Improbable Journey From Down Under

Aron Baynes is a late-blooming, basketball anomaly, a 26-year-old rookie whose roots are in rugby. The event that altered his future can be traced to an exchange between an Australian basketball coach and 6-foot-8 Callum Baynes.

Coach: “You have a brother?”

Callum: “I do.”

Coach: “I’d like to see him.”

Callum brought his brother to the next practice and the coach smiled. Aron stood 6-foot-7. He was 15-years-old. He had the body of a beast. But he had the game of a geek. The kid didn’t know a drop step from a jab step. He didn’t know how to dribble. Didn’t know how to shoot.

“I would just catch the ball and throw it at the rim,” says Aron, the Spurs backup center. “And it was definitely a throw. It wasn’t a shot.”

The clumsy awkwardness was understandable. Aron played rugby. He was tall and tough and knocked people around. He’d done it for years and imagined a pro career, perhaps, alongside his brother, the role model who inspired him to play rugby.

Basketball, though, remained a mystery, a game of which Aron knew little until Callum began playing. Wherever Callum went, Aron followed, and that’s how it began for the Spurs’ newest international import. Big brother, then 19, joined a recreational league, and little brother, almost 16, received a coaching invite.

But that’s not the craziest part of Aron’s journey. Soon after he took up basketball, he caught his first NBA game on television: San Antonio vs. Portland. Afterward, he made his first online NBA purchase: a pair of reversible Spurs shorts. Soon, Aron quit rugby and tried to copy a few moves of his favorite NBA player, Tim Duncan.

A decade later, Aron learns at Duncan’s feet, and there’s a bit of symmetry in their basketball beginnings. Duncan fell in love with another sport first. Swimming. He came to basketball late.

Duncan started playing organized ball his first year in high school. Aron started his first year in high school. Duncan learned the game in another land (The Virgin Islands) in anonymity. Aron learned the game on another continent in obscurity. Neither was heavily recruited.

What are the odds?

The Aron Baynes’ storyline fits nicely in Spurs lore. Who but the Silver and Black could find an ex-rugby player from Down Under whose first glimpse of greatness was watching Duncan bank in a shot off the glass?

Who but the Spurs could find a promising post who kept growing after high school? David Robinson grew six inches in college. Aron only grew two inches, but he celebrated every centimeter. He caught up with Callum at Cairns State High School and passed him at Washington State.

“That was one of the crowning days of my life,” Aron says, “as it is for any younger brother. I looked up to him. I still look up to him. But I was pretty happy about passing him.”

The brothers remain close, texting and talking daily, and share a genetic disposition for hard work. Callum started the game later than Aron, at 19, but still carved out a pro career as a power forward in Australia’s National Basketball League.

In his first extensive NBA action, Aron scored seven points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked one shot in 18 minutes against Charlotte. Back in Australia, the Baynes’ family celebrated.

Everyone -- mom, dad, brother and sister -- used to take turns driving Aron to daily practices that were held out out of town. The round trip took two hours. Practice lasted two more. “My whole family gave up four hours a day so I could play basketball,” Aron says.

Family commitment did not go unrewarded. Aron helped his high school team win the state championship in 2003, and played on a national championship team in 2004. But he wasn’t the star. “Other guys got more attention,” Aron says, “and scored more points.”

After high school, Aron enrolled at the Australian Institute of Sport. Within a year, he earned a scholarship from Washington State. Four years later, Aron turned pro and played in Europe. He represented Australia in the 2012 Olympics on a team coached by Spurs assistant Brett Brown and led by Spurs guard Patty Mills.

Now here he is in Silver and Black, months removed from Union Olimpija of the Slovenian Basketball League, suiting up for the first NBA team he saw on television. Gregg Popovich likes his toughness. Teammates like the way he sets screens. It doesn’t hurt that he once played rugby.

“I grew up getting hit from multiple angles,” Aron says. “So I’m fine when guys come through the paint and get physical. I’m not afraid to mix it up.”

He muscled five rebounds in 17:58 against Orlando Wednesday night. He threw down a one-handed dunk and scored a career-high nine points. Who knew that the same Aron Baynes who cheered Duncan as a kid would grow up to give him relief as a Spur?

From the San Antonio bench, Duncan applauded and smiled. He played 13:35 of the first half, and rested the second, thanks in no small part to a rookie who bled Silver and Black a long time ago.