Spurs still hunting for Parker’s backup

Last offseason, the Spurs tried to do the backup point guard thing right.

Not long after the NBA lockout ended, the team signed T.J. Ford — a veteran, pass-first, traditional point guard straight out of central casting — to play behind All-Star Tony Parker.

And for all 14 games the former University of Texas star appeared in wearing silver and black, it worked.

When a spinal injury nudged Ford into early retirement, coach Gregg Popovich handed the backup job to Gary Neal, a converted shooting guard, and held his breath.

Eight months later, on the cusp of a new season, that’s exactly how the Spurs’ depth chart still stands.

“Somehow or another, we never end up with a pure point to back up,” Popovich said. “We have these guys we sort of push into it somehow or another.”

On a team that returns every major player from a squad that went 50-16 and made the Western Conference finals last season, backup point guard is the one spot that remains unsettled.

Neal would be Parker’s primary backup “if we had a regular-season game tomorrow,” Popovich said, but fan favorite Patty Mills and second-year player Cory Joseph remain in the mix.

The jockeying for the position continues tonight, as the Spurs play their second preseason game — and first against an NBA opponent — against Atlanta at the ATT Center.

“It’s a very competitive environment, and that’s what I love about it,” said Mills, an affable 26-year-old Australian who will miss tonight’s game with a sprained right ankle. “We come out here and go at each other really hard and make each other better. Then we go back in the locker room and laugh with each other.”

Neal was the first point guard off the bench in the Spurs’ preseason-opening win over Montepaschi Siena, ending with a team-high 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting.

He also logged two assists, made only one turnover and earned high marks for keeping the second-unit offense on track.

“He’s significantly better now at doing point guard-type things than he was last year,” Popovich said.

Score-first guards all, none of the candidates for the role of Parker’s backup would pass muster at the Steve Nash School of Pure Point-Guard Playing.

Mills’ claim to fame in his short time with the Spurs: Exploding for 61 points combined in the final two regular-season games last season.

Joseph, a 21-year-old former UT standout, spent much of last season in the Development League but made palpable strides in his shooting and ball-handling over the summer. He had 10 points, two assists and three steals in the preseason opener.

(Another one-time point guard hopeful, French rookie Nando De Colo, has seen most of his playing time so far at off guard.)

“They’re seriously fighting hard,” Parker said. “It’s going to be Pop’s decision, but all of them are working hard.”

Neal, who is entering his third NBA season at age 28, admits it took him awhile to grow comfortable as a point guard last season.

The fact that he had to replace Ford, a more conventional point guard, made the transition more difficult.

“My whole career, I’ve judged my game on how I shoot the ball and the points I score,” Neal said. “When you play the point, it’s not really about that.”

Like a baseball manager who will play a slugger out of position in order to get his bat in the lineup, Popovich used Neal at point to get his scoring in the rotation.

Despite the position change, Neal’s final numbers looked remarkably similar to those he posted during an All-Rookie campaign in 2010-11 — 9.1 points per game, 2.1 assists, 1.1 turnovers.

“For somebody who is such a prolific scorer and is so used to doing just that, it was a tough adjustment for him,” Popovich said.

“Under those circumstances, he did a great job of trying to figure out what we needed him to do.”

Though not quite out of central casting, Neal is doing his best to act the part.


Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

Notebook: Green gets off shooting schneid

By Jeff McDonald

HOUSTON – Danny Green’s first jumper of the game was good, a 20-footer just inside the left arc.

He followed that with a 3-pointer, and then another.

By the time Green left the Toyota Center on Sunday afternoon, having canned 6 of 9 field goals good for 15 points in the Spurs’ 116-107 preseason win over Houston, he was ready to declare his shooting slump dead.

“It’s easy to get in a rhythm once you get the first one out of your holster,” Green said. “You shoot with a little more confidence. You don’t have to think about it so much.”

For much of the preseason, Green’s goal has been to keep his many misfires from getting into his head.

Heading into Sunday’s game, the Spurs’ starting shooting guard had clanged 11 of his 15 attempts in three exhibition contests.

That came on the heels of a Western Conference finals series against Oklahoma City last postseason in which Green went 8 of 31 and was eventually benched in favor of Manu Ginobili.

With Sunday’s sizzling performance, Green lifted his preseason shooting percentage a full 15 points, from 26.7 percent to 41.7 percent.

“I’ve been putting up extra shots, and they’ve been feeling good,” Green said. “Hopefully, I got over that mental slump and can get it rolling again.”

Manu’s back: Ginobili returned to action after missing two games with a minor foot injury.

He played a shade less than 18 minutes, scoring 11 points with three assists, including a nifty no-look pass to set up Tony Parker’s only basket of the game.

Just getting on the floor was important for Ginobili, who said his conditioning might not have survived a more extended layoff.

“In six days or seven days (off), I didn’t lose much conditioning,” the 35-year-old guard said. “It’s good that I didn’t have to miss more practice time or playing time, because then it would start to go downhill.”

Ginobili said he felt a pinching sensation in the heel of his right foot after logging 12 minutes in the Spurs’ preseason opener against Montespachi Siena on Oct. 6. An MRI came back clean, and rest seemed to do the trick.

“It bothered me for three or four days,” Ginobili said. “I didn’t practice much. On the fifth or sixth day, I started to feel better and got back to work.”

Mills’ return imminent: Backup point guard Patrick Mills, out for two games with a sprained right ankle, says he hopes he can return to practice Monday morning.

“It was a little one, just a scratch,” Mills said. “I’m fine.”

Barring a setback in practice over the next five days, it’s likely Mills will be activated for the Spurs’ next preseason game, Saturday in Miami.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

Besides core trio, Spurs’ rotation spots wide open

By Jeff McDonald

Officially, training camp for the Spurs does not begin until Tuesday, but coach Gregg Popovich has already long been hard at work pondering tough personnel decisions.

“It’s probably fair to say Tim and Manu and Tony are going to make the team,” Popovich said.

As it has been for the past 10 seasons, the Spurs can chisel the All-Star troika of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker onto the opening-day roster.

For most everyone else, playing time is up for grabs.

With French rookie guard Nando De Colo injected into an already crowded and competitive backcourt mix, and the role of Duncan’s tag-team partner still open on the low block, Popovich is expecting a cut-throat kind of training camp.

“We’ll see who rises to the top,” Popovich said during a wide-ranging pre-camp interview Friday. “Whoever deserves the minutes, we want to win games, so we’re going to put them on the court.”

For a Spurs team that returns 13 players from last year’s squad that finished a league-best 50-16 and lost to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, training camp 2012 arrives with a surprising dose of intrigue.

One such battle will be at backup point guard, where the Spurs never settled on a No. 2 behind Parker after T.J. Ford’s career-ending neck injury in March.

Gary Neal and Ginobili, shooting guards by trade, chipped in at times, as did Australian speedster Patrick Mills after his late March arrival.

De Colo, a 25-year-old former second-round pick who spent the past three seasons in Spain, should also figure into the equation. So could former Texas standout Cory Joseph, a second-year pro who apprenticed for much of his rookie season in the Development League.

Mills might have the inside track after a starring turn in the Olympics for Australia’s national team, coached by Spurs assistant Brett Brown.

“I don’t make any plans ahead of time for increased roles for people,” Popovich said, though he did praise Mills’ work for the Boomers in London. “I let them make those decisions for themselves and how they play in the preseason and in training camp.”

The Spurs are more settled on the wings, where Ginobili and second-year phenom Kawhi Leonard appear poised to hoard most of the playing time at shooting guard and small forward, respectively.

Neal, Stephen Jackson and Danny Green, last season’s breakout role player, will wrestle over the leftover minutes on the wing. De Colo also could see time there.

For 15 seasons, Duncan has been practically bronzed into the starting power forward spot (or center spot, if you’re so inclined), but the starting job next to him in the frontcourt remains in play.

DeJuan Blair started 62 games there last season before ceding the spot to newcomer Boris Diaw in the playoffs.

Spurs coaches, impressed by Diaw’s versatility on offense and pleasantly surprised by his defense last season, are open to leaving him in the starting lineup this season.

Third-year big man Tiago Splitter, at 6-foot-11 a more traditional NBA center, also will siphon some playing time.

A postseason afterthought after averaging 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds during the regular season, Blair made no effort to hide his frustration during the offseason. At one point, he said he expected to be traded before the start of his fourth NBA campaign.

Popovich said Friday he is glad to have Blair back, reiterating the 6-7 former Pittsburgh All-American will have to earn his way on the floor in some form or fashion.

“We don’t make any preconceived decisions on who is going to play what or how many minutes,” Popovich said. “If DeJuan plays better than Manu at the two guard, then he’ll start at the two guard.”

If the time ever comes that Popovich really must ponder starting Blair at guard, it’s safe to say something has gone wrong with the Spurs’ season.

“I’m probably going to wish I’d never said that,” Popovich said, grinning. “He’s going to start practicing his threes.”


Monday: Media day

Tuesday: Start of training camp

Wednesday: Intrasquad scrimmage (free admission, open seating) — 7:30 p.m., ATT Center (doors open at 6:30 p.m.)

Oct. 6: First preseason game — vs. Siena, 7:30 p.m., ATT Center

Oct. 31: Regular-season opener — at Hornets, 7 p.m., KENS NBA TV

Nov. 1: Home opener — vs. Thunder, 8:30 p.m., TNT

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN