Spurs rookies among midseason surprises, disappointments

With the best record in the NBA at the mid-season mark, Spurs fans have plenty to brag about. During the past few months the Spurs have given doubters plenty of reasons to prove them wrong. Along the way they’ve seen their share of surprises and disappointments, from starting with a 36-6 record to seeing their prize rookie struggle through the first half of the season.

The Record

midseasonreviewCould anyone have predicted that the Spurs would have only lost six games by midseason? I didn’t and I certainly didn’t expect that they’d also be head and shoulders above everyone else in the NBA, not to mention six games ahead of the reigning NBA champions.

Their current record is also the best 42 game start in franchise history and they’ve been successful at home (23-2) and on the road (13-4).

While the Spurs’ fast start out of the gate has been a surprise to many, Spurs forward/center Antonio McDyess will tell you he’s not surprised in the least bit. McDyess said as much on the first day of training camp.

“We’ve got something in store for a lot of teams I think, and we’re going to be a big surprise to some people,” McDyess said then. “Coming off what we did last year was disappointing so we’ve got something to prove.”

With a 24-3 conference record, including wins over the Lakers and Nuggets, the proof of the pudding has certainly been in the eating.

The 26-year-old rookie

In half a season, Gary Neal has come from being the “who’s the new dude wearing number 14” guy to a household name. That’s quite the journey, but it started much earlier.

Neal was a part of the Spurs summer league team in Vegas and took advantage of Malik Hairston, Garrett Temple and James Anderson being out by averaging 16 points in 25.8 minutes through five summer league games. He also shot 50 percent from the field and from beyond the arch.

Most players go from summer league stud to training camp invitee before they have a chance at signing a contract, and in most cases, a non-guaranteed contract. But the Spurs saw enough in five games to hand Neal a three-year guaranteed deal.

It took only three games for Neal to start turning heads. He scored 16 points in 20 minutes on November 1 against the Clippers. But he did it by shooting 60 percent from the field and 50 percent on three-point attempts, enough for Newsday’s Alan Hahn to write an article titled, “Who the heck is Gary Neal.”

Through 42 games, Neal has given Hahn all the answers he needs, currently averaging 8.6 points per game in just over 18 minutes. Neal is also third among three-point shooters off the bench in the league, 24th overall and first among all rookies in three-pointers made.

“He hasn’t earned our respect, he’s taken it,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said about Neal. “He’s a stone-cold shooter.”

Splitter’s struggles

It’s hard to name too many disappointments when talking about a team with the best record in the NBA without it sounding like nitpicking, so while there are other minor disappointments or areas that can be improved upon, I’ll just discuss the most glaring issue, Tiago Splitter’s progress.

Splitter’s arrival in San Antonio was much-anticipated after originally being drafted in 2007. He had enough hype coming in to make a lottery pick wince, but it appeared the Spurs were finally signing the perfect frontcourt complement to Tim Duncan, who even I expected he’d be paired with in the starting lineup by now.

However, Splitter hasn’t exactly had the same storybook season fellow rookie Gary Neal has had. Splitter came into this season after an impressive showing at the FIBA World Championships, but suffered an injury three days into training camp.

Before the injury, Splitter had several Spurs veterans singing his praises, especially about how quick he was picking up the Spurs offensive and defensive schemes.

“He’s really good, really strong, posts up strong and goes hard every play,” Antonio McDyess said. “He’s a heck of a guy because he sits there and listens and catches on real quick. I was very surprised about how quick he catches on. It’s a tough system to learn and he catches on really fast.”

Unfortunately for Splitter, the injury seemed to set his progress back and it appears he’s been playing catch-up since.

Instead of starting and playing a significant role in the Spurs’ rotation, Splitter is averaging 11 minutes per game and has only played in 31 of 42 games this season. While he’s had a handful of games that have shown what he might be capable of, Splitter just doesn’t appear to be comfortable when he is playing.

He saw an increase in minutes over a two-game stretch lately, but often looked over-eager on offense. There’s no questioning his hustle and work ethic when he’s out on the floor, but it appears the transition from being the number one option for his Spanish team to being the fourth or fifth option when on the floor has been a tough one for Splitter.

What he needs most is playing time, but he won’t get enough of that on a team that already has Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair and Antonio McDyess taking up the majority of the minutes at power forward and center.

A trip to Austin playing a few weeks for the Toros could help get Splitter up to speed, but playing quality minutes with his Spurs teammates would be the best medicine, medicine which is currently very short in stock.

About Michael A. De Leon

Michael founded Project Spurs in 2004. He started The Spurscast, the first Spurs podcast on the Internet, in 2005. Michael has been interviewed by the BBC, SportTalk, the Sports Reporters Radio Show, MemphisSportLive, OKC Sports Wrap and ESPN radio among others. He is a credentialed member of the media for the San Antonio Spurs and Austin Toros. He is also the founder of Project Spurs' sister sites, Toros Nation and Stars Hoops.