Over the course of a player's career, things can change. Even from one year to the next their performance can fluctuate and our expectations can shift. We find the metamorphosis fascinating. We've had the chance to watch a few Spurs players progress through their first steps in the league until now. Some turned out how we expected. For better or worse, some didn't.
Over the next four weeks, we're going to bring you our thoughts on the “Then and Now” of their respective careers.
In the Summer of 2002, shortly before the FIBA World Championships, SLAM Magazine ran a piece on some of the best Euro hoops prospects. Among the list was a lanky Argentinian guard wrecking on squads all over the Italian league. Apparently the Spurs were holding onto his draft rights from the mother of all surreptitious draft moves - 57th overall in the second round of the '99 draft.
Instantly, I was intrigued.
Manu Ginobili came to the Spurs – came to the league – in a different way than most rookies. He was drafted, sure, but the state in which he was dropped into the league differed greatly from most other rookies. For lack of a better word, Manu was... done. He was finished from a skill development stand point. He had to overcome injury and varying style of play in the NBA his rookie season, but all the basic skills sets he possesses now were there from day one.
I'll never forget hunting down highlight reels of this guy from his days in Kinder Bologna or watching him play in the 2002 FIBA World Championships shortly after that.
It was like watching Pulp Fiction for the first time; or hearing Jimi Hendrix play guitar. It was mesmerizing – unorthodox and offbeat, but instantly definitive and unmistakably cool. He didn't have the uncertainty or lack of polish rookies do. No matter how odd the shot or unstable the dribble move, it always held together like frantic choreography. When Manu Ginobili moves, it's like he's bopping to a rhythm the rest of us can't hear.
When I think of how Manu has changed in the past seven years, a couple of things jump to mind – one major, one minor.
A.) Manu's a much better decision maker now.
B.) His shot is refined and more consistent.
We'll take that major issue first. When Manu first dropped in the league he was like this erratic ball of energy that affected everything, sometimes both positively and negatively. He canceled himself out sometimes.
I don't remember if coach Pop ever said it directly or if I was just inferring this from the tone of his interviews, but I always felt the sentiment was that when Manu was on the floor the Spurs just accepted that he was going to hurt the team on a handful of plays with poor decision making and they just hoped he managed to do more help than harm.
Ginobili had a tendency to be over aggressive. He tried to thread the needle a little too tight on some passes. He took shots that weren't there. He tried to drive into lanes that weren't open.
As he developed and got some tough love from Pop, his game matured. He was able to touch the ball without feeling the overwhelming compulsion to make a play. He was letting the game come to him. Now that he has a more methodical approach to reading opportunities on making plays, both offensively and defensively, it's like a switch that gets flipped at the right time.
Manu doesn't lunge at every pass to attempt a steal or drive at every crevasse in the defense. Coming off the bench became an important part of his development. It taught him to be aggressive while never wasting an opportunity, or his potentially limited minutes. He was forced to become efficient.
Second issue, while not as pronounced, is still a deciding factor in Manu's development.
His shooting has improved.
Not that his shot was ever severely lacking, but there's been a noticeable upswing in his 3PT and free-throw percentages in the past couple of seasons. This matters because the more consistent range from deep lets him score less physically strenuous points and makes him that much more effective in an inside-out scheme. Again, his 3PT shot was never bad, but as he continues into his 30s he's going to need it to get better and we can see that happening.
Manu's free-throw shooting is a bit more noticeable if you're tracking stats. Over the past four seasons Manu's FT% has always been above 85%, whereas in his first four seasons it barely managed to crack 80% twice. Over the past two seasons his percentage at the line is pushing ninety. Manu's game revolves around penetration, daring dives to the cup and drawing contact – the improved free-throw shooting makes him that much more dangerous.
Manu has always been a dangerous scorer, but now you can't even touch the guy without practically giving him two points. He's a top five free-throw shooter in the league and he's one of the most aggressive offensive players on the court, it's insane.
Where does Manu go from here?
Honestly, I don't know.
Manu is 32-years-old and we have to accept that he may have already peaked. There are things we could nit-pick at – getting stronger with his right hand, cultivating a mid-range game that's as deadly as his shot from range or his acrobatics at the rim, but these things are minute.
If you ask any basketball people (coaches, scouts – not analysts), Manu has a remarkably complete game, there are few weaknesses. The only real question is how productive and healthy Manu can stay in the next few years. The transition to shooter and easing off on the rough trips to the lane may be a sacrifice he has to make for the sake of longevity.
Truthfully, that's unlikely. Unfortunately Manu will likely leave the league like he came in – hot, bright and unexpectedly. Manu is a highly dynamic and entertaining player, but I don't think we'll get to enjoy seeing him play for more than three or four more seasons. His body won't hold up, not at the pace he's going.
Even if he's only at 80% for the rest of his career he'll still always be brilliant and spectacular. No matter when it stops one thing is for sure, Manu Ginobili's career will end like it started – like it unwound – not with a whimper but a bang.