By Jordan Rivas, Staff Writer Project Spurs
Over the course of a player’s career, things can change. Even from one year to the next their performance can fluctuate and our expectations can shift. We find the metamorphosis fascinating. We’ve had the chance to watch a few Spurs players progress through their first steps in the league until now. Some turned out how we expected. For better or worse, some didn’t.
Over the next four weeks, we’re going to bring you other thoughts on the “Then and Now” of their respective careers.
I remember in the early part of 2002, during Tony Parker’s rookie campaign, I read an article calling for Parker to be benched. The writer in question felt that the Spurs needed someone with more experience at starting PG in order to make a proper playoff run. Terry Porter was with the Spurs at the time and the argument was that utilizing Porter’s experience in the present was more vital than allowing Parker to develop for the future.
That was crazy, but people believed it. I was one of them. The next eight years taught me the errors of my short-sighted thinking and now we’ve got the All-Star point guard we all know and kind of love when we’re not ruthlessly raising expectations on him, again.
There are three things that distinguish the Tony Parker today from the one we first witnessed eight years ago.
That’s it – three. We could discuss some finer points in greater numbers, but all of Parker’s evolution can be captured in the following three areas:
- He couldn’t shoot.
- He wasn’t physical enough.
- He wasn’t in control of the offense.
Parker couldn’t shoot when he got here. Remember the awkward, nearly flat footed jump shot? And it wasn’t like that weird Peja Stojakovic shot that goes in all the time. It was like that “your organization is going to buy you a shooting coach so other teams will stop laughing at us” kind of shot. It affected everything Parker was doing on offense.
The line on Parker became sadly concise, “he’s fast and can get by anybody, but he can’t shoot. Just play off him.” It defined how defenses guarded him and consequently defined how he played.
In 2005 Chip Engelland was assigned to help Parker refine his shot and the result was profound. Over the next few seasons Parker developed proper form and consistency on his jump shot and it opened up his entire game. Being able to hit that spot up jumper takes him out of the “fast but can’t shoot category” that so many young point guards get stuck in. Being able to pull up for a shot coming off a pick and still possessing remarkable quickness makes him virtually un-guardable.
On the physicality note, Parker simply didn’t have the strength, particularly in his upper body, to be effective. It affected his stability when driving the lane, but more severely it affected his defensive capabilities. Stronger more physical guards proved highly difficult match-ups for Parker in his first season and for a couple of seasons after that. He’s bulked up without losing any speed and it made his defensive efforts more successful. It also gave him some advantage on tougher trips to the cup.
It’s significant because there’s a world of difference between a quick, light guard and a quick, powerful guard. It’s not that success is reserved for one or the other, but it was clear that a team structured around a hall of fame big man wasn’t going to have the kinds of open lanes conducive to a more finesse guard. Parker was always going to need more strength to be a go-to option offensively. And the added strength, coupled with his natural quickness, has made him a reliable defender against top flight guards.
When you see Parker push ahead on the break and finish, you may think it’s the speed that does it, but it’s the strength that let’s him finish on more than one defender. There’s a world of difference between where Parker was and where he is now largely due to his added physicality.
Lastly is Parker’s maturation into a true floor general. When Parker first started with the Spurs he was merely a relay switch for the offense for coach Pop. The offense ran from the sidelines and it showed. Parker was never overly selfish or a terrible decision maker, but the offense didn’t flow out of his hands the way it does now.
At first, Parker wasn’t calling plays; then he was calling plays; and now he’s the driving force creating the offense. He’s gone beyond just running the offense. He has put himself in into a category of a only a few lead guards who are truly the catalyst for their team’s offense.
Where does Parker go from here?
I once told someone, if Parker isn’t the best point guard in the league at some point in his career I’ll consider him a disappointment. Considering the three championships rings he’s earned so far, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment anymore. But on some level, Spurs fans still expect that level of individual dominance from him.
So how does he get there?
Right now I consider Chris Paul of New Orleans and Deron Williams of Utah to be ranked ahead of Parker on the NBA point guard charts. Why? Two reasons: 1. both Paul and Williams are still better one-on-one defenders than Parker and 2. both shoot a better shot from three-point range. Parker has improved on his shot and his defense, but to be the best point guard in the Association he’s going to have to become a better defender and at least have an an above average shooting percentage.
Oh, and he’s going to have to keep winning rings. But so far he seems to have that part down.