He was 18 years old. He was three inches shorter than today and at least five pounds skinnier, which doesn’t begin to account for his newfound strength. In 2011, at the Hoop Summit in Portland, Davis Bertans was known as the best European shooter in the upcoming NBA Draft. His skills and length were intriguing to a number of teams.
“After I got drafted, I was really happy that I got traded to San Antonio,” said Bertans, who as the No. 42 pick in the 2011 Draft was packaged into the deal that sent Spurs guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for the rights toKawhi Leonard and European big man Erazem Lorbek. “I knew probably that was the best fit for me.”
At 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds Bertans — he’s 23 now — is shaping up as a potential replacement for 36-year-old fan favorite Matt Bonner, with the same shade of red hair and a different accent. Bertans will come off the bench as a stretch four to space the floor, exploit mismatches and deliver back-breaking 3-pointers.
“It’s definitely the closest team to European basketball in the NBA,” said Bertans of the Spurs. “It’s always fun to watch how they share the basketball. They don’t care who is going to be the best scorer on the team. They don’t really have one leader on the team. They’re a great team as a group.”
At an age when potential American stars are hoping to be noticed by the top AAU programs, Bertans at 15 was playing professionally in his native Latvia. By age 16 he was graduating up to his country’s top division with BK Barons Riga. Bertans had already moved to the famed Slovenian club KK Olimpija — the former employer of Miami Heat guards Goran Dragic and Beno Udrih, among others — when he came to the U.S. for the Hoop Summit.
His “International” teammates included future NBA first-rounders Bismack Biyombo (now on the Orlando Magic), Evan Fournier (Magic), Dario Saric(Philadelphia 76ers) and Lucas Nogueira (Toronto Raptors). They were beaten 92-80 by an American team led by Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. While most of those names would enter the NBA as soon as the rules allowed, Bertans would remain overseas for five years.
In spite of their shared attraction, there was no certainty that Bertans would join the Spurs. There were extended tests for him to resolve. “He’s recovered from 2 ACLs,” said Spurs GM R.C. Buford. “For a young player to overcome that adversity is a huge commitment.”
Bertans suffered the torn ACLs in his right knee in 2013 and again in 2015. “It was hard to recover,” he said. “The hardest part of the first injury was when I realized there have been so many players that got this injury and never came back the same way they were before.”
He would recognize that his rehabilitation from the first ACL had toughened him when, two years later, the same ligament was torn again. “Because it was so successful coming back from the first injury,” he said. “When the second came along, for five minutes I was upset a little bit. But then I said, ‘It’s going to take me another 10 months, I’ll do it.’ “
Buford and coach Gregg Popovich were noticing Bertans’ stubborn, unpitying approach. It was one thing for him to be draining 3-pointers for his Serbian and Spanish clubs in the Euroleague: He converted 47.4 percent of his Euroleague 3-pointers last season for Saski Baskonia. Even more revealing was the willingness to invest in his recovery without bitterness.
“He’s played at the highest levels of the Euroleague, and he’s always been a great shooter,” Buford said. “He’s a strong culture fit and we’re excited to add him to our group.”
When his teams’ schedules would allow, Bertans would watch the Spurs live overnight from Europe as if envisioning his dream through the two-dimensional screen of his TV or laptop. “Whenever I had a next-day off, then maybe I would stay up late and watch the games,” he said. “Usually I would watch the playoffs.”
He became a better shooter on the move. “Back then, at the Hoop Summit, I was just a spot-up shooter pretty much,” said Bertans, who moved to Partizan Belgrade one year later. “I went to Serbia, where the coach worked with me individually. I was spending a lot of time shooting. I could only leave the gym after I made 10 in a row coming off screens. Every day like that, I just picked up my game to a completely different level.”
Another big improvement can be seen in Bertans’ ability to pump fake and drive the ball inside to score or kick out. “His ball skills, his ability to break down a close-out — those are things that have matured and will need to continue to mature,” Buford said.
“He’s had great coaching. He was in very competitive programs, both in Partizan and in Baskonia, and they deserved their space. They had the importance of their seasons going on and we wanted to be there to continue to monitor him, to support him as we could and support those programs because they’re playing in major competitions throughout Europe. And that was great experience for him to be a part of that.”
In summer he would work out with the Spurs in hope of creating the relationship that he has earned for next season. “First off, I’ve got to keep shooting the same — and get it better, improve it a little bit,” Bertans said. “I still need to work on my low-post game. But the biggest thing is defense, of course. You already know that the Spurs are all about defense. That’s the No. 1 thing.”
Last month, five years after his acquisition, Bertans was signed by San Antonio in time for him to play one Summer League game in Las Vegas. On that afternoon the Spurs’ future looked highly promising. Bertans scored 15 points on 12 shots (3 of 7 from the arc) while joining Dejounte Murray, the team’s No. 29 pick overall in 2016, in a 90-86 comeback victory against the Sacramento Kings. Murray looked very much like a winning successor to Tony Parker as he forced overtime with a pair of baskets in the final 20.4 seconds of regulation, including a difficult baseline pullup with 2.2 seconds left.
The years and the injuries have strengthened him in body and spirit, enabling Bertans to invest in himself. He is not the same as he was in 2011, but then neither are the Spurs.
“I hope I can learn from Manu (Ginobili) and Tony,” said Bertans. “But it would have been great if I’d had one season with Tim Duncan on the team.”
You can’t have everything.
Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.
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