It’s Mad Love for Boban, the Serbian Sledgehammer

On Saturday January 27,  the Spurs were on their way to another blowout victory on their home floor—this one extra sweet as the instate rival Houston Rockets were in town.

Some fans made a dash for the exits, but those who remained were fixated on the scorer’s table.  A murmur began to permeate throughout the crowd: “is he coming in now? We’re up like 30.”

Then, a few minutes into the fourth quarter, the murmurs began to turn into cheers as this behemoth of a man sprang of the Spurs bench and headed to the scorer’s table.

The crowd was now in a frenzy as the Spurs PA announcer uttered the words all Spurs fans were waiting to hear: “In for the Spurs, Bo-ban Mar-jan-ovic.”

How was it possible that in a blowout game, this huge, awkward looking man could get such a rousing ovation from the fans?  Was it that so many fans were enamored with his dominating physical presence that it looked like he was playing nerf basketball on the court?

To answer these questions, we must fully understand the gentle giant that is Boban Marjanovic.

Marjanovic was the latest foreign gem mined by the Spurs front office, coming to San Antonio on a one year, $1.2 million dollar contract.  Prior to coming to the Spurs, Marjanovic had a stellar, albeit brief, career with Crvena Zvezda, a Serbian based team in the Euroleague.

Marjanovic dominated his league, taking home three Serbian Super League MVPs in his three seasons with Crvena Zvezda.   In 2015, his final season with the team, Marjanovic posted 16.6 PPG, and a league leading 10.7 RPG and 25.67 PIR, which is the Euroleague equivalent of the NBA stat EFF.  His success overseas caught the eye of Spurs GM R.C. Buford.

Given the Spurs penchant for developing international players, Buford figured it was worth it to roll the dice on Marjanovic.  The Spurs already had such a deep roster, particularly in the frontcourt with David West, Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge, that there would be no pressure on Marjanovic.

Even though there was such a log jam in the frontcourt, this was the perfect situation for Marjanovic: he could adjust to the much longer NBA season, and refine his craft by learning from arguably the greatest power forward in NBA history, Tim Duncan.

Marjanovic started the 2016 season in the D-League, but was recalled for the Spurs second game.  It was clear what Marjanovic brought to the table: standing at seven foot three, and with hands that make Kawhi Leonard’s look small, Marjanovic brought elite size, rim protection, and rebounding ability.

Even with his incredible physical attributes, Marjanovic struggled to crack the Spurs rotation in part because the Spurs were so deep, and Marjanovic, like so many other big men, could not guard the pick-n-roll effectively.  Additionally, he is limited offensively as he can’t stretch the defense, like so many of today’s premier big men.  This leads to less space on the floor for the Spurs to operate, and spacing along with terrific ball movement are the staples of the Spurs’ offense.

Unfortunately for Marjanovic, he racked up the DNPs and when he did play, it was often in garbage time.  But when he did play, Marjanovic showed something to the Spurs, the league, and to the delight of the fans. This cumbersome giant could hold his own in the NBA.

Marjanovic actually finished third in the league, only behind Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry,  with a PER of 27.77, despite only appearing in 54 games, averaging 9.4 minutes, 5.5 PPG, and 3.6 RPG.

But Marjanovic didn’t have a PER of 27.77 for nothing.  Marjanovic had a few games that made fans go “Wow, this guy can really play.”

His most efficient showing came against the Wolves when he poured in 17 points on 7-7 shooting, in just 14 minutes.  Shortly thereafter, against the Phoenix Suns, he pulled down 12 boards in under 15 minutes, becoming the first player in Spurs franchise history to accomplish the feat. Even  when pressed into more regular duty, Marjanovic was able to hold his own.

Marjanovic logged over 30 minutes twice, and the second time he had the game of his life, netting a career high 22 points on 7-9 shooting and grabbing 12 boards. Even if the stats weren’t there, Marjanovic mustered up a stellar rookie campaign, shooting over 60% from the field and over 75% from the line.

With his success in such limited minutes, Marjanovic became an instant crowd favorite in San Antonio.  He began to receive the largest ovation when he was announced in the games.  His jersey began to sell like crazy. Fans embraced the rallying cry, “Unleash the Boban,” in anticipation of seeing him play.  Other fans expressed their love for Boban in more interesting ways.

One fan created a twitter account with the handle Did Boban Play? which tweeted out each night if Boban appeared in the game.  Another fan got a picture of Boban’s face engrained in his hair.  And this love story between Boban and Spurs fans was mutual.

Marjanovic claimed that the support of Spurs’ fans “gives him wings,” and “I feel like it [San Antonio] is my hometown.”

Marjanovic has a new hometown to select and a new pair of wings to try out. The Detroit Pistons signed him to a $21 million dollar deal so his San Antonio days are over, his time brief. But for one season, for both Marjanovic and the Spurs fans, he belonged in Texas. He was family.


photo via llananba