MIAMI — The first nervous steps of Boris Diaw‘s NBA career were tough to watch.
The talent was obvious: A 6-foot-8 basketball savant with point guard skills and the size, length and ability to play as many as four positions. What was also clear is that Diaw’s understanding of the game was beyond that of a normal rookie. The Atlanta Hawks’ front office knew it, which is one of the main reasons they selected the young French prospect with the 21st pick in the 2003 Draft.
But there was glitch in the system. Diaw’s coaches had no idea how to use him. The Hawks, at the time, hadn’t figured out how to use a player with Diaw’s hybrid skill set. They couldn’t figure out if he was a point guard or a center or whatever was in between. So they tried him everywhere, from point guard to center … and sometimes all in the same half of the same game.
“Well, I did a little bit of everything,” Diaw said with a smile Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena, the day after helping his San Antonio Spurs to a 2-1 lead over the Miami Heat with a huge Game 3 win in The Finals. “It was helping me to learn pretty much every position. I remember starting the game at the five and going out to do the [opening] tip and then playing point guard during the same game.”
It was a testament to his polish and professionalism at such a young age that the Hawks leaned on him that way, not to mention their sheer desperation, what with a roster that was being rebuilt from the ground up at the time. Diaw, however, wasn’t necessarily ready for a role like that. He’d played at the highest level professionally in France but needed time to adjust his game to the NBA, time he didn’t get in Atlanta.
Back then his teammates whispered about how long he’d last, whether or not he was truly cut out for the NBA and if and when he’d scurry back to Europe.
It wasn’t until much later in his career, after he left Atlanta via the controversial Joe Johnson sign-and-trade deal with Phoenix in the summer of 2005, that Diaw’s best was revealed. He earned the league’s Most Improved Player Award in 2006 the with the Suns, thriving in Mike D’Antoni‘s free-flowing system.
He opened some eyes around the league as the NBA game was evolving into its current form, with floor spacers and a global style that has been the trademark of the top international leagues for years.
San Antonio has proved to be the ideal fit, complete with playing alongside his friend since childhood Tony Parker and in a system that prizes ball-sharing and versatility like no other system in the league. That would explain Spurs coach Gregg Popovich inserting Diaw into the starting lineup before Game 3. His presence forces the Heat into some uncomfortable matchups, specifically for Chris Bosh, who cannot take advantage of Diaw on the perimeter the way he can Tiago Splitter or even Tim Duncan.
In fact, Diaw ends up with the advantage because he can play inside and out while also serving as an extra ballhandler and facilitator and rebounding like a power forward and guarding both in the paint and on the perimeter. He’s one of the best and most creative passers in the league, big man or not. And he’s unselfish to a fault, making him the ideal teammate in today’s NBA.
Again, the Spurs’ system (impact over stats and detail over flash) and Pop’s methods, are the perfect fit.
“Every coach is different, everybody has a different philosophy,” Diaw said. “I’ve had a lot of teams and a lot of coaches in my career. So it’s definitely gratifying when you get a coach like Pop recognizing a little bit of the background and the way we play in Europe, the way we share the ball and not so much the one-on-one basketball. It’s just a lot of fun to play on this team.”
The best part, for both Diaw and Parker, is the chance to realize their hoop dreams together. They won gold at EuroBasket last year as leaders of the French national team and are two games away from winning a Larry O’Brien trophy together with the Spurs.
“For me it’s a little bit different,” Parker said of Diaw’s career renaissance with the Spurs. “Everything that you see him do today I’ve seen him do it the last four or five years doing that. He was playing great basketball in Phoenix and had some rough years with the Bobcats. When the Spurs asked me about Boris and should we take him, I was like ‘he’ll be a great fit for our team.’ I’m so happy for him, to see him blossom at the big stage. And everybody can see what he’s doing and what he’s capable of.
Diaw’s work with the French national team should not be overlooked. Parker said it was a career-changing time for Diaw, who has made adjustments to his game and lifestyle in the wake of that huge summer.
“It was a big thing for us and I think it made Boris keep improving and keep getting better,” Parker said. “Since he’s been with us we have high expectations every game. We want to win a championship. So it made him be even more focused and take care of his body. He’s got a chef and he’s being very healthy and is playing his best basketball right now. As his friend since I’m 14 years old, it’s like a dream to win a gold medal with the national team and this year have another opportunity to win a championship. You have to put it in perspective … when we grew up there were not a lot of European guys in the NBA. I never thought I’d be with him on the same team and being two wins away from winning a championship.”
If Parker didn’t, no one did.