The fans at The AT&T Center haven’t yet begun chanting “M-V-P” when Spurs center Boban Marjanovic steps to the foul line during games, but in today’s world of unrestrained excess it won’t be long.
In this case, over-the-top reactions may be justified. “Big Bob,” the 7-foot-3, 290-pound Serbian rookie has appeared in only 17 of the Spurs’ 33 games but has earned his role as a fan favorite.
On Monday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves he was as impactful as any Spur in a 101-95 win that kept the Spurs perfect on their home court, 18-0. In just 14 minutes and 32 seconds he scored 17 points, grabbed four rebounds, blocked a shot and had one steal.
When the Spurs broke from a very tight game and closed the third quarter on a 10-3 run that got them to the final period with a 76-72 lead, it was Marjanovic who had three straight buckets in the final minute-and-a-half. He handled slick passes from Manu Ginobili and Boris “BoBo” Diaw that underscore the fact hands even bigger than Kawhi Leonard’s “claws” are soft enough to absorb the toughest of tosses.
“One moment, I feel the ball in my hands, I don’t know how,” Marjanovic said. “It’s magic. Bobo and (Manu), he’s an amazing passer. I’m glad to be a part of this team.”
The feeling is mutual among his teammates. Spurs fans love him because he is enormous and plays both hard and smart. The players understand there is more to his game.
“Yeah, he’s one of those guys, a crowd favorite, but he’s a hell of a player,” said David West, the two-time All-Star power forward playing his first season in silver and black. “I think people look at his size and sort of think he’s a big stiff, but Boban’s a hell of a player. He’s not a big stiff. He can move and stays engaged in terms of the pace of the game. He’s a positive for us.”
West started his second straight game in Tim Duncan’s spot, as the Spurs captain sat out with soreness in his right knee. Duncan cheered Marjanovic from the bench and counseled him during time outs.
The world will have to wait to find out what Gregg Popovich thought of Marjanovic’s performance against the T-Wolves. With a little more than a minute left in the first half referee James Capers gave him the heave-ho after the Spurs coach protested that Wolves veteran Kevin Garnett had committed a foul that hadn’t been called and carried on the debate longer than Capers felt appropriate.
Popovich’s pique may have been directed as much at his team as at the refs. The Spurs had not played with much precision or vigor in the first half. Seeing Popovich’s passion made a point.
Assistant coach Ettore Messina, who took over on the Spurs bench and guided the Spurs to the victory, understood the significance of his boss’ actions.
“In the second half I think the team understood the message from Pop and they came out with a different attitude,” Messina said. “It was not pretty, but we showed some toughness with our play. We dove for loose balls; we got extra possession on the offensive glass and got a block.
Messina knows the effect Marjanovic has on the AT&T Center crowd. The energy in the arena always increases when he enters any game, be it in “garbage time” or, lately, in the meat of the game.
“He impacted the game well in both stretches he played,” Messina said. “I think not only with his game but also because the crowd got involved. He got his teammates involved.”
One of the most successful coaches in European basketball history, Messina is especially happy to see Marjanovic’s rapid development as a useful player.
“When he started playing at the beginning of the year he was more of an attraction,” the coach said. “Now people understand that he is a valuable basketball player that, of course, has a lot to work on. But he also has an upside to his game. He is one more player that we can trust and rely on.”
Marjanovic has had his highest-scoring games this season against the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Minnesota’s Karl Anthony-Towns (17 points on Monday) and the No. 3 overall pick, Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor (18 points on Dec.7). He’s no MVP candidate, but as the season progresses he has a legitimate shot at making the All-Rookie team, just the latest unlikely overseas find for the Spurs, an organization that still finds places outside the box that other NBA teams don’t seem to see.
Top Photo: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.