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Tres magnifique

Spurs' Parker making move toward NBA's elite

Posted: Wednesday December 21, 2005 4:08PM; Updated: Wednesday December 21, 2005 11:01PM
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Tony Parker
Tony Parker is fast becoming one of the NBA's most complete point guards.
Greg Nelson/SI
Parker in the paint
Quick, which San Antonio Spurs star leads the entire NBA in points scored in the paint?

If you guessed Tim Duncan, you'd be wrong.

It's Tony Parker.

Yes, Parker, the Spurs' 6-2 point guard with the French flair and the killer teardrop, leads all NBA players in cashing in around the basket. Through Tuesday Parker had scored 328 points in the paint. That was six more than Duncan, who goes 6-11 (or 7-foot if you count his new mini 'fro).

"A lot of people have told me that, but I didn't realize it," Parker chuckled Tuesday night. "They must be counting all my floaters. ... What can I say? I just try to create and get to the basket."

While Parker's incredible quickness enables him to get to the basket almost at will, he's helped by the fact that the Spurs can surround him with good shooters to keep defenses honest. With three-point marksmen like Bruce Bowen (50 percent), Brent Barry (42.5), Robert Horry (40.4), Michael Finley (35.7) and Manu Ginobili (33.9), the Spurs create tiny cracks for Parker to exploit.

"Obviously he's extremely fast and he has that teardrop that is so hard to make and so hard to block," Ginobili says. "At the same time, its hard [for our opponents] to help and collapse the paint because we've got Tim Duncan and so many great open shooters.

"But he's so fast and plays so confidently that he's hard to guard no matter what. He can let it fly so quickly without jumping. He gets the shot blockers off guard."

Adds Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: "Everybody's packing it in on him, because they know he's doing it, but he keeps doing it."

Here's a look at the NBA's top five in scoring points in the paint (through Tuesday):

1. Tony Parker, Spurs 328
2. Tim Duncan, Spurs 322
3. Dwyane Wade, Heat 316
4. LeBron James, Cavs 304
5. Allen Iverson, Sixers 298

Source: Elias Sports Bureau
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Tony Parker has a confession to make.

It seems the Spurs point guard isn't satisfied with his two NBA championship rings, his onetime status as one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People and his high-profile romance with TV starlet Eva Longoria.

Parker, it seems, wants to be known as one of the game's best point guards. He wants to be known as more than just a third wheel alongside Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili on the Spurs' championship machine. He wants to be included with Steve Nash, Allen Iverson and Jason Kidd on the list of top all-around floor generals.

"Oh, definitely. Definitely," Parker says. "It's a big motivation."

Parker, in his fifth season, appears to be on his way. Through Tuesday the 6-2 French flash was averaging career highs in five categories: points (20.2), assists (6.3), rebounds (4.1), steals (1.32) and field-goal percentage (53.8 percent). He led all NBA players in points in the paint (see box) and his shooting percentage ranked fifth in the league. The last point guard to finish in the top 10 in shooting percentage was John Stockton, 51.7 percent in 2001-02.

Parker's hot shooting and all-around play have been a reason the Spurs have hung with the Pistons at the top this season despite nagging injuries to Duncan (foot) and Ginobili (foot). Parker's ability to pick up more of the scoring load, while also dishing the ball and playing his usual solid defense, has been critical. Coach Gregg Popovich even goes so far as to call Parker his team's "most consistent player" this season and ranks him alongside Detroit's Chauncey Billups as the two point guards who are making the jump to All-Star status this season.

"I see Tony as somebody who's trying to prove a point," Popovich says. "He's been hellfire since the season started. All through training camp he was really focused on improving as player."

Long known as one of the quickest players -- and best finishers - in the NBA, Parker this season has gone about trying to refine the rougher edges of his game. For example, he has worked extensively to improve his shaky jumper with Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland, a former tutor for Grant Hill and Steve Kerr.  This season he has spent the season coaching Parker on everything from his stance to where he places his thumb.

The results have been modest but encouraging. While Parker's shooting from downtown remains a wreck ("We've sort of taken away his 3-point shot," Popovich jokes) he has shown a more reliable mid-range game. He knocked down several jumpers to help slay the Nuggets on opening night, and hit two big shots down the stretch at Milwaukee on Tuesday night to keep his team in a game that they lose in OT.

"It's just how I hold the ball, and things like that," Parker says. "I'd been shooting the same way my first four years and it wasn't working like I wanted. I knew I had to take two steps backward and try to change some things.

"It's just great to have somebody to correct me when I'm not doing well and to push me every day in practice. I'm trying to get better. That's one part of my game I'm trying to improve."

Parker's ability to hit his outside shot is important because it might be the only thing holding him back from elite status. With his feline-like moves, he's already almost unstoppable going to the basket. He's also long been regarded for his "teardrops," the name given to those tricky short runners over taller players.

For opponents, Parker is quicksilver in Spurs' silver and black. Tuesday night he slithered around Bucks point guard T.J. Ford and bounced off rookie center Andrew Bogut for a layup that left everyone one on Milwaukee's team shaking their head. As shocking as it might seem that a point guard could lead the league in points in the paint, the Bucks probably wouldn't be surprised.

"We talked about it today [before the game], that he was shooting a lot of shots from outside last year and two years ago, [but] right now, with his quickness, he's making an effort to get to the paint and get lay-ups," Bucks veteran forward Toni Kukoc said.

"I'll say those were the two quickest guys in the league tonight, T.J. Ford and him. [Iverson's] right there, too, but I don't think even he's quicker than those two guys."

That's not to say Parker is ready to join AI at the top just yet. The Spurs guard still tends to commit turnovers in flurries (3.2 per game), and he shoots free throws more like a 7-footer (66 percent) than a point guard. His shot selection, though getting much better, also could use some work. Against the Bucks he pulled up for a 3-pointer (a shot he's attempted only 12 times all season) with the score tied at 107-all and just five seconds left on the clock in overtime. He missed badly, and the Bucks were able to regain possession for what turned out to be a game-winning buzzer-beater by Bogut. On the sidelines Popovich's hair turned an even whiter shade.

But Parker at least seems to be learning from his mistakes. Seated at his locker after the game, he took full responsibility. "I was trying to make sure we got the last shot," he said. "But I think I started my move too late and I was too far out."

It was yet another confession for the little Frenchman with the worldly ambitions. And one that any truly great point guard -- like Nash, Iverson or Kidd - surely would be willing to make as well.