United States 70, Brazil 68: Tiago Splitter’s solid first impression

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Fair or not, San Antonio Spurs fans have been awaiting the arrival of Tiago Splitter since the team first drafted Luis Scola. Since 2002 (the year Scola was drafted) each FIBA tournament has served as a tease of sorts for Spurs faithful. And with each passing tournament the concept of foreign big man savior grew in its myth.

Brazil’s narrow 68-70 loss to Team USA offered a bit of nostalgia for Spurs fans tuning in to see their prized big man. There again were the beautiful offensive sets of Brazilian head coach Ruben Magnano (formerly of Argentina) running roughshod at times through the USA defense.

Splitter, however, is not Luis Scola. For one, he is already under contract with the Spurs.  And with the will-he-or-won’t-he-come speculation long since over, today’s game  finally removed some of the mystery surrounding the Brazilian big man.

At Splitter’s introductory press conference, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford mentioned that Tiago does not have his “NBA body” yet, but offered the following scouting report:

“I don’t think Tiago is going to be somebody we just throw the ball into the post until he gets a better understanding of our system,” Buford said. “But he’s a really good pick-and-roll player, very smart offensively and defensively, so they have to guard him.

After watching him operate against NBA talent, here are some my first thoughts on Tiago Splitter:

He should absolutely thrive in the San Antonio Spurs pick and roll system–For the game Splitter scored 13 points, going 6-12 from the field, getting most of his points through the pick and roll.

Splitter did not really set solid screens so much as he simply ran towards his teammate and slipped a pick before any contact was actually made (it will be interesting to see if this translates into offensive fouls in the NBA). Nor did he display the freakish athleticism (he was blocked twice at the rim) or sweet jumper usually associated with prime pick and roll players.

Where Tiago excelled was reading the defenses and finding seams. Combining good mobility with a high basketball IQ, it’s easy to see the Spurs utilizing Splitter in the same role Fabricio Oberto played. At worst, watching him and Manu Ginobili operate the pick and roll next season should be a joy.

The foundation for a post game is there, even if the foundation isn’t–The scouting report on Splitter is that he is a back to the basket player with excellent footwork. The fear is how it translates to the stronger (though less physical) NBA game.

While Splitter did display solid footwork, creating some space and holding his pivot under duress, there are questions about his lower body strength. He appeared to have trouble holding his position against Lamar Odom, losing his balance on his first few post attempts.

As Buford stated, he needs to work on his “NBA body”, but until then Splitter might be able to utilize his post game by using screens to get position under the basket or working on the move.

The motion factor–Keeping with the Oberto comparison, Splitter might be Duncan’s first partner since the Argentine to catch, pass, and make quick decisions on the move. As mentioned above, Splitter seems adept at reading defenses, something that is very helpful in the motion offense.

Brazil was confident enough in Splitter’s decision making to use him to break Team USA’s full court pressure, running their center down the middle of the floor as the first outlet. With one exception in which he dribbled the ball up court himself, Splitter generally made quick and correct decisions in these scenarios.

In another sequence, Splitter was confronted with a defender just as he caught the ball while rolling to the hoop. Realizing where the help was coming from, Splitter made a quick pass to the corner for an open 3-pointer. This is a concept many big men struggle with and one that is vital in the Spurs system.

Defense, defense, defense–In many ways Team USA was a perfect opponent to gauge how Splitter fits the Spurs defensive needs. Not a shot blocker (though he did have a nice one on Westbrook to end the first quarter), Splitter uses quick feet and length to disrupt pick and rolls.

While he might not be athletic in NBA terms, he is very mobile and he uses it to great effect. While guarding quicker, face up fours, Splitter was able to show on the screens enough to disrupt the ball handler and still recover to the rim. Watching Splitter guard both ball handler and man was, at times, very Duncan-like.

It will be interesting to see how Splitter fits in alongside Tim Duncan. From the little bit I saw, he should be enough to help the Spurs to take a step up this season but probably not enough to make a difference should any of the big three show further decline.