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San Antonio Spurs

A still-developing Slovenian newcomer is the center of attention

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By Jack McCallum

Team Page | Conference ranking: 2 | Overall ranking: 2

Rasho Nesterovic
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Rasho Nesterovic
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images
Fast Fact
Since 1972 only Phil Jackson (1995-96 Bulls) and Gregg Popovich (2002-03) won a title and Coach of the Year in the same season.

Obscured by the persistent praise paid David Robinson, the Human Being, was the fact that David Robinson, the Center, could play a little, even as his stats dwindled in the twilight of a 14-year career. His court sense, help defense and ability to clog the lane were crucial elements in the Spurs' championship run last season. And so it was understandable that Rasho Nesterovic, assigned to man the Admiral's station this season, said early in camp, "I am not David Robinson."

Indeed he isn't, but Nesterovic better have a good bit of the Admiral in him, for the Spurs' chances of repeating may hinge on his development. There's no reason Tim Duncan won't have another MVP-caliber year, and with the off-season acquisitions of Ron Mercer and Hedo Turkoglu, the Spurs have the most versatile perimeter players in the league. But winning the West may still come down to neutralizing Shaquille O'Neal -- well, doing something close to that.

Nesterovic, 27, is a true center recognized for his on-the-blocks efficiency and his potential to improve. (His scoring average jumped from 8.4 in 2001-02 to 11.2 in '02-03.) That's good, but what coach Gregg Popovich will be looking for is improvement in Nesterovic's career averages in rebounds (5.4) and blocked shots (1.18).

Nesterovic, who was born in Slovenia, played five seasons for Minnesota until becoming a free agent last summer. On July 1, the first date free agents could be contacted directly, Popovich was at a coaching clinic in Belgrade and made the five-hour drive to a small restaurant in Ljubljana, Slovenia, to invite Nesterovic to become a Spur. "It meant a lot that the coach of the world championship team would come to see me," he says.

Now, Rasho, it's time to show him a lot.

Enemy Lines

An opposing team's scout sizes up the Jazz

"They're the defending champions, but they're not the same without David Robinson, Stephen Jackson, Speedy Claxton and Steve Kerr. The Spurs can still win the West, but so can three or four other teams.... You won't know how good their new players are until they prove themselves in the pressure of the playoffs. Hedo Turkoglu was beaten out of spot in the Kings' rotation last year by Jimmy Jackson. Can Turkoglu and Ron Mercer do the kinds of things off the bench that we saw from Manu Ginobili and Kerr?.... The one guy who deserves the benefit of the doubt is 33-year-old Robert Horry. While it looked as if his offensive game deteriorated with the Lakers, that may have been because they asked him to play almost 30 minutes per game last year. This is a guy with five rings -- he'll get a role that will make use of his defense and rebounding, his big-play capability and his outside shooting, which will help stretch defenses for Tim Duncan.... When Duncan was a rookie, his weakness was passing out of the double teams, but now his passing is so strong that the Spurs' offense is built around him picking defenses apart.... Jackson will be replaced in the starting lineup by Ginobili, who is an improvement in every area. Not only is Ginobili a better ball handler and decision maker, but he's also a clutch defender who makes steals and hustle plays all over the floor.... The confidence of winning a title should help Tony Parker flourish as a leader, even at 21. He'll always be able to draw on the fact that he bounced back from those tough early-round games against Stephon Marbury.... The biggest question is why San Antonio signed Parker's new backup, Anthony Carter, who's a dubious decision maker and a career 38 percent shooter. I don't see how a guy who can't hit open jumpers will survive in this offense."

Issue date: October 27, 2003

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