Marco Belinelli: The Specialist
By Sam Perley
Anytime Marco Belinelli has played a big game during his basketball career, his hometown of San Giovanni in Persiceto in northern Italy puts up a giant screen in the local square for everyone to watch. Considered by many, including longtime coach and mentor Ettore Messina, to be a beloved figure back home in the Bologna region, the first-year Hornets swingman is playing with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and excitement in what is now his 10th NBA season.
Belinelli got his first taste of professional basketball back when he was just a teenager, playing for hometown Virtus Bologna in Italy’s top-tier Serie A league in 2002-03. Messina, currently an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs and also the head coach of the Italian National Team, was at the helm of the club when Belinelli first started.
“When I was coaching in Bologna, he was growing up in our farm system. Those years, when we needed somebody because of an injury or whatever, we needed somebody from the young team to come up to the pro team to practice. So once in a while, he was joining us. He was probably 17 [years old],” said Messina.
From 2003-07, Belinelli played for nearby Fortitudo Bologna, helping the team reach the Euroleague finals in 2004 and winning the Italian Serie A title in 2005. At age 21, Belinelli left Italy and declared for the 2007 NBA Draft, marking the first venture of his life to the United States.
He ended up being taken with the 18th overall pick by the Golden State Warriors, spending two seasons with the team before being traded to the Toronto Raptors in July 2009. Over the next four years, Belinelli made additional stops in both New Orleans and Chicago before signing with the San Antonio Spurs in the summer of 2013.
Amidst a roster comprised largely of fellow international players, Belinelli shined in his first season in San Antonio. He tallied an average of 11.4 points per game with career-best shooting marks from the field (48.5 percent) and beyond the arc (43.0 percent), while also winning the Three-Point Contest at the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in February 2014.
Belinelli played a prominent role in San Antonio’s NBA Finals win over the Miami Heat as well, making him the first Italian-born player ever to win an NBA championship. The image of the famous Larry O’Brien Trophy is even inked on Belinelli’s left bicep, permanently commemorating what was an extremely noteworthy and emotional accomplishment in the then-28-year-old’s life.
It was also in San Antonio that Belinelli reunited with Messina once again, as the latter joined the organization as an assistant in July 2014 following a two-year stint as head coach of CSKA Moscow in Russia.
“It was funny [re-uniting],” said Messina. “I have a lot of respect for him and people have a lot of respect for him back in Italy because he came to the United States [without assurance of being picked high in the 2007 NBA Draft]. He had to work very hard. He had to change teams. I think he had the label of maybe being just a shooter. I think that hurt him. I think he worked on many different aspects of his game. I think he really worked hard to be where he is.”
Following one more season in San Antonio, Belinelli opted to sign a three-year deal with the Sacramento Kings during the 2015 NBA offseason. After one year there, he was traded to Charlotte in exchange for the team’s first-round draft pick this past summer.
Belinelli’s former head coach in San Antonio, five-time NBA champion Gregg Popovich, echoed similar sentiments to Messina in terms of the Italian sharpshooter’s development into a more all-around player.
“He’s pretty special,” said Popovich. “You worry like [crazy] about him when you’re preparing your game because he’s one of the most clever guys in the league in getting fouls, getting open, knowing how to get open, getting shots, making threes, and he is a [great] passer. He’s a much better all-around, complete player than most people ever knew.”
“He’s a star [in Italy]. That’s the way they love him,” added Messina. “He’s the son of a wonderful family. He’s really a good guy and he’s very well liked. He plays with the enthusiasm of a young kid [even though] he’s 30 [years old now].”
Through Nov. 26, Belinelli was averaging 10.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists off the bench for the Hornets, while also ranking tied for second in the NBA in three-point percentage (48.4 percent) this season. The Hornets guard will hope to carry on his strong play not just through the remainder of the season, but into next summer’s FIBA European Championships, in which the Italian National Team has not medaled since 2003.
Known primarily throughout his career as just a three-point shooter, it now seems quite clear that Marco Belinelli has become a true specialist in more ways than one.