By Jeff Dengate
LYON, FRANCE, Oct. 3, 2006 -- Three former D-Leaguers, seeking their first-ever NBA action, are hoping the cup of coffee they’re enjoying in Spurs training camp turns out a little larger – and sweeter – than the demitasse brewed here in France.
A roster spot, however, remains a long shot for some players not named Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili, as the Spurs have 20 players in camp in Lyon and Paris – only 15 of which will be around on opening night.
Rich Melzer is one of three players looking for his first NBA action after spending 2005-06 in the D-League.
Gregory Shamus/NBAE/Getty Images
San Antonio assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo said Tuesday that the odds might be even longer for players with names like Rich Melzer
, Jamar Smith
and Olu Famutimi
, who all spent a chunk of time in the NBA Development League last season.
“At most, there's one spot available,” Carlesimo said, “so you've got a lot of guys banging heads for, at most, one spot.”
The Spurs brought back 10 players from last year’s team that rallied from a 3-1 deficit and was seconds away from knocking off the Mavericks in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. All but Melvin Sanders, a D-League Gatorade Call-Up last season, are a lock to make the team.
In the offseason, the Spurs signed free-agent big men Jackie Butler and Francisco Elson and backup point guard Jacque Vaughn, and acquired Matt Bonner and Eric Williams in a trade for Rasho Nesterovic.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 14 players, which leaves exactly one available roster spot. That, folks, equals some serious pressure for the six men busting their tails this week in two-a-day practices hoping for a steady paycheck from one of the top teams in the game.
“There's always a lot of pressure,” said Smith, who appeared in all 48 games last season for a Texas-based team – the Austin Toros. “There's one spot and there's about six of us, but all you can do is play hard and let the chips fall where they may.”
Those chips, however, may be about as scattered as the young players’ minds as they try to wrap their heads around a new system and level of play.
“Confusion,” is all head coach Gregg Popovich could say he’s seen from the youngsters thus far. “They're working very hard, doing a good job, picking things up, but at the beginning of training camp so much is thrown at young kids that they're pretty confused and, basketball-wise, it's pretty difficult for them to show what they can do.”
In truth, the coaches have already seen what these players can do or they wouldn’t be here. The six displayed various skills at a number of different levels, enough to earn an invite and a trans-Atlantic plane ticket.
Sanders played 16 regular-season games for the silver and black last season, averaging 2.6 points and 1.4 boards in just over seven minutes of action. Charles Lee was busy leading the Bucknell Bison to a first-round win in the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year and winning Player of the Year honors in the Patriot League. And Jared Reiner most recently played 19 games in 2004-05 with the Chicago Bulls, averaging 1.1 points and 2.0 rebounds.
Young players like Famutimi and Smith try to soak up as much as they can, even when they're on the sidelines.
Gregory Shamus/NBAE/Getty Images
Famutimi, Melzer and Smith, however, could have taken different approaches but opted to further develop their skills in the D-League last year, hoping to catch the eyes of NBA talent evaluators.
“The D-League was more a cerebral approach,” Melzer said, comparing the experience to playing with the New Zealand Breakers in Australia’s NBL, “to figure out what I needed to do to get to the next level. I played with Coach Michael Cooper, (formerly) of the Lakers. He taught me a lot. We got a championship out of it. I was a role player there, but I think I kind of found my niche there. Hopefully I can utilize that and bring it up to the next level.”
But, as Melzer, Famutimi and Smith are discovering, getting to that next level – despite the preparation in Albuquerque, Arkansas or Austin – is no easy task.
“There are a lot more plays getting thrown at you,” Smith said of the biggest difficulty the new players are experiencing. “Basically, that's what it is, trying to learn all these plays here. (In the D-League) all we did is scrimmage, go one-on-one and practice defense. Here, we're getting plays every day and you've got to just catch on.”
A turnover here or a missed defensive assignment there this week won’t break the careers of any of these guys. The coaching staff understands the players are going through a big adjustment, but do expect to see improvement.
“Right now we don’t pay too much attention,” Popovich said. “We just want to make sure they’re learning the system. So, as a couple of weeks go by, we’ll know a little bit more about not only what they’ve picked up but if they’ve been able to make it translate into their games.”
For all their struggles, the young players are not alone in their development; they couldn’t have landed amidst a better group of teammates. Many observers this week noted Duncan and the other veteran Spurs stopping to talk with the new players, telling them the finer points to offensive and defensive sets and what to watch for on the court.
“It's a good group of character guys,” Popovich said, “and they understand what it was like when they first came into the league. They're very good about mentoring the younger players, making them feel comfortable and creating an environment where everybody can be as successful as possible.”
“Our guys are very good that way,” Carlesimo added.
A healthy Duncan, meanwhile, is enjoying the run with his newest teammates.
Smith says the young players' biggest struggle is all the plays being thrown their way.
Gregory Shamus/NBAE/Getty Images
“In camp you have a lot of young guys hungry to get on teams and they bring that energy,” he said. “They bring that excitement to the game. They treat every practice, every game, as if it's a big one.”
Given time, though, that mentoring by some of the best in the sport, as well as hours of exposure to the Spurs system, will help make real the dream of playing in the NBA for one – at most one – of the Spurs hopefuls. Years of development will have paid off, even if it means being buried on the bench.
“It's a little surreal,” Melzer admitted about being camp with a title contender, “but, at the same time, it's what you've always worked for. To land in a situation like this and not be ready would kind of make everything else pointless. It's definitely a blessing and something I'm relishing.”
And how could somebody in his situation not relish the experience? Two short years ago, Melzer capped a four year playing career at University of Wisconsin … in River Falls. That’s a four-hour drive northwest and two divisions due south of the much-larger and well-known state school.
A year ago, there were 441 players on NBA rosters on opening night. Only 17 had ever logged time – and bus rides – in the D-League. Another, Devean George, was the only player to come by way of a D-III program, after playing at Augsburg College.
There’s more than that giving Melzer hope; he, like George, is a Minneapolis native. Both players stand 6-8. The two tore up the college ranks, as George was named Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference MVP two years in a row and Melzer took Player of the Year honors for all of Division III.
The similarities end there, though, as George was a first-round draft pick by the Lakers in 1999, thus guaranteeing himself a roster spot. Melzer’s still trying to earn his. George won the first of three championship rings in his rookie season with the Lakers. Melzer still has to win a roster spot.
It’s that dream that makes players like Melzer, as well as Smith and Famutimi, hesitate in getting a “real” job, improve their game in the D-League and travel all the way to France in the hopes this one shot pays.
“For me, personally, I feel like I belong,” Melzer said, “especially being from a Division III school, hearing that it's not likely. I know my own character and my work habits. I think I can get to that next level. It's just taking me a little longer than most, I guess.”
For five players in Spurs practice gear, it’s going to take even longer.
“I'm a believer,” Melzer said, “and I'm going to stay a believer.”
The Spurs have proven in recent years to be some of the best at discovering little known talent by scouring the earth and striking gold in far off places like Argentina, France and Slovenia. Could it be Pop and Co. will get rich, or at least unearth a semi-precious stone, in their own back yard?
That may be a reach, but NBA clubs, the Spurs included, have turned their attention to guys in the lower ranks.
“I think the D-League is a fantastic situation for a lot of these guys,” Popovich said. “A lot of those guys are being called up all the time. It's not like they sit there all year long. A lot of guys were called up and ended up being NBA players because of that development. So, it's a great stepping stone.”
But it’s only a great stepping stone, Melzer cautioned, if you make the most of the experience.
“I think if you take it seriously,” he said, “and you go there with the right mindset, it can be really beneficial for young guys who may not have made it right away out of school. But to go there and take it for granted, you won't get much out of it.”
Last season, in addition to the 17 players on opening night rosters, another 18 call-ups were made during the NBA season.
Today we got the take from the coaches on Francisco Elson, a young player we’ve been talking about here at camp:
“We love his versatility,” Popovich said. “He runs the floor very well. He's very long. He moves his feet well on defense. We like the way he goes to the offensive board. He can make a mid-range jumpshot and he likes shooting it; I don't have to talk to him about that -- he'll let it go.”
“We've been impressed with him,” added Carlesimo. “Four days is really quick, it's difficult. We'll learn more in the games (in France), but we'll learn a lot more after we get back. We know him from watching him in Denver and playing against him, but how he fits in with our guys and how quick he picks up the system is going to be the key.
“We've got four starters back and we can also start Fabricio (Oberto) or Robert (Horry), so we've got six guys there with a lot of experience before we've got to put anybody on the floor that is not familiar with what we're doing. That's a big advantage. That's a big disadvantage for the new guys -- Matt Bonner, for Francisco, for Eric. For those guys, it's a quick learning curve.”