None of the changes to the Spurs roster that occurred during the summer was as jarring as the retirement of team captain and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan.
In its own way, though, the defection of free agent big man Boban Marjanovic to the Detroit Pistons was nearly as unbearable. The 7-foot-4 Serbian center captured the imagination of Spurs fans like few players ever had. His combination of size, skill, energy and enthusiasm made him an instant fan favorite who will be sorely missed.
Duncan was irreplaceable, a star widely recognized as the greatest player in franchise history.
Marjanovic was a phenomenon whose popularity transcended his contributions on the court.
The Spurs found an All-Star big man to fill Duncan’s spot in the starting lineup. Pau Gasol, a 7-footer with a career scoring average of 18.2 points per game, will start alongside LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard on one of the NBA’s most potent front lines this season.
The club may also have found a suitable replacement for Marjanovic in Dewayne Dedmon, a 7-footer that even Coach Gregg Popovich believes may be the most athletic big man to wear silver and black since Spurs icon David Robinson retired after the 2002-03 season.
“That’s probably a true statement, as far as running the floor, that kind of thing,” Popovich said. “He’s pretty fast.”
Dedmon understands the limited role the Spurs will ask him to assume this season: Bring energy off the bench, rebound, defend and run the floor on the fast break. That’s only a partial replication of Marjanovic’s role but Dedmon also brings something Marjanovic did not: Ability to get out on the fast break ahead of most big men in the NBA.
“I think I bring my ability to run the floor, rebound, increase the pace of the game and change the game with defensive ability, blocking shots and getting out on the break,” Dedmon said. “That sets a faster pace.”
It is the same role he played for Spurs assistant James Borrego when Borrego, as interim head coach in Orlando, made him a starter for the Magic, teamed on the front line with fellow 7-footer Nikola Vucevic, for 15 of the final 17 games of the 2014-15 season.
“He changed the game for us defensively, but still in a very young, raw way,” Borrego said. “He was still learning the game. He picked up the game very late, so he had to learn what a pick and roll was; how to roll; catching and finishing in traffic; NBA sets. I think he grew in Orlando in those areas, with the young group.
“He still has room for growth. He has the athleticism, size, he puts pressure on the rim on both ends of the floor. He protects the rim, and that’s so important in our game today. When we get beat, we need to make a play at the rim quickly. We don’t have a lot of time to recover. He has the ability to do that.”
Spurs fans can be forgiven if they don’t know much about Dedmon. His NBA resume consists of only 148 games over three seasons for three teams, 133 of which were for the Orlando Magic, one of the league’s worst teams the past four seasons. Undrafted out of University of Southern California, where he played two mostly forgettable seasons, he came to the Spurs with NBA career averages of 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.
He also came with upside rarely seen in a 27-year-old, which is exactly how old Marjanovic was when he joined the Spurs the previous season. When one has been playing basketball only for nine years there is plenty of room for improvement, and Dedmon didn’t begin playing basketball until he was 18. Even after he reached 6-foot-4 early in his high school years in Lancaster, California, he was strongly discouraged from participating in sports by his devout Jehovahs Witness mother, Gail Lewis. Lewis believed that allegiance to any entity other than Jehovah challenged the nature of a religion that had transformed her life. Dedmon and Lewis clashed about basketball, but he waited until he was out of high school to pursue his athletic dream.
After he turned 18 Dedmon presented himself to Dieter Horton, head coach at nearby Antelope Valley Junior College and asked if he could try out for his team. According to a 2011 article in Sports Illustrated, Dedmon, by then 6-foot-8, was put through a fundamental workout, during which Horton saw his possibilities. Taught the basics of the game by Horton, Dedmon improved through a combination of hard work, determination and a late growth spurt. Eventually, he produced a body of basketball evidence that was promising enough to earn a scholarship to USC.
He averaged only 6.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game in his second season at USC, but declared his eligibility for the 2013 draft. Undrafted, he signed a free agent contract with the Warriors, but before his rookie season concluded he moved to the Philadelphia 76ers and, finally, the Magic.
A dedicated student of the game, Dedmon has worked hard on his individual skills each summer and now believes the Spurs present a great opportunity to learn more and thrive.
Popovich lauds Dedmon’s work ethic but understands the limitations.
“He’s a worker,” the Spurs coach said. “He’s a Bruce Bowen in a bigger guy’s body, so to speak. We want him to play defense, rebound, block shots, run the floor, keep things together in that regard. We’re not going to have 14 plays we run for him but he understands that’s what he does best.”
Dedmon’s goals for his first season in silver and black are realistic.
“I’m a rebounder and defender first,” he said. “Scoring is a bonus. Definitely defense first.
“When you look at their situation here they’re not looking for somebody to come in and be another scorer. They need somebody to come and help-side block shots and let’s go. They’ve got LaMarcus (Aldridge) and Kawhi (Leonard) to score. I’m not saying I can’t finish easy buckets, or whatever may come to me, but I know but I know what I have to come in and do first. The rest will come.”
Improvement is certain to come for a player who began learning the game at an age when some players enter the NBA draft.
Dedmon hopes his speed and athleticism make him the Spurs leaders in lob dunks, perhaps basketball’s most entertaining play.
“One thing we have to do is get a little chemistry with tossing the lob up because I know it’s going to be there, especially with all the attention the other guys attract,” he said.
A player can’t throw down a lob he can’t catch so Dedmon spent long hours this summer working with a specialist in hand-eye coordination in an effort to improve his hand skills. Borrego believes in his potential as an energizing fan favorite.
“If he stays in his lane and does what we ask him to, he’s going to find minutes on the floor,” Borrego said. “And if he gets minutes, I see him energizing our group, our team and our crowd. He can do that if he sticks to that role.”
He may never replicate “Boban-mania,” but Dedmon is ready to do what he can to excite Spurs fandom.
“They’re totally different players,” said Spurs general manager R. C. Buford. “From a playing style standpoint, Boban is so unique. And then from a cultural standpoint, his personality just, you know what a great guy he was. He was just a terrific fit and we wish him great success in Detroit.
“The connection that James (Borrego) has (with Dedmon) and the nature of our team, especially with the defensive perspective, we have high hopes.”
Top image: Newly instated Spur Dewayne Dedmon sits for an interview during media day. Photo by Scott Ball.