Tony Parker was just 19 years old in 2001 when, six games into his rookie season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich installed him as the team’s starting point guard.
Parker has held the job ever since, creating the illusion he arrived not long after James Naismith hung the first peach baskets.
Though a fixture in the Spurs’ lineup since before he could buy a drink, Parker is not old. Playing next to 35-year-old Tim Duncan and 34-year-old Manu Ginobili, however, he is at times considered ancient by association.
“I’m just 29,” Parker insists. “I’m still young.”
With Ginobili out with a broken hand, T.J. Ford out with a torn hamstring and no other plausible point guard on the roster, the Spurs seem poised to put Parker’s youth to the test.
In the past three games, Parker has totaled more than 114 minutes, including 81 in a back-to-back against Milwaukee and Houston. He tallied at least 20 points and eight assists in each of those three contests, a nearly mandatory line given the Ginobili-sized hole in the nightly box score.
For his effort, Parker has been promised no rest on the horizon, and no hazard pay. He can expect another exhausting day at the office tonight at the ATT Center against Phoenix and Steve Nash, an opponent who traditionally brings out his best.
“Pop told me it’s going to be a lot more minutes,” Parker said. “I just have to be ready.”
Given Ginobili’s state of perpetual injury over the past four seasons, Parker has become the Spurs’ minuteman, ready at a moment’s notice.
It is no coincidence that Parker’s finest NBA season — a 2008-09 campaign in which he averaged 22 points and earned third-team All-NBA honors — came in concert with Ginobili being sidelined for all but 44 games.
“When Manu is out, I have to do double the job,” said Parker, who has averaged 17.1 points in 34 regular-season games against the Suns. “I’ve got to stay aggressive and be in attack mode the whole time.”
This season, Parker is averaging 15.9 points, his lowest clip since 2003-04. In seven games sans Ginobili, however, that average has leapt to 17.9.
In further testament to Parker’s aggressiveness gone into overdrive, he has committed 13 of his 26 turnovers in the past three games.
“Tony’s a scoring guard,” Popovich said. “He’s always looking to be aggressive. I guess you see him being aggressive for more minutes now, since he’s playing more minutes.”
And Ford’s injury, suffered three games ago in Milwaukee, only amplifies the Spurs’ reliance on Parker.
Rookie Cory Joseph is the only other true point guard on the roster, and he is far from ready to be an NBA rotation player. For the past three games, shooting guard Gary Neal filled in gamely, if miscast, as Parker’s primary backup.
In Friday’s 99-83 victory over Portland, the Spurs’ reserves had them ahead by 14 points in the fourth quarter. Needing a ball-handler to deal with the Trail Blazers’ full-court pressure, Popovich had to re-insert Parker to close the game.
He immediately scored 10 consecutive points in a two-minute span to keep Portland at arm’s length.
“He’s doing just about everything for us,” Duncan said. “He’s continued to attack every time down the floor. He found a way to get things done.”
The trick now is to keep Parker from running into the ground for the next four to six weeks while his injured backcourt mates heal.
Especially in a condensed season like this one, Popovich is hyper-aware of the minutes logged by his older veterans, and the toll it takes on them. He is not concerned about Parker, because he doesn’t consider Parker old.
“He’ll play more minutes than Tim during this period when Manu’s gone,” Popovich said. “He’ll have the burden.”
It is a burden Parker is happy to shoulder, while he’s still young.