A lot of times you read or hear someone say "last year was a blur" when a player comes in with a lot of hype and expectation. That was probably not the case with Tiago Splitter's first season in the NBA. There was a lot of hype and expectation, but the San Antonio Spurs back up center's first season in the United States was more of a slow crawl.
Last season, Splitter only averaged 12 minutes in the 60 games he played. This season, his minutes are up and he's improved in every statistical category. If you listen to head coach Gregg Popovich, this isn't surprising because Splitter was one of the five best players in Europe for the last four or five years. Still, last season had a lot of fans wondering if Splitter could adjust to the NBA's style of play.
This season, Splitter has been great on the low block on offense. His unorthodox play has definitely produced points and trips to the free throw line. He's big and strong enough to back down his defender and shoot the most awkward running hook shot in the world. Remember this running hook from Magic Johnson? Not the same thing. While his funky post game has proven effective, Splitter's best attribute is rolling to the basket coming off setting a screen. According to Synergy Sports, Splitter is shooting 71 percent and scoring 1.35 points per possession in pick-and-roll situations. That's good enough to rank third in the league. He's also done most of this damage without Manu Ginobili in the lineup. Certainly one of the league's craftiest passers hooking up with one of the best roll men in basketball is going to provide for even better production as the season goes forward.
On defense, Splitter ranks in the top ten in the league in defending spot up and isolation plays. Do not try to score on Tiago if your back isn't to the basket. He will put you in an uncomfortable position or force you to take a shot you don't really want to take. Once you get him on the block he's easier to score on, but he also defended the post fewer times than Matt Bonner. He's a very good defensive rebounder, but is pretty ineffective on the offensive glass (so the opposite of DeJaun Blair).
Overall, Splitter needs two things to get better. One of them he can control, the other he really can't. First, I'd like to see some consistent aggression from Tiago. Our Jeff Garcia mentions this at least once a week and I agree that it's a problem, though I think Jeff and I may have differing opinions over how severe a concern it is. But overall, especially when he's in there with the second unit, I want him to be the guy the offense flows through and I want him to get his when the situation presents itself. The other part where he needs to get better is getting more time with the starters, particularly finding good chemistry with Tim Duncan on defense. Duncan is shooting so many jumpers these days, I think he and Splitter can work fine together on offense.
I don't care if Splitter is starting, but I do want him to get to a point where he's out there finishing games next to Duncan, especially when the Spurs need stops and rebounds. Splitter's been such a joy to watch this season, here's hoping to see even more of him as the season goes on.