Gregg Popovich made good on his promise to suit up all his players for the Spurs’ Saturday night pre-season home opener at AT&T Center. He even opened the game with the regular starting lineup Spurs fans expect to see when the regular season begins against the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 25.

The veteran coach never made any promise about actively participating as his team matched up against the Atlanta Hawks. Instead, he and lead assistant coach Ettore Messina observed from the basketball operations department’s suite a couple of dozen rows above the Spurs bench, a fine vantage point from which to evaluate his players during a 102-91 victory before a sellout crowd.

Popovich turned the coaching over to assistants Ime Udoka and James Borrego; Udoka for the first half, Borrego the second. Udoka had a decided advantage, empowered to use the starters and the primary bench players through his 24 minutes in charge. Kawhi Leonard played 18-and-a-half minutes. New starting center Pau Gasol played 16-and-a-half. Point guard Tony Parker, the most veteran of Spurs, played 14. All five starters played another six minutes of the third period for Borrego, then took seats for the remainder of the game.

Borrego, who returned to the Spurs after two seasons with the Orlando Magic that included 30 games as interim head coach in 2015, was under orders to use most of the non-starters thereafter, so Popovich could make some evaluations from the suite. By game’s end, 16 of the 19 Spurs had played.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, the former Popovich assistant who became Coach of the Year in Atlanta in the 2014-15 season, took the opposite approach: Coaching from the bench but sitting all five of his starters.

Popovich explained his decision to watch, rather than coach.

“(When) you don’t coach you can evaluate,” he said. “That’s the reason why Ettore and I were up there. We’re looking at different players. We have to make decisions on guys. We are not thinking about Os and Xs too much.”

Spurs fans in attendance also were anxious to observe the 11 new players on the training camp roster, especially Gasol, the six-time All-Star who steps into retired superstar Tim Duncan’s role as starting center. Gasol made a modest first impression, scoring only five points and grabbing only two rebounds, clearly tentative at times.

“(It went) pretty good, just trying to get a feel for things out there and figure things out,” Gasol said. “Try to create a good flow, ball movement, do a little of the basics. It was a good first game for me to be out there and get acquainted with the guys. I look forward to the next one.”

LaMarcus Aldridge, the power forward who last season came to the Spurs with the biggest free agent contract any player had ever been awarded, empathized with his new teammate and offered some advice.

“Just stick with it,” Aldridge said. “I think he’s going pick it up faster than I did, because I think he’s played in systems that were kind of similar for his ball movement and elbow (positioning). I came from a system where I just got the ball on the block every time. I think he’s going to pick it up faster than I did.”

Admittedly frustrated through the first half of his first season in silver and black, Aldridge predicted a less stressful transition for Gasol.

“I don’t think he will go through it,” Aldridge said. “I think it was different roles. I came from having my own team to trying to learn how to play a new system. He’s past that point of having his own team, so I think he’s definitely going to blend in faster.”

Aldridge enjoyed typical production, scoring 14 points, on 6-for-13 shooting, in 21-and-a-half minutes. High scorer was point Guard Tony Parker, who made 7-of-8 shots and scored 15 points.

The newcomer who made the best impression was power forward Davis Bertans. The Latvian sharpshooter scored 10 points in just nine minutes, making 2-of-3 3-point shots, 4-of-5 overall.

“They left him wide open,” said Gasol, well familiar with Bertans’ game from having competed against him in international competition. “Obviously, they don’t know he can shoot the ball. Then he showed some athleticism with the putback; good fundamentals finishing with the left hand in the lane. Overall, a really good performance.”

Popovich’s above-it-all observation: “His shots went in and that’s always a good thing.”
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Mike Monroe

Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning NBA and Spurs reporter who recently retired from the Express-News and is now contributing to the Rivard Report.