Spurs patient with youngsters

NEW ORLEANS — Nearly a month into this stranger-than-fiction post-lockout season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has come to appreciate the upside of guiding the youngest team he’s ever had.

“We’ve actually got a guy who can dunk now,” Popovich joked after a recent shootaround. “He did it today in practice, and three of us just about fell over.”

In the four-plus years since their last NBA championship, the Spurs have evolved from old, veteran and savvy to young, nimble and callow. Once playfully derided by their coach as “older than dirt,” the Spurs start a 20-year-rookie at shooting guard (Kawhi Leonard) and a 22-year-old at center (DeJuan Blair).

The bench rotation includes another 20-year-old rookie in point guard Cory Joseph, 24-year-old swingman Danny Green, and a pair of older second-year players in 27-year-old center Tiago Splitter and 26-year-old guard Gary Neal.

Take away 34-year-old Manu Ginobili, out with a broken hand, and 35-year-old Tim Duncan — who sat out Saturday night’s loss in Houston for rest reasons — and it’s been like a flashback to Popovich’s days as a college coach at Pomona-Pitzer.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Popovich said. “They’re good kids. It’s great to be able to teach and see them want to learn as much as they do.”

Five of the Spurs’ top nine scorers have less than three NBA seasons on their résumé, but there is a downside for relying on youth and inexperience.

Typical for a younger team, the Spurs have struggled on the road (they are 1-6). Closing tight games can be an adventure (they are 1-2 in the past three games, all decided by three points or fewer).

Tonight in New Orleans, the 10-7 Spurs look to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season. At 3-13, the Hornets own the worst record in the Western Conference, and should be easy pickings.

With a young team, however, you never know. It’s why Popovich stuck with “older than dirt” for so long.

For Duncan, who woke up one day as the Spurs’ oldest player, working alongside such youth has been both an education and an adventure. Leonard and Joseph, the two rookies, were in first grade when Duncan made his NBA debut in 1997.

“It takes time,” Duncan said. “It’s about us being used to them, them being used to us, being used to being in tough situations in hostile territory. They’re coming along.”

So far, Popovich has handled the unpredictability of youth with as much patience as he can muster.

When Leonard had a typical rookie moment late in the fourth quarter at Houston — passing up an open jumper, turning the ball over in traffic, then committing a loose-ball foul against Kevin Martin — Popovich didn’t explode.

“He just told me to be confident and take the wide-open shot,” said

Leonard, a fill-in starter while Ginobili is out. “Things happen. I’m still a rookie.”

The infusion of youth has invigorated Popovich, stirring his instincts as a teacher. Yet with the lockout-compressed schedule eliminating almost all practice time, he has often been like a professor without a classroom.

“Shootaround days become even more important,” Popovich said. “They’re sort of like mini practices now, since you don’t have a real practice. You actually have an opportunity to maybe repeat some things so the young guys start to pick things up.”

When Popovich does get a chance to stage a practice, the gym can look like a three-ring circus.

“Logistically, it’s different,” Popovich said. “I’m sure some drills and basketball things a coach would do for young guys, Duncan doesn’t want to see it anymore. These young guys, you’ve got to go back to the basics. You have different people doing different things.”

Leonard, the 15th pick out of San Diego State, didn’t know what to expect when the Spurs traded for him on draft night. He had heard stories of his soon-to-be new coach, some good, some horrifying.

Leonard’s first meeting with Popovich calmed his nerves.

“He sat me down and told me exactly what they expected of me,” Leonard said.

There is no truth to the rumor Popovich asked for more dunks, but it has been a notable side effect.


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