Spurs’ Neal looks for staying power

By Jeff McDonald

For Gary Neal, the idea is never to get too comfortable.

Though only in his second season, Neal is already an established NBA player, a fixture in Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s playing rotation and — thanks to a spectacular buzzer-beater against Memphis in last year’s playoffs — an everlasting part of Spurs lore.

In his mind, however, Neal has never stopped feeling like an undrafted rookie still scratching to make it.

“To be honest with you, I don’t feel like I’ve arrived,” the Spurs’ reserve guard said. “I had one good season. That’s it.”

True, that one good season was like a lightning bolt out of the blue. Neal came from nowhere, or at least the Italian League, to set Spurs rookie records for 3-point percentage (41.9) and 3-pointers made (129) and averaged 9.8 points.

He earned first-team NBA All-Rookie honors, becoming the second undrafted player in league history to earn such a designation.

As if to prove Neal’s hypothesis that one good season does not a career make, the other was Jorge Garbajosa, an All-Rookie first-teamer for Toronto in 2007 who lasted one more NBA season after that.

“My goal is to retire in the NBA,” said Neal, 27. “To be able to do that, you have to be productive year in and year out.”

If Neal ever requires an added reminder of his NBA station, he need only look at his bi-weekly paycheck. He is still being paid like an undrafted rookie.

No member of the Spurs’ permanent roster earns less than the $762,195 Neal will make this season. He is set to receive a modest bump to $854,389 next season, the final year of his original three-year deal with the Spurs, but Neal will have to wait until the 2013 free agency to cash in on his NBA accomplishments.

So far this season, Neal’s quest to build on his rookie campaign has been hampered by a series of bizarre medical issues.

Four days into training camp, Neal suffered an appendix inflammation that required the removal of the organ. He missed all of the preseason and the first five games of the regular season recuperating.

Then in January, Neal needed four staples in his head after bashing it on his medicine cabinet at home.

“I was starting to think I was cursed,” Neal said.

Heading into tonight’s game against lowly Charlotte, Neal is averaging 9.7 points and shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range, numbers down slightly from his rookie year.

Yet the arrow is trending upward. In February, Neal averaged 11.2 points and shot 43.9 percent from the beyond the arc.

Neal is coming off his best game of the season, a 21-point affair in Wednesday’s loss to Chicago in which he kept the Bulls off balance with his developing dribble-drive game.

“Some (plays) are designed for him, and some are just him making an effort,” Popovich said of Neal’s season-high scoring night. “Mostly, it was him. He was amazing.”

In an effort to avoid becoming the next Garbajosa, Neal has shunned being pigeonholed as a 3-point specialist.

Part of that is out of necessity. After his stellar rookie season, Neal is no longer sneaking up on opponents.

“The scouting report is more detailed on me,” Neal said. “Some of the 3-point shots I got last year were wide open. I really haven’t had too many wide-open 3-pointers this year.”

When T.J. Ford went down with a torn hamstring in January, Neal was temporarily forced to add “backup point guard” to his job description.

“That’s the challenge, to continue to add something every year and continue to keep yourself relevant,” Neal said. “That’s how you stay in this league.”

For Neal, staying has always been the goal.

It took so much blood, sweat, tears and time for Neal to finally make the NBA. Now that he’s here, he figures he might as well stick around.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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