By Jeff McDonald
The last time the Spurs faced the Memphis Grizzlies, DeJuan Blair had the best seat in the house. Watching from the bench for much of April’s playoff meeting, which the Spurs lost in six games, Blair didn’t exactly enjoy the view.
An erstwhile starter, Blair totaled 50 minutes in the series. He did not play at all in Game 5 or 6.
Those DNPs stuck with the 6-foot-7 center throughout the prolonged NBA offseason.
“I thought about that the whole lockout,” Blair said. “As soon as I stepped into training camp, last year was over. It’s a new year, and a new me.”
When the Grizzlies visit the ATT Center for Monday’s season opener, they are assured of seeing a lot more of Blair than they did in April.
For the second year in a row, Blair is poised to be the Spurs’ opening-day starter at center.
The NBA’s second-shortest starting center behind 6-6 Houston-turned-Sacramento big man Chuck Hayes, Blair became an unlikely tag-team partner with Tim Duncan last season, starting the first 63 games.
The Spurs were an NBA-best 51-12 with Blair in the lineup, but coach Gregg Popovich replaced him with the more experienced Antonio McDyess heading toward the playoffs.
With few other options heading into the new season, Popovich appears ready to give Blair his old job back, for better or worse.
“He’s continued to push himself, continued to learn,” Duncan said of the third-year pro. “Along with the natural skill he has, he’s continued to understand the game and what we want from him.”
When Duncan says the Spurs are “going to have to put guys out there and let them sink or swim,” Blair isn’t the only player in that category. But he might be at the top of the list.
Last season, Blair built upon an All-Rookie campaign by averaging 8.3 points and seven rebounds, the highlight perhaps being a 17-point, 15-rebound line in a Dec. 28 victory over the L.A. Lakers. But he still found himself at times overwhelmed by longer front lines and out of place on defense.
He also struggled with his weight, topping 300 pounds late in the season.
In an exit interview after the season, Popovich gave the former Pittsburgh All-American an ultimatum: Improve your approach to the job, or else.
“He talked about being more mature, having more professionalism and just being a pro on and off the court,” Blair said.
Only 22 and fiercely independent, Blair says he still struggles to reconcile the Spurs Way with his own path.
“I’m trying to follow that in my way and become the DeJuan Blair who I establish, not the one Pop establishes,” Blair said.
Popovich views Blair as a player whose best days are still ahead of him, provided he puts in the work.
“DeJuan is still learning about what he can do offensively and what he’s got to do defensively,” Popovich said. “He’s still in a development stage.”
Blair helped his cause by showing up at training camp in some semblance of playing shape. Left to his own devices during the lockout — and his own Whataburger-fueled eating habits — there was a real fear Blair might return jumbo-sized.
Had that happened, there might not have been a doghouse in San Antonio big enough to fit him. Instead, Blair arrived at right around his target weight of 265 pounds.
“I was excited to see him walk through that door,” Duncan said.
In a perfect world, Popovich would prefer not to start an undersized center with a tendency to check out on defense, but for now Blair appears to be the best option on a flawed roster.
Blair, for his part, aims to rise to the challenge. He did not grow an inch over the lockout. But he is eager to prove that he has grown up.
“I’m getting there,” Blair said. “I’m still young, and I’m still going to make mistakes. All I can do is learn from them.”