ORLANDO, Fla. — Spurs point guard Tony Parker was sitting in a hotel ballroom earlier this weekend, immersed in the drudgery of his fourth NBA All-Star media day, reflecting on the unlikely journey that got him here.
Specially, he recalled a disaster of a pre-draft camp in Chicago more than 10 years ago that had nearly derailed his career before it began.
Then 19, Parker arrived at the workout not so fresh after a 12-hour flight from Paris and walked directly into a booby trap. His practice partner that day, a Spurs staffer and nondescript former NBA player named Lance Blanks, had been dispatched with explicit instructions to give the skinny kid from France the business.
“I was terrible,” Parker remembers of that day in 2001. “Lance was beating me up. He was playing no defense, just fouling me like crazy. I didn’t play well. They almost didn’t draft me.”
It took a second workout in San Antonio a few weeks later — plus some cajoling from general manager R.C. Buford — to get coach Gregg Popovich on board with selecting Parker 28th overall.
Even then, Popovich didn’t have high expectations once Parker arrived at training camp.
“At the time, I just wondered if he’d be able to make our team,” Popovich said.
Ten-plus seasons later, Parker has long since cleared that low bar. On the cusp of turning 30, Parker landed in Orlando in the midst of his best professional season, having tugged the Spurs to a 24-10 record despite missing star guard Manu Ginobili for all but nine games.
Tonight at the Amway Center, Parker will make his fourth All-Star appearance. In Spurs history, only Tim Duncan (13), David Robinson (10) and George Gervin (12, including three in the ABA) have made more.
With Duncan at age 35 and slowing, and Ginobili these days spending more time in street clothes than in uniform, Parker has emerged as the lead horse of a team that still harbors credible NBA title aspirations.
“He’s been our everything,” said Duncan, who will miss the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. “He’s played MVP caliber, he really has.”
Ginobili put it even more starkly.
“This is Tony’s team now,” he said.
Parker has accepted the keys, in part because he has no choice. He hit the All-Star break averaging 19.4 points and a career-best 8.1 assists, and riding a streak of four consecutive points-assists double-doubles.
“With Manu out, I have to do a lot more,” Parker said. “I have to be in attack mode the whole time.”
Apart from the numbers, Popovich has been impressed by Parker’s decision-making and control of the game. Night in and night out, Parker seems to sense what the Spurs need, and gives it to them.
Some of Parker’s box scores this season have been mind boggling: 34 points and 14 assists at Toronto, 30 points and 10 assists against the Clippers, 20 points and a career-high 17 assists at New Orleans.
“It’s his most complete season as a point guard,” Popovich said. “When you consider all aspects of the game — offense, deciding when to score and when to involve people, what’s the time of game, what’s the score, what’s going on, who’s hot, who’s rolling, playing defense at the other end and then being a leader out on the court — he’s doing all of those things better than he ever has.”
That’s high praise for a player who already has an NBA Finals MVP (2007) and All-NBA mention (2009) on his résumé.
The telltale night of Parker’s season came Feb. 4 in a home victory against Oklahoma City, when he broke Avery Johnson’s franchise assist record — and for dessert, pumped in 42 points.
Ginobili calls that the best game of Parker’s career, eclipsing even a 55-point night at Minnesota in November 2008.
“The game in Minnesota, he knew he had to score,” Ginobili said. “Against Oklahoma City, he was scoring, he was setting guys up. Every decision he made was the right one.”
Opposing coaches have begun to focus on Parker as the head of the Spurs’ snake. When a team faces the Spurs nowadays, limiting Parker’s penetration is typically the emphasis of the defensive game plan.
“Tony Parker is playing the best basketball he’s ever played,” Denver coach George Karl said. “There’s no question about that at all. Before, you always thought you could turn him over a little bit and force him into bad decisions. The games I’ve watched, I haven’t seen any of that.”
L.A. Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who will start ahead of Parker for the West All-Stars tonight, believes his Spurs counterpart has been annually underrated.
“Tony’s been doing the same thing he’s doing now for the past eight, 10 years,” Paul said. “When you know basketball, you appreciate it.”
Still, Parker could have envisioned none of this the day he arrived at Spurs training camp in 2001, still bruised from his pre-draft workout with Blanks.
“I thought if I could play like 15, 20 minutes and be a good player in the NBA, I’d be happy,” Parker said.
Over time, the goals changed, as did the expectations. Now, Parker is only the Spurs’ everything.
Tony Parker career timeline
Express-News Spurs beat writer Jeff McDonald takes a season-by-season look at the point guard’s development, from teenage starter to four-time All-Star:
2001-02: As a 19-year-old rookie, installed as starting point guard four games into inaugural campaign, replacing Antonio Daniels.
2002-03: Started every game for a team that wins NBA championship, but is benched most fourth quarters against New Jersey in the Finals in favor of Speedy Claxton.
2003-04: Before the season, Spurs flirt with Nets All-Star Jason Kidd in free agency. Had Kidd come, Parker likely would have been pushed out the door.
2004-05: Helped earn Spurs’ third title with seven-game victory over Detroit, but still struggles with consistency in playoffs.
2005-06: Enjoyed a regular-season breakout, averaging 18.9 points en route to first All-Star appearance.
2006-07: Enjoyed postseason breakout, becoming first Spurs player other than Tim Duncan to earn Finals MVP, in sweep of Cleveland. Also garners second straight All-Star invite.
2007-08: Builds on Finals performance, averaging 18.8 points and six assists.
2008-09: With Manu Ginobili limited to 56 games due to injury, Parker explodes for 22 points and 6.9 assists per game, both career highs, highlighted by a 55-point opus in double-overtime win at Minnesota in November. Named to third All-Star team, and draws All-NBA honors for first time.
2009-10: Injury-plagued, plays in only 50 games. Scoring average dips to 16 points, its lowest since 2003-04 season.
2010-11: A bounce-back campaign of sorts, he scores 17.5 points with 6.6 assists.
September 2011: At Eurobasket tournament in Lithuania, leads French national team to first Olympics berth since 2000.
2011-12 (so far): Carrying Spurs again with Ginobili out, he’s averaging 19.4 points and career-best 8.1 assists. Surpassed Avery Johnson as franchise’s all-time assist leader in win over Oklahoma City in February, scoring 42 points in process. Today will play in fourth All-Star Game.