SAN ANTONIO — Pau Gasol hunched over to jam a foot into a grey Nike high-top sneaker and took a quick survey of the room, before leaning back, exhaling, and cracking a smile with both eyebrows raised.
No need for elaboration, here. The description more than sufficed Sunday for the new-look San Antonio Spurs, which topped the Miami Heat 104-100 to open their first preseason without longtime franchise cogs Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili; all replaced by a host of newcomers led by former Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan, who made his debut.
“Just getting out there, lacing them up in front of the fans for the first time, it was fun,” DeRozan said, after finishing with seven points on 3-of-6 shooting in 18 minutes. “I’m glad I got to get the rust and kinks out and [got to] go out and get that part out of the way. It’s going to come along. I’m not worried at all. I was out there more anxious than anything.”
For most Spurs observers, the exhibition opener likely felt markedly different, too, without Leonard, who was traded to Toronto along with Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick. Gone were franchise stalwarts Ginobili and Parker, who signed with Charlotte as a free agent.
Even the team’s jerseys looked strangely different, as the Spurs sported a corporate logo (Frost Bank) patch for the first time in franchise history on the upper left portion of the jersey.
The Spurs tipped off with DeRozan in the starting lineup alongside former Raptors teammate Rudy Gay, who signed with San Antonio last July, LaMarcus Aldridge, Gasol and third-year point guard Dejounte Murray.
Of the 19 players on San Antonio’s training camp roster, just eight of them spent time last season on the regular-season roster.
“As the next few days go by, the next few games, it’s only going to get easier and easier,” DeRozan said. “I expect I’ll be rusty. Just go out there and try to feel things out and understand what I can get better at.”
Over a span of 30 seconds in the opening quarter, DeRozan committed a turnover and a pair of fouls within 13 seconds of one another. DeRozan also missed his first two shots, before knocking down his first bucket on a 17-footer with 6:19 left in the opening quarter on a play dialed up by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich during a timeout.
DeRozan would finish the first half with just three points on 1-of-4 from the floor.
“It’s pretty much a given that team-oriented players, when they get into situation like DeMar’s in now, he’s gonna probably pick and choose a little bit,” Popovich said. “He’s gonna take his time, get the lay of the land, figure out his teammates, and in that respect I thought he was great. He looked for his stuff, he helped with his teammates. It was a great first outing for him.”
Gay likened the challenges faced by DeRozan to what he experienced last year in his first season as a new Spur.
“We had a couple guys who have been there. We have them on the court and you throw DeMar in, and we could pretty much coach him just like I was coached last year,” Gay said. “It’s easier that way to keep a couple veterans out there with DeMar so he can learn where he’ll be most productive. The younger guys? They’re just playing, trying to find their way, and coach is trying to figure out where he can put them in the lineup and how our team can benefit off of each one of them.”
“It’s a unit that can score,” Popovich would later explain. “With Jakob in the post and shooters all around, it can be pretty interesting. We’re blessed with some people who can put it in the basket, and we want to put them in situations where they can use those skills.”
All the newness even manifested itself inside San Antonio’s locker room, where stalls for Parker, Ginobili and Leonard have already been assigned to other players.
As Bertans and Murray sat quietly at their lockers before tipoff bobbing their heads to music on headphones with the broadcast of the New England Patriots’ 38-7 drubbing of the Miami Dolphins playing on the locker room’s main monitor, on the other side of the room, recent signee Quincy Pondexter quietly asked, “Where was Manu’s locker?”
Pondexter was sitting right next to Ginobili’s former locker, which is now occupied by third-year guard Forbes. Two stalls over on Pondexter’s left sat Leonard’s old locker, which is now being used by newcomer Dante Cunningham.
Diagonally to the left from there, right next to Gasol’s locker, Marco Belinelli and Okaro White now reside in the two stalls Duncan once owned.
The new locker room layout surprised even Gasol and Mills, who is now San Antonio’s longest-tenured player.
Mills explained that Popovich has “a method” to how he has arranged the locker room.
Perhaps the coach also has one for coaxing the best from a team so full of new faces.
“The strangest thing was how early into training camp that we had a game,” Mills told ESPN. “That was the first of all the strangeness out here today, which was good in a way that we could just roll the ball out and play. But there’s a lot of new pieces that we’ve got a little bit of time to work out; a lot of new guys. The biggest change is obviously the names in the locker room, and having some names not here anymore. But in saying that, it’s an exciting feeling because there are guys that are hungry to win, they’re excited to be here, and it’s a dynamic that we haven’t necessarily had in like forever. There’s still that vibe of, ‘Let’s get amongst us, and create something.’ It’s a new, fresh feeling that I enjoy. It’s a challenge.”
Source : ESPN