New Spurs guard faces big learning curve

By Jeff McDonald

Nando de Colo, the Spurs’ latest international import, is fluent in three languages: his native French, Spanish and English.

He fully admits there are still gaps in his grasp of the last of these.

For instance, when Gregg Popovich compliments de Colo as “a poor man’s Danny Ainge,” the 25-year-old guard’s new coach might as well be speaking Swahili.

“In France, it’s difficult to follow the NBA,” de Colo said with a shrug. “So I didn’t see a lot of games growing up.”

For de Colo, the crash course in NBA 101 starts now.

When the Spurs open training camp Tuesday, de Colo will be the new kid on the block, the most notable addition on a team otherwise content to double down on last season’s Western Conference finals appearance.

Selected with the 53rd overall pick in 2009, de Colo — who at 6-foot-5 can man either guard spot — spent the past three seasons honing his craft for ? Spanish League power Valencia.

He made the jump to the Spurs in July, signing a two-year deal totaling a little more than $2.8 million.

“I think I’m ready,” de Colo said.

The Spurs are not expecting de Colo to come in and be a star. He might not even be a rotation fixture at first. Like their most recent overseas arrival, Brazilian center Tiago Splitter, de Colo has been a described as a high-IQ role player.

He averaged 12.5 points, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals in three seasons with Valencia and is eager to throw himself into the competition for minutes backing up All-Star point guard and fellow Frenchman Tony Parker.

Though Spurs management insists it is far too early to tell what they have in de Colo, those who have watched him in recent pickup games have marveled at his passing skills.

“He’s just a basketball player,” Popovich said. “He’s got good size. Not a great athlete, but a good enough athlete. He really understands the game.”

Hence, the comparison to Ainge, a heady combo guard who won a pair of championships with the Boston Celtics in the 1980s.

“Danny was a better athlete than this kid is, and a little bigger, but he really understands how to play the game,” Popovich said. “He fits in well with the group, makes good decisions, finishes on the break. He’s going to be fun to watch.”

Like most European boys, de Colo was raised with a soccer ball at his feet. Like many of his American counterparts, he also grew up with a basketball in his hands.

Both his parents played professionally in France, as did two of his sisters.

Growing up in Arras, France, a town of about 42,000 near the Belgian border, de Colo’s basketball idol was not Parker, widely regarded as the greatest player in the country’s history.

It was his older sister Leila, 10 years his senior, who played in France’s top women’s league.

“When I was young, I didn’t watch guys,” de Colo said. “It was only girls, because I watched my sister play.”

A basketball player all his life, de Colo realizes the NBA is a whole new ballgame.

“It’s a new experience for me,” said de Colo, who won a EuroCup title in 2010 with Valencia. “It’s different than in Europe. I must work every day and try to learn about the NBA game.”

Under different circumstances, the start of training camp might be a lonely time for de Colo.

With the Spurs’ lone 2011 draft choice, second-rounder Marcus Denmon, set to begin his pro career in Europe, de Colo is the only drafted rookie on the roster. (Denmon, incidentally, has signed with Cholet, the French team with which de Colo cut his teeth from 2006-09).

It helps de Colo’s transition that he is surrounded by fellow Frenchmen.

He is one of three on the Spurs’ roster, joining Parker and center Boris Diaw in reuniting the French national team in South Texas.

In August, the trio helped lead Les Bleus to the Olympic quarterfinals in London.

Since his arrival in San Antonio last week, de Colo has been living with Diaw at Parker’s estate outside of town while he hunts for a place of his own.

“It’s great to play with some other French guys,” de Colo said. “If you need something, if you don’t understand something, it’s easier to speak with them.”

Perhaps, if de Colo is lucky, one of them might even be able to explain how he reminds them of Danny Ainge.


Nando de Colo, a 25-year-old rookie from France, was the lone addition to the Spurs’ guaranteed roster this offseason. Here is a glance at the new kid on the block:

Position: Guard

Height: 6-foot-5

Born: June 23, 1987, in Arras, France

How acquired: Drafted 53rd overall in 2009

Pro résumé: Three seasons with French club Cholet, then three-year stint with Spanish League power Valencia from 2009-10 to 2011-12

French connection: One of three members of French national team on Spurs that advanced to Olympic quarterfinals, joining Tony Parker and Boris Diaw

What they’re saying: “You never know how he fits until someone gets into your group, but he’s got good size for the position and can go back and forth between the 2 and the 1.” — Spurs general manager R.C. Buford
Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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