It's not uncommon for the Spurs to look for reinforcements in the European market. That's how they got Gary Neal and Aron Baynes, after all. What made the signing of Boban Marjanovic a surprise was that the front office was filling a position of need with an unproven player at the NBA level. With Tiago Splitter and Baynes gone, Marjanovic is the only true center on the roster.
The concerns about his addition have little to do with talent or credentials. Marjanovic was the breakout star of the Euroleague last season, a 7'3" behemoth that was among the best post players and finishers in general in the competition. What's unclear is how well he will adjust to a new league.
After a close look at his performances overseas, there are some big question marks about his potential impact at the NBA level, especially on the defensive end.
Great offense and hustle
At 26 years of age, Marjanovic is a mature player and it shows. He has improved his conditioning and mobility, which allowed him to be on the court over 27 minutes a game. He's disciplined enough to know his limitations on defense and patient enough to not force up shots and look for good position on offense, where he excels as a post scorer.
When he has position and is single covered, Marjanovic either scored -- often on righty jump hooks -- or got fouled. If the double team came, his unselfishness and his ability to see the court thanks to his height made him a good passer.
On defense, as long as he didn't have to venture outside of the paint and the way the play unfolded was predictable, Marjanovic held his own. He's not a rim protector but he deters some shots on length alone. Explosive players can create separation with a quick step when he's guarding them but he doesn't get outworked often. At his best, he can even keep up with ball handlers, provided they don't change speed.
His excellent rebounding numbers, along with his ability to take up space down low, resulted in one of the lowest defensive ratings in Euroleague basketball last season for Marjanovic. On offense, he was often unstoppable. Had the Spurs not signed him, he would have been an MVP candidate next season.
Very low defensive potential
A lot of what made Marjanovic such a terrific player in Europe -- especially on defense -- won't likely translate to the NBA.
Marjanovic almost never leaves the paint. That's not a problem in Europe where there is no defensive three seconds rule but it will get him called for technicals constantly in the NBA.
The reason he prefers to stay back is because he simply doesn't have the quickness to help and recover. Patient ball handlers will burn him every time by finding the dive man. When they change speeds he gets caught in no-man's land, right between corralling the ball handler and going back to his man.
He doesn't get blown by as much as his quickness suggests he would but constantly allows buckets by the big man in plays like that. When he hangs too far back trying to prevent the dive man from scoring, he leaves the ball handler alone to pull up either from beyond the arc or from mid-range.
The more he has to do, the less effective he is. If he has to guard a stretch big man, he has no choice but committing to that task entirely, taking away one option but leaving others on the table.
In simple terms, he can't adjust to a developing play. He has to decide what's the one thing he will try to stop and live with the results, which makes it near impossible for him to be an even passable defensive anchor. Good European offenses attacked him whenever they could and good NBA offenses will do that even more.
Can Marjanovic be an effective NBA player?
Like with any flawed player, the key for him to be successful will be to be with a team that can accentuate his strengths an hide his weaknesses. The Spurs can do that, to an extent.
Because there are four players ahead of him in the rotation, Marjanovic can be used only when the match up is favorable. Against point guards that can't pull up from beyond the arc he should be able to drop back enough to prevent inside buckets. The Spurs have one great help-and-recover wing in Kahwi Leonard and two solid ones in Green and Ginobili to bother some ball handlers and give him an extra second.
If he's surrounded by shooters off the bench, he should be able to do some damage as an inside scorer, mitigating some of his potentially negative impact on defense. And while he's not a great rebounder outside of his area, he's so big that he should be able to cover for Boris Diaw on that category if they are paired together.
Of course, that's the best case scenario. It's entirely possible that his defensive shortcomings make Marjanovic unplayable against good competition. If that's the case, the Spurs will still survive. The gamble to sign the Serbian giant was worth it, simply because there weren't a lot of players of equal talent available for the money he received. Because of his weaknesses, however, it doesn't seems like Marjanovic will be a dependable option. Hopefully he exceeds expectations, like so many of the Spurs' prospects have in the past.