By Jeff McDonald
Before arriving on American soil three summers ago, center Tiago Splitter had been a Most Valuable Player and the centerpiece of championship teams in Spain.
So when he joined the Spurs before the 2010-11 season, the big Brazilian naturally assumed eventually he’d be starting alongside Tim Duncan, one of his basketball idols.
“You always want to play and do your best,” Splitter said. “So, yes, I expected one day to be a starter.”
He wasn’t the only one. Spurs fans envisioned the 6-foot-11 Splitter paired with Duncan as the modern-day answer to the Duncan-David Robinson “Twin Towers” frontline that earned NBA titles in 1999 and 2003.
It took two-plus seasons speckled with injury, but Splitter — drafted 28th overall in June 2007, two weeks after the Spurs won their fourth and most recent championship — is at last beginning to occupy the role for which he has long been ticketed.
In the throes of the most productive stretch of his short NBA career, the 27-year-old Splitter is expected to make his fourth straight start tonight when New Orleans visits the AT&T Center.
“He’s playing great,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s earned a spot.”
In 10 games in December, Splitter is averaging 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 64.5 percent. He has scored in double figures in nine consecutive games, by far the longest streak of his NBA life.
Truth be told, even Popovich expected Splitter — who spent three additional seasons ripening in the Spanish League after being drafted — to be starting with Duncan before now.
Injuries limited Splitter to 60 games as a rookie. He showed flashes as a sophomore, averaging 9.3 points and 5.2 rebounds, even as the NBA lockout robbed him of important development time with Spurs coaches over his first offseason.
“What you see him doing is what he’s done his whole career (in Europe),” Popovich said.
“He’s just been hurt so damn much since we brought him over, he’s never had any consistent playing time to get into the system.”
Splitter’s numbers this season — 9.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and a 61.1 percent shooting rate that ranks second in the NBA — are remarkably similar to last season.
His teammates, meanwhile, say they’ve never seen Splitter more confident.
“Obviously, the size is good for us,” Duncan said. “He’s playing real confident. We’ll see if Pop decides to stick with it.”
That’s been the question following every Spurs starting center since Robinson retired. From Rasho Nesterovic to Fabricio Oberto to DeJuan Blair, the shelf life for the guy standing next to Duncan has typically been short-lived.
“You don’t know what Pop is going to do,” said Splitter, who before this season had eight NBA starts to his credit.
For now, starting Splitter — instead of the 6-7 Blair or 6-8 Boris Diaw — gives the Spurs a larger frontline, deemed crucial to competing with some of the beef-laden teams in the Western Conference.
So far, the Duncan-Splitter pairing has been able to increase the Spurs’ defensive efficiency without holding back the uptempo offense they need to play.
Though the sample size remains small, lineups with Duncan and Splitter together remain among the highest scoring in the league.
Splitter typically gets his points in pick-and-roll situations and on the low block. Duncan has evolved into more of a mid-range jump shooter, dovetailing with Splitter’s need to play around the rim.
Playing with any other big man, Splitter sets nearly 100 percent of the screens in the Spurs’ pick-and-roll sets. With Duncan on the floor, Splitter estimates it’s about 50-50.
“We’re still kind of learning to play with each other a little more,” Duncan said.
So far, Popovich has been pleased with what he’s seen from the Splitter-Duncan combination, perhaps enough to stick with it for the long haul.
“People think he’s done this massive improvement,” Popovich said of Splitter. “He is who he is, and he’s always been this way.”
A little more than two seasons after coming over from Europe, it seems Splitter has finally arrived.
You can't be late until you show up.
Being only 27 games into the regular season, I'm feeling more confident that Splitter can be 100% ready by the playoffs. Now if they can just get Diaw to practice taking mid-range shots and executing such in real games, the Spurs should have 3 solid bigs. My guess is that the Spurs front office is intently focused on free agency for a 4th veteran big with enough NBA experience to somewhat compensate for the time lost in not playing with the team all season. It will take a huge amount of luck on top of their hard work to find one.
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