Is Blair right fit as Spurs’ center?

By Jeff McDonald

For Spurs center DeJuan Blair, the toughest part about Russia wasn’t learning a new language. It wasn’t living in a foreign country, alone and further from home than he’s ever been.

It wasn’t reimagining how to play basketball, having to mold his game with the run-and-gun, everybody-shoots-it ethos of the Russian Leagues.

For Blair, the toughest part about spending two months of the NBA lockout playing for Krasnye Krylya, in the Russian metropolis of Samara, was finding suitable sustenance to feed his ample belly.

“I found a T.G.I. Fridays and a McDonald’s,” Blair said, “so I was good.”

Back in San Antonio, and somehow more svelte than when he left for Russia, Blair finds himself amid one of the most heated battles of Spurs training camp.

After watching the Spurs’ frontline get consistently manhandled by Memphis meat-eaters Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in last April’s playoffs, coach Gregg Popovich declared the hunt for a starting big man to pair with All-Star Tim Duncan to be the team’s top personnel priority.

Though the Spurs haven’t ruled out bringing in outside reinforcements, via free agency or trade, Popovich will also audition a handful of in-house candidates.

The 22-year-old Blair, who started the first 63 games last season and averaged 8.3 points and seven rebounds, is among them. So is second-year center Tiago Splitter, the former first-round pick who struggled in search of steady playing time as a rookie.

“I hope I’ve got a bigger role this year,” Splitter said. “It’s not in my hands, it’s in the coaches’ hands, but I’m prepared.”

? Neither Blair nor Splitter spreads the floor much on offense, which could lead the Spurs — somewhat reluctantly — back to 3-point specialist Matt Bonner, who led the NBA in long-range accuracy but appears better suited to spot duty.

Popovich’s search for a starting center dovetails with his stated desire to improve the Spurs defensively. Antonio McDyess, 37, would be in the mix, if not for the expectation he will retire.

“There’s got to be enough size there,” Popovich said. “We need a (big man) that can guard. If you get one that can guard, the more that guys spread the floor, the better off you are.”

With the 35-year-old Duncan having slipped from dominating MVP levels, his new sidekick will be asked to carry a greater load than ever.

In terms of sheer size, Splitter is the most prototypical candidate on the camp roster. The 6-foot-11 former Spanish League MVP battled injuries throughout his rookie season, appearing in 60 games and starting six.

“I think I learned a lot last year,” said Splitter, who will turn 27 on New Year’s Day. “It wasn’t a waste of time. I grew a lot. This year, I’m way more ready to play than last year.”

For the 6-foot-7 Blair, Lilliputian by NBA big-man standards, size has never been an asset. Often, he can be overmatched by larger, longer frontlines.

During the lockout, Blair watched DVDs of his first two NBA seasons. He didn’t always recognize the player he saw.

“I was trying to be a robot,” Blair said. “I wasn’t playing like me.”

The natural, free-flowing — and, yes, exuberant — player he was in two college seasons at Pittsburgh rarely showed in a Spurs jersey.

“I just want to bring that DeJuan Blair back,” Blair said. “I was having fun, smiling on the court and doing a lot of things I don’t think I did the past two seasons. I think I’ll have a lot more rage like I had my last season at Pitt.”

Blair’s weight has been an issue throughout his first two pro seasons. At one point last year, he flirted with 300 pounds.

After the playoff ouster against Memphis, in which Blair did not play in Game 5 or 6, Popovich challenged him to show more “responsibility and maturity.”

“That will get him to the next level,” Popovich said. “Short of that, he’ll have a hard time.”

Blair believes two months in Russia have matured him. His slimmer waistline, achieved despite an Americanized diet overseas, shows it.

The time alone, he says, provided much food for thought.

“Just being over there in that environment, I thought a lot,” Blair said. “I grew up a lot.”

Whether a grown-up Blair is the Spurs’ answer at center remains to be seen. With two weeks and counting before the start of the season, the search continues.

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