embarrassed that his 14th man was getting the better of his good friend Brett Brown's two best players. Ever since then, it's been impossible not to think of Marjanovic as legitimate and not, as Messina put it, "an attraction."
Or maybe David West, starting again for Tim Duncan, who sat out his second straight game with a sore knee, said what we were all thinking. "People love his size and sort of think he's a big stiff, but Boban's a hell of a player."
The Spurs absolutely needed Marjanovic's best to stay unbeaten against the frisky T-Wolves, who raced out to a 10-0 lead and then 16-6 before the bench entered the fray. Kevin Garnett scored six of his I'm not bothering to check but I'm assuming season-high 10 in the opening minutes, draining three mid-range jumpers. Fellow graybeard Tayshaun Prince and Rookie of the Year front-runner Karl-Anthony Towns also knocked down a couple and Ricky Rubio was finding them all, with a half-dozen assists in the opening quarter. Minnesota was very sharp, with no turnovers at all in the first period but all their damage was inside the three-point line and the Spurs kept them off the charity stripe as well.
West and Kawhi Leonard were the only starters who could do anything, with Leonard finding the former Pacer for a couple of elbow jumpers midway through the period, and LaMarcus Aldridge hitting him for a hi-lo dunk...
but the Spurs didn't really get cooking until Marjanovic, Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills checked in. The former hit a pair of bombs and then found the latter for a backdoor layup right before the quarter expired and in between Marjanovic had a couple of layups, and the Spurs trailed just 27-26 after one.
The bench got them back into the game, but the Spurs continued to drift in and out in the second quarter. Tony Parker was dribbling too much, there wasn't much ball movement and the home side stayed in the game only because Minnesota fouled a bunch. Parker did have three assists in the quarter, including this slick number for and-1 slam to West.
Jonathon Simmons was reckless offensively and lost Shabazz Muhammad on a three and when Pop subbed Kyle Anderson in for him, he too lost his former Bruins teammate. I'm not sure if Popovich was sincerely upset with the work of referees Lauren Holtkamp and James Capers or just wanted to light a fire under his guys, but he got tossed with 1:13 to go before half, after Andrew Wiggins stole a wayward Aldridge pass and raced for a breakaway slam. Messina would be in charge thereafter. The Spurs trailed by a bucket at the break.
Whatever Messina (and perhaps Pop) told the team at half didn't seem to have much of an effect. Garnett and Towns continued to score inside and Prince hit two more jumpers, with Rubio recording five more assists in the third. Wiggins looked to score every single time Leonard was switched off of him, it was automatic a shot was going up. Leonard had a couple of early buckets but then a couple of really bad forces and the Spurs had a few empty possessions in a row and trailed by as many as seven. Again the bench rose to the occasion, with a 12-2 run over the next four minutes and 18-7 overall to go into the fourth with a 76-72 lead.
Marjanovic was a monster, collecting a carom from Ginobili's miss and scoring for the second time in the game and then scoring on consecutive post-ups off sweet feeds from Mills and Boris Diaw. He had nine in the quarter and made all four of his shots, finishing with 17 on a perfect 7-of-7 for the night.
The Spurs never trailed in the fourth, but Minny never let them get comfortable either, with the margin staying between four and nine the whole way. Diaw got in the scoring column with a couple of post-ups and fed Mills for a corner three. Then Aldridge had a rough night but finally got a couple of buckets inside. Perhaps it would've been interesting if Garnett checked back in, but apparently Sam Mitchell decided 15 minutes was his limit. Parker iced it with a breakaway layup from Leonard to make it 98-90 with 1:55 to go. The Spurs became the first team since the 2008-09 Cavs to start 18-0 at home, but afterward the whole story was Boban, who continues to look more at home on and off the floor and freer with his words in a new language.
"I try to be useful," he said of his improvement. "I try to help my teammates they help me with offense. It's good, we play together and they use my height and I feel comfortable when I go out on the court."
Messina, meanwhile, made it clear that the coaching staff has been impressed by Marjanovic's progress.
"Of course he has a lot to work on, but he also has some upside in his game," Messina said, adding "He is one more player that we can rely on."
Imagine how thrilled the rest of the NBA is. R.C. Buford found one more guy out of nowhere who can play.
Your Three Stars:
1. Boban Marjanovic
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. Manu Ginobili
Up Next: Vs. Phoenix Suns (12-21)
The Spurs continue their homestand against the dregs of the Western Conference with the Suns coming to town for another visit on Wednesday. Phoenix is in a bad way at the moment. They've lost five in a row, including Monday at home against the Cavs, and eight of their past ten to fall well off the playoff pace in the West. There's a lot of turmoil surrounding the club these days. Not only have two assistant coaches been fired mid-season, but there is much speculation that head coach Jeff Hornacek will be next on the chopping block. To add injury to insult, their best player, Eric Bledsoe, tore his meniscus in a LOSS TO THE SIXERS, and he'll reportedly be out until the All-Star break. The Suns were without Bledsoe in their first trip to San Antonio as well, on Nov. 23, while the Spurs missed Aldridge for that one. Both clubs took advantage of the others' injuries, with Markieff Morris scoring a game-high 28 on 12-of-15 shooting against the Spurs, while Parker had 20 and eight assists and Green had a season-high 18 in the Spurs' 98-84 win. Look for the Spurs to come out more fired up for this one after the sluggish way they began against Minnesota.