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Get to know Boban Marjanovic

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Much has been said of the “surprising” 7’3” Serbian Boban Marjanovic. Unfortunately, but few have paid much attention to why Boban was signed by the San Antonio Spurs to begin with, and how his success on the court is consistent with his past production. Boban’s story is one of great promise, bitter failure, hard work, consistent performance, redemption, and the expectation of future success.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Boban Marjanovic In Summary

Growing up, Boban was always large, and reportedly was 6’10.25" tall as a 14 year old.  He started playing professionally for Hemofarm in Serbia (now called KK Vrsac Swisslion) in 2005-2006 as a 17 year old.  Hemofarm is a smaller but well known Serbian team, occasionally playing in the Adriatic League1 as well as the Serbian League.

It must be mentioned that Boban was just one of three much-admired young players, including Stefan Markovic and Milan Macvan.  All three were legitimate NBA draft prospects, covered on such sites as Draft Express.  See below his 2009 EuroCamp numbers, with Rudy Gobert, DeMarcus Cousins, and Matt Bonner for reference.  He was draft eligible in 2010, but was not drafted.  (Numbers courtesy of Jonathan Givony’s Draft Express)

Player

Year

Height w/o Shoes

Height w/Shoes

Weight

(lbs)

Wingspan

Standing Reach

No Step Vertical

Max Vertical

Boban Marjanovic

2009

7’2.25"

7’3"

293

7’8"

9’7"

19.0"

23.0"

Rudy Gobert

2013

7’0.5"

7’2"

238

7’8.5"

9’7"

25.0"

29.0"

DeMarcus Cousins

2010

6’9.5"

6’10.75"

292

7’5.75"

9’5"

23.5"

27.5"

Matt Bonner

2003

6’8.5"

6’10"

242

6’8.75"

8’9.5"

27.0"

32.0"

Here's a quote from Draft Express, April 21, 2008:

After showing a couple of promising tools during the practices, Marjanovic struggled to make anything work for him during the game. The Serbian big man drew a couple of foul attempts by flashing to the open spot inside, and he does have very nice touch on his free throw stroke at this point in his development. When catching the ball in traffic, he must learn to keep the ball high away from the guards rather than bringing it towards his waist where it becomes easy to strip.

Marjanovic also must learn to use his body effectively on both ends of the floor. This will keep him from picking up fouls so quickly defensively, and allow him to showcase any back to the basket moves he may have on the offensive end. Unpolished and even awkward to a certain degree, Marjanovic is a few years away from being considered a legitimate NBA prospect, but he certainly remains an interesting guy to watch over the next couple of seasons.

Also in 2010, the long-time (some say legendary) coach of Partizan, Dusko Vujosevic was hired by CSKA Moscow.  He demanded that CSKA Moscow sign Boban, and a subsequent 3-year deal was signed despite resistance by the club. Vujosevic, despite having an excellent eye for talent and a brutal but effective method of developing talent, was a terrible fit with CSKA Moscow.

After crashing out of the EuroLeague in the first group stage in 2010, Vujosevic was fired after just 3 months on the job. Boban was cited as a contributing factor, although most critiques were unfair. Prior to being signed by CSKA Moscow, he had never played major minutes. At Hemofarm, he played a minor role as a developmental prospect. Secondly, he had never played at the level of the EuroLeague.

There is a significant difference in level of play between the small Serbian League and the European-wide EuroLeague, that is widely considered the best league outside of the NBA. Finally, while Dusko Vujosevic was and is an excellent developmental coach, CSKA Moscow is much more of a "free-agent" team with a win-now mentality.  None of these were appropriate for Boban at that stage of his development, and it was probably grossly unfair to Boban to put such unrealistic expectations on a young player.

For Spurs fans reference, Ettore Messina was coach of CSKA Moscow from 2005-2009, and again 2012-2014.  He was subsequently loaned out to a Lithuanian team, Zalgris.  Boban’s contract was subsequently bought-out/terminated, and he tried again the next year with another Russian team, Nizhny Novgorod.  If anything, it was worse.

He clearly was not comfortable, and this failed experience in Russia is undoubtedly a motivating factor to be successful in the NBA. After leaving Novgorod, he landed back in Serbia with Radnicki, a team in significant financial distress. The following year, he played with Mega Leks, a team that specializes in developing young talent.  Boban was an older, more mature player (at the ripe old age of 25), was finally given a starting role and starter minutes, played brilliantly, and was named the Serbian player of the year.

On that same team was a young Nikola Jokic, now playing for the Denver Nuggets, and Nemanja Dangubic, a future Spurs draftee. Marjanovic was a leader and mentor for a number of the players on that team. After that year, he moved to Red Star Belgrade, a large and popular team with one of the highest payrolls in Serbia, and not only played in the Serbian and Adriatic Leagues, but also in the top EuroLeague. Boban was the player of the year in each of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 in Serbia, and was named to the first-team All EuroLeague team following 2014-2015.

In summary, when given time and minutes, and a supportive environment, Boban Marjanovic was a dominant, game-changing player in the Serbian, Adriatic, and EuroLeagues. The trajectory of his career, from young prospect, to unrealistic expectations, to failure, to consistent effort and support, to international success is a great story. See an INCOMPLETE list of Boban’s statistical summary below. (International play is not listed, though he played with Serbian Youth and National Teams.)

For Spurs fans, Aron Baynes' data from 2013 is included for reference for the Adriatic League, as is Jusuf Nurkic’s ’14 data. (Numbers courtesy of EuroBasket)

Team/Player

G

Min

Pts

2%

3%

FT%

RT

AS

PF

BS

ST

TO

Baynes’13#

16

24.3

12.4

57.1

50.0

63.8

6.8

0.8

3.8

0.9

0.9

1.9

Nurkic’14#


28


16.6


11.7


56.0


14.3


70.1


5.7


0.7


3.2


0.8


1.1


1.6


Marjanovic# ’08-‘09

Hemofarm

27

14.4

6.0

51.8

100

63.6

4.2

0.0

1.8

0.7

0.5

-

Marjanovic# ’09-‘10

Hemofarm

27

14.7

7.1

61.1

0

71.1

4.9

0.3

1.7

0.8

0.3

-

Marjanovic ’10-’11 CSKA*

4

16.8

8.3

68.8

0

84.6

6.0

0.5

1.0

0.8

0.8

1.0

Marjanovic ’10-’11 CSKA%

8

11.0

4.3

45.8

0

92.3

3.5

0.4

2.1

0.6

0.6

0.9

Marjanovic ’10-’11 Zalgris*

3

11.0

1.7

20.0

0

75.0

3.0

0.0

0.7

0.7

0.3

1.0

Marjanovic ’10-‘11Zalgris%

6

11.8

5.2

64.7

0

64.3

3.5

0.3

1.5

0.5

0.2

1.8

Marjanovic ’11-’12 Novgorod*

2

9.0

3.5

42.9

0

50.0

4.0

0.0

2.5

0.5

0.0

1.0

Marjanovic ’11-’12 Radnicki&

6

8.8

5.2

50.0

0

92.9

2.5

0.0

1.0

0.3

0.2

0.5

Marjanovic& ’12-‘13

Mega

41

27.6

16.9

68.9

18.2

85.4

11.7

1.8

2.5

1.7

0.6

2.5

Marjanovic# ’13-‘14

Red Star

27

18.7

9.7

64.2

0

67.1

7.3

0.8

1.4

1.4

0.2

1.2

Marjanovic% ’13-‘14

Red Star

10

19.4

10.8

62.5

0

62.1

7.7

1.0

1.8

0.9

0.8

1.7

Marjanovic# ’14-‘15

Red Star

33

20.4

10.5

54.9

0

78.9

7.5

1.1

1.9

0.9

0.5

1.2

Marjanovic% ’14-‘15

Red Star

24

26.8

16.6

62.3

0

78.1

10.7

1.0

1.5

0.9

0.4

1.4

Marjanovic ’15-‘16

San Antonio

17

6.5

4.8

65.9

0

77.4

2.5

0.2

1.1

0.5

0.2

0.7

G, Games; Min, Minutes per game; Pts, Points per game; 2%, 2-point FG%; 3%, 3-point FG% (remember that Europeans completely separate these categories, unlike Americans!); FT%, Free-throw %; RT, Rebound Total per game; AS, Assists per game; PF, Personal Fouls per game; BS, Blocked Shots per game; ST, Steals per game; TO, Turn overs per game. * VTB League, # Adriatic League, $ Lithuanian LKL, % Euro-League, & Serbian League.

In evaluating Boban, one can see that while not all games have been accounted for, he has played relatively few games compared to the NBA's 82 game season.  In other words, there's relatively low mileage for a player with his experience.  He has always had good touch with the ball, and has been a 75% free-throw shooter for most of his career.

Given his shooting stroke, it would be a surprise if Chip Engelland can not make a significant improvement in this area.  In good situations, he usually carries a 65% 2-point field goal percentage, which is excellent, and Chad Forcier is likely to make improvements here as well.  In the D-League (admittedly a small sample size), he scored at a 75% rate.  That is devastating.  He has always been a high usage player on the court, and about 1/3rd of his rebounds are offensive.  His rebounding rate is high. When Boban is comfortable, his assist totals climb significantly, with an accompanying decrease in turnovers.

When most American basketball fans heard that the Spurs were signing a 7’3" Serbian, most folks thought "Six more fouls to use on DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard".  However, this doesn't do him justice (more on this below). He does foul at a higher rate against better competition, but he is not highly foul prone.  Notably, Boban draws fouls at a high rate.  It will take longer for him to adjust to the NBA like other European players (fouls, cylinder rules, three second rules), but he is not reckless like Nurkic or Baynes, and displays good body control for a man his size.  He does provide rim protection, but has never been an exceptional shot blocker.

While Boban has played with good shooters in the past, he has never played with passers like Manu Ginobili or Boris Diaw (there aren’t many as good as these two on the planet at passing), and these two players in particular have the potential to improve Boban’s numbers. Boban naturally has a good feel for spacing on the court, and is a willing and able passer when needed.

Despite his height, Boban has a smaller pass receiving window than most, and it is naturally higher requiring his teammates to adjust their post entry passes. His catching ability is acceptable, but he can’t handle "hot" passes as well as Tim or LaMarcus Aldridge. Thus, there is a smallish and high passing target, and the entry passes are best if not thrown too hard. Boris Diaw in particular seems to have found the right trajectory and velocity for a Boban "Alley-Oop", which of course looks different than one thrown to Jonathan Simmons or Kawhi Leonard.  This is likely to make fronting Boban a particularly risky strategy going forward.

Boban has a lot to work on, particularly in terms of team defense and pick-and-roll defense.  These are the two keys to keeping Boban on the floor.  He can always work on shooting, free-throw shooting, footwork (not dragging the pivot foot) etc., but the biggest adjustment is the mental one to the Spur’s complex defensive schemes, including zone defense.  While not a direct basketball skill, improving English is of course an objective as well, although judging by his recent interviews, this is coming along nicely.

Why Did the Spurs Sign Boban?

This is simple. The Spurs knew in 2014 they were going to target LaMarcus Aldridge. They also knew that LaMarcus didn’t want to play center, and preferred to play power forward. Tim has been aging for a while, and a role playing type center was high on the shopping list. Where to find a NBA ready center for what might be the last year of Manu Ginobili’s career, and possibly the second to last year of Tim Duncan’s career? The draft is the wrong place to look. So they looked at the "First Team EuroLeague" for 2014-2015, and there was a center who was A) out of contract, B) willing to go to another country, C) was a known entity from extensively scouting the Adriatic League and watching Davis Bertans at Partizan, D) had always been a legitimate NBA prospect, and E) who was a 3-time Serbian League player of the year.  When the money was available, they made a deal.  Every time the cameras show the Spurs bench after a Boban dunk, I can’t help but see that LaMarcus Aldridge has a big smile on his face. I know I do.

They couldn’t know at the time that the team defense would gel as rapidly as it has with LaMarcus Aldridge and David West.  At present, the Spurs are on track to be one of the best defensive teams in the history of the NBA, which allows them additional time to develop a particularly efficient (65% 2-point FG%) and unique (7’3") offensive weapon.  To be blunt, Boban is on the right team at the right time with the right coaches and right mentality.

How can the Spurs Use Boban?

Let’s assume that Boban continues to work hard on his pick-and-roll defense, and continues to work with Chip and Chad.  Let’s assume his potential contribution is 65% FG%, 80% FT%, is fouled 3 times, commits 1-2 fouls, 1 turnover, and 5 rebounds in about 15 minutes per game. This is pretty close to his current production, and is consistent with his long-term numbers. Basketball is also a game of mismatches, and Boban will have a mismatch most trips down the court, which is why he has such a high usage rate.

This can also force other teams to disrupt their rotations. For example, Houston might want to rest Howard, but they can’t let Boban rumble against some 6’8" midget (relatively speaking) so somebody will have to go into the game that might not be ready. Against Minnesota, admittedly a weak team, Boban was +16.  If he is able to produce the above numbers with decent pick-and-roll defense, a +/- over +10 is completely reasonable against most NBA teams, even good ones.

Not even Popovich would keep him off the floor with those numbers, because it would allow him to rest Tim, Tony, and others. Some folks think that Popovich might only play Boban against weaker teams, and certainly that is where his development will be easiest.  But if he is able to sustain his production, he will get chances against better teams.  If he sustains production against good teams, then he might even get some usage in the playoffs.

Situationally, I have heard some folks ask if he is the solution to "Small Ball" by the Golden State Warriors.  I don’t think so, because while his strength (height) is a clear mismatch, his slow speed is also the critical weakness exploited by "small ball".  I think that series (if it happens) will be fought out on the perimeter.

Boban is best used when his advantages punish the opponent, but the other team is not able to exploit his weakness. I tend to think Boban can be an "Amoeba Defense" killer, like the one Rick Carlisle used against San Antonio in 2014.  I don’t think Zaza Pachulia can guard Boban, but I think Boban can guard Zaza -- and the Mavericks are a potential first-round matchup again this year.

Because he gets fouled frequently, I can see Boban absorbing fouls from guys like DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard. I think his height will frustrate them resulting in dumb fouls, and his free-throw stroke will yield dividends. Also his ability to be efficient in a slow tempo half-court offense (think "Hack-a-DeAndre") could result in a nice breather for Timmy or LaMarcus, while at the same time putting these players in foul trouble AND making them suffer on the free-throw line.  Concerning OKC, I don’t know about playing Boban against Steven Adams, or using Boban to guard Enes Kanter, but I think Boban would be able to score on Nick Collison, and I don’t think Collison would be particularly effective in punishing Boban.

Right now, Boban plays with the second or third unit, almost always with at least one if not both of Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw. But I kind of like the idea of playing him with LaMarcus Aldridge, as LaMarcus' defense can help Boban, and if Boban is commanding a double-team, LaMarcus will be open.  Again, I just see a big smile on LaMarcus’s face when he is alone and unguarded.  Tim Duncan is an excellent passer from the high post.  Could that work with Boban?  Maybe.  For the time being however, the Mills/Ginobili/Leonard/Diaw/Marjanovic combination looks like the best line-up for "Boban Ball", and I would never expect to see him at the end of a half.

Summary

Boban Marjanovic is a Spur because he is a good basketball player, not because he is 7’3" tall. He has a good shooting touch, has displayed consistent positive performances, has had both failures and successes, and is working hard towards being a serviceable rotation player. He isn’t there yet, but has promise, and the support of his fellow players, coaches, and the Spurs fans. I wish him the best of luck in his efforts, and look forward to seeing him play and progress.

1 When the former Yugoslavia broke up, each individual county eventually developed their own league, but usually there is one team that is by far the strongest in each country.  So the Adriatic League was developed, that is essentially the recreation of the "Yugoslav" league, where these teams are able to compete with strong peers [For readers from the Balkans, please accept my apologies for this significant over-simplification!].  The countries involved are Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, with other countries occasionally joining. The two most dominant teams in the Adriatic League are Partizan and Red Star Belgrade, both from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.  Both Partizan and Red Star (think of the army) represent different segments of Serbian society, much as the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox have different followings in Chicago.  The Adriatic League is not as wealthy as the Greek League or the Spanish ACB, but in my opinion is probably the single best place outside of the NBA to develop talented big men.  Finances are usually suspect.  It is sometimes the case that the last player on the team to deposit his check in a bank finds that no money has actually been deposited, as the team did not actually have enough money to make each payroll.  Thus by nature the league tends to focus on development of local, lower cost players, with just a smattering of quality American imports.  For Spurs fans, Darius Washington played in this league, and this is where Aron Baynes was signed from in 2013.  Due to the after-effects of the brutal Yugoslavia break-up wars (plural), it has only been in the last 3-5 years that the league has recovered and improved, and is now finally beginning to produce the kind of quality players that we formerly associated with Yugoslavia (Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac etc.).  Partizan, Mega Leks, and Cibona are all notably successful in talent development.