D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images
The free throws are falling. One. Two. Three. Four. Nothing but net. Tiago Splitter finishes the morning shootaround at the Spurs practice facility and walks to a seat in a corner of the gym, away from a media cluster conducting interviews in another corner.
Splitter looks as comfortable and relaxed as if he were in his native Brazil, his mind without worry, his body without burden. He likens his third season in San Antonio to feeling at home, and it shows.
In the two games that preceded our interview, both Spurs victories, Splitter scored 33 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. In a victory over Memphis before that, he held All-Star forward Zach Randolph to 11 points and five rebounds, a defensive effort Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called “fantastic.”
The description is one indicator of Splitter’s growth. His time on the floor is another. Splitter has evolved from an off-the-bench role to starting center and major contributor.
Early in the season, some touted him as a possible Sixth Man of the Year. But now, after 27 consecutive starts, Splitter has emerged as a candidate for Most Improved.
In a quiet corner of the gym, I ask Splitter how that has happened.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” Splitter says softly. “Understanding the system better. Being here with Pop longer. Having more confidence with him. Getting more minutes and experience on the court.”
Numbers alone do not show the full range of Splitters’ development. His scoring, for example, has improved from 9.3 points per game last season to 10.5, his rebounding from 5.2 to 5.8, his free throw shooting from 69 percent to 74 percent. He’s made modest statistical gains in other areas.
What doesn’t show up in the box score is the way he sets screens, his aggression at the rim, his tougher defense. The emerging portrait is generating raves.
Splitter’s body of work overseas and in South America excited Spurs Nation. He used his length, muscle and high basketball IQ to dominate the Spanish League and lead Brazil to the gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championship. He carried Caja Laboral to two Spanish League championships and four straight semifinal appearances in the Euroleague Championships. He was named Spanish League MVP and was selected All-Euroleague First Team.
If that wasn’t enough, there was this: Splitter grew up emulating the moves of Tim Duncan, one of his favorite players. Splitter even wore Duncan’s No. 21. No wonder fans imagined him as another Twin Tower.
But days into his first training camp, Splitter injured his calf. He missed the preseason, lost valuable time in learning the Spurs system and appeared in only 60 regular season games. The NBA lockout hampered his development the following off-season.
With no injuries or lockout to slow him, Splitter found his groove in the fall. He made his first start on Nov. 13 and won the confidence of Pop.
Splitter’s own confidence is growing, and you can sense it, even off the court. Hours after the morning shootaround, he started against New Orleans with Duncan (sore knee) and Kawhi Leonard (bruised patella) on the bench and Pop at home with a respiratory illness. All Splitter did was score 25 points, grab seven rebounds and make two steals and one assist in a 106-102 victory.
He scored on dunks, layups, a running hook, on rolling drives to the rim. He made 10 of 11 shots. He sank five of six free throws. He looked unstoppable.
The difference between this season and the last two? Splitter uses an illustration to explain. After arriving from Europe, Splitter felt like an occupant in a stranger’s house. A little tight. Seldom relaxed. After two seasons adjusting, Splitter feels like he’s back in Spain. In familiar surroundings. Comfortable.
“Like when you are in your own house,” he says.
In Splitter’s house, there is a new addition. His name is Benjamin, he is 7-months-old and he attends all of daddy’s games with his mother, Amaia, Tiago’s wife. “It’s been a great experience,” Splitter says, “maybe the best thing that’s happened in my life.”
If dad is feeling more settled at home with Amaia and Benjamin, it certainly isn’t hurting him on the court. The Spurs, though bruised and banged up, remain one of the league’s elite teams. Splitter’s emergence is one reason why.
“It’s been my best season in the NBA,” he says. “I know I’m not an All-Star kind of player right now. I just want to keep winning and help this team win a ring.”