Pop to Spurs’ Blair: ‘Just be who you are’

By Jeff McDonald

DALLAS — For Spurs center DeJuan Blair, the American Airlines Center will always be home to fond memories.

At All-Star Weekend here in 2010, he had 22 points and a record 23 rebounds in the rookie-sophomore game, punctuating his performance with a dunk off the backboard glass.

Later that year, with Tim Duncan sitting out the final game of the regular season, Blair detonated for 27 points and 23 rebounds in a loss at Dallas.

Somewhere deep inside him, Blair believes, the free-spirited player responsible for those moments still exists.

“I’ve just got to find him,” Blair said. “Be DeJuan Blair again.”

That was precisely the message coach Gregg Popovich was trying to impart when he dispatched the struggling Blair into a recent game with the instructions: “Just be who you are.”

“All players are different,” Popovich said. “If Tiago Splitter tried to do what Kevin Love does, he’d probably be pretty unsuccessful. If we tried to get DeJuan Blair to play like Tiago, he would be unsuccessful.”

As the Spurs return to Dallas today for a matinee against the NBA champion Mavericks, the 22-year-old Blair remains on a path of self-rediscovery.

Blair sums up Popovich’s “just be who you are” order in two words: “Energy and rebounding.”

At times, Blair’s play has become a tad too conventional, as if he is attempting, at 6-foot-7, to play center like a 7-footer. The joy that once garnished his game is gone.

In his third NBA season, Blair is averaging a career-best 10.4 points, but his rebounding numbers — once the best aspect of his game — are down to 5.8 per game.

The Spurs’ two most recent games provide stark contrast of good Blair and bad.

In a 105-83 win over Atlanta on Wednesday, Blair erupted for 13 of his 17 points in the second half, scoring on putbacks and pick-and-rolls and finishing fast breaks for his highest-scoring night since New Year’s Eve.

Two nights later, in a 87-79 loss at Minnesota, Blair went scoreless in 15 minutes, 22 seconds, ceding playing time to the 6-foot-11 Splitter, a more traditional NBA big man.

“The thing with DeJuan, we just want him to be consistent,” point guard Tony Parker said. “Some nights, he has it. Some nights, it looks like he’s having a hard time. When you’re young, that’s the hardest thing, to be consistent every night.”

Popovich, in part, blames himself for Blair’s ongoing identity crisis. He believes he has given Blair too much information, too much coaching, paralyzing his formerly freewheeling center with the fear of making mistake.

“You try and coach him, and you screw him up,” Popovich said.

In that, Popovich compares Blair to Manu Ginobili, a non-traditionalist who also balked at being bridled earlier in his career.

“After a while, I had to learn to be quiet and let him play,” Popovich said. “With DeJuan, he’s an instinctive player. He’s not going to play placing his feet in certain spots, and this is your move. It’s better to let him play and you get his full effectiveness.”

Though Blair acknowledges a tendency to over-think things on the court, he won’t say he’s been over-coached.

“I don’t believe in that,” Blair said. “You can never take too much in. I’m still young. I’m still learning.”

However it comes, Blair is seeking to revive the unorthodox, bull-in-a-china-closet playing style that hallmarked his All-American collegiate career at Pittsburgh, as well as his first two seasons in the NBA.

“I’m just going to play,” Blair said. “I’m finding my groove. I’m going to get there.”

The player who more than once turned the American Airlines Center into his own personal playground is still in there, somewhere. Blair just has to let him out.


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