Spurs' 7-3 rookie Boban Marjanovic proves 'useful' in win

SAN ANTONIO -- San Antonio Spurs center Boban Marjanovic barely speaks English, yet as an avid fan of rap, he often recites the lyrics of Drake and Future's song "Big Rings."

Maybe he's on to something, because against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night, Marjanovic made it clear he's capable of contributing to the team's quest for another championship ring.

"I try to be useful," he said.

Marjanovic, who is 7-foot-3, certainly accomplished as much in tying Kawhi Leonard for a team-high 17 points and going 7-for-7 from the field in San Antonio's 101-95 win over a scrappy Timberwolves team. Marjanovic, who played 15 minutes in Saturday's win over the Denver Nuggets, got more playing time in part because of the team's decision to rest Tim Duncan as a precautionary measure due to knee soreness.

"I think people look at his size and sort of think he's a big stiff," forward David West said. "But Boban's a hell of a player."

Minnesota found that out the hard way. The Timberwolves zipped out to a 10-point lead to start the game, and Marjanovic didn't enter until there was 3:31 left in the opening quarter. But 15 seconds later, Marjanovic recorded his lone block of the game. Then in the last 2:09 of that quarter, Marjanovic scored four points and pulled down the first of his four rebounds.

Interestingly, when the Spurs first signed Marjanovic in the summer to add depth and youth to the frontcourt, the initial thought was the team simply acquired a big body with some upside and that there was little chance for him to make a meaningful impact this season. But as the season progressed, so did Marjanovic's development with the help of Spurs assistants Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier, who often work with him before and after practices.

A three-time MVP of the Serbian Super League, Marjanovic averaged nearly 17 points and 11 rebounds in his most recent season playing for Crvena Zvezda before joining the Spurs.

"We've seen what he can do in practice," guard Danny Green said. "He's getting better and better each day. He's obviously a big guy. He's really a gentle giant, and he's always apologizing. I think he's getting more aggressive now, being more physical, taking the ball from people, moving people out the way, and finishing inside. He's always had good touch. But it was just [a matter of] him catching the ball and being assertive.

"It's interesting to see him do anything," Green said. "Anytime he's in the game, it still surprises me. I get excited anytime he dunks the ball without jumping, or blocks a shot or how mobile he is. I think it excites the crowd, too. He's a fan favorite already. Anything he does at his size I think is always pretty exciting and interesting."

The crowd on hand at the AT&T Center probably concurs, as evidenced by its reaction every time Marjanovic made a play.

Marjanovic racked up nine points and a steal in the third quarter; his last bucket, on a lob layup from a Boris Diaw assist, gave San Antonio a 76-72 lead with 13.4 seconds remaining.

"He impacted the game well in both stretches he played," said Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, who took over when head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected in the second quarter after a pair of technical fouls. "I think not only with his game, but also because he got the crowd involved. He got teammates involved. Also psychologically, it helped him. I am very happy. When he started playing at the beginning of the year, he was more of an attraction. Now, people understand that he is a valuable basketball player that of course has a lot to work on, but he also has some upside in his game. He is one more player we can trust and rely on."

West agreed, saying Marjanovic "gave us a huge boost" with "just his IQ and his size."

As for Marjanovic, who is arguably the most engaging and among the most well-liked players inside the locker room, he is still working through the language barrier while also learning the San Antonio Spurs way.

Marjanovic has averaged 13.5 points and 5.5 rebounds his last two games, hitting 80 percent from the field and 91.7 percent at the free throw line.

"I try to help my teammates, and they help me with the offense," Marjanovic said. "It's good. We play together, and they use my height, and I feel comfortable when I go out on the court. I'm very happy because I'm a part of this team."