As the San Antonio Spurs warmed up prior to Monday night’s game in Brooklyn, fans weren’t gasping at the sight of Tim Duncan or LaMarcus Aldridge or Kawhi Leonard or Manu Ginobili, but rather a mostly unknown 7-foot-3, 290-pound Serbian rookie. I heard a fan observing ask one of his buddies, “Who is this big guy here? Look at the size of him.”
That big guy was Boban Marjanovic and by the time the game ended everybody in Barclays Center knew who he was. In fact, fans cheered loudest for Spurs rookie phenom who finished with 13 points and was on the floor in the final seconds when a “Go Spurs Go!” chant broke out.
“I enjoy it every time,” Marjanovic told reporters of the cheers. “They give me support and some energy. It’s good. I don’t drink Red Bull, but they give me wings.”
Marjanovic is so tall that members of the Spurs’ developmental squad that work with him have to hold up oars to simulate shot blockers and he has already been serenaded with “M-V-P” chants. But most casual basketball fans had likely never heard of the 27-year old center so how does one explain Boban-mania?
“I don’t know because I even get to chanting his name sometimes myself,” Spurs rookie Jonathan Simmons told me.
As unlikely as it seems, Boban-mania has evolved into an unstoppable pandemic and what began as a novelty act has turned into something far more intriguing. No one really knew what to expect when Marjanovic first arrived to San Antonio, but certainly no one expected that “The Bobinator” would captivate the Twittersphere and turn into a trending topic.
“We didn’t know if he would become a trending topic, but we knew what he was bringing to the table in terms of his skillset,” reserve Spurs forward Rasual Butler said. “We knew he was the best big in the Euro league last year in Europe and that he had skills. He was very tall, you can’t teach height, but skill, nice touch, could block shots, very intelligent basketball player.”
Marjanovic has represented the Serbian national basketball team in international competition and enjoyed quite a successful career overseas, averaging nearly 17 points and 11 rebounds per game in the Euroleague. He was named First-Team All-Euroleague in 2015 and won three straight Serbian Super League MVP awards from 2013-15.
Intrigued by Boban’s combination of size and skill, the Spurs signed him to a one-year, $1.2 million deal in the offseason. He is the type of low-stakes gamble that Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have taken (and won big on) since the late nineties. The floppy haired big man arrived to San Antonio as a bit of an unknown, but that has changed quickly over the course of just a few months.
“I thought he had the skills and he had the work ethic so I’m not surprised,” Spurs assistant Ettore Messina proclaimed to me. “Other people are more surprised because they expected he would have a hard time adjusting to the game here, but he’s good, he’s a good player. We’re talking about a kid that was a first-All Star team in Euroleague so he knows what he has to do on the floor. Coach Popovich trusts him and more importantly he earned the trust of his teammates. When you have the trust of people like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, that helps.”
Marjanovic doesn’t get to play that many minutes for the Spurs, but he is no longer just a colossal victory cigar only used in blowouts. Although he averages just five points and three rebounds in 7.4 minutes per game, he has demonstrated, both in the NBA and NBA Development League, that he has more skill than most expected. His per 36-minute averages are 24.6 points and 14.3 rebounds. It’s an obviously misleading number, but he also remains ahead of Stephen Curry in terms of PER (31.73 to 31.67) and he’s snagging 22.7 percent of all available rebounds while he’s on the court — Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who led the league in rebounding last year, is at 22.0 percent.
“He hasn’t reached his ceiling yet. He’s still learning the NBA game, he’s still gaining his confidence but playing well at the same time,” Butler said. “Boban is already a good player, but he’s going to end up being an excellent player, excellent big. He has great mentors in Tim Duncan, LaMarcus, David West, those guys are really doing a good job always helping him.”
The outsized Marjanovic was assigned to the Austin Spurs of the D-League for two games a few weeks ago, but all he did was average 25 points, 11 rebounds, 3.5 assists and two blocks. He shot a ridiculous 79.3 percent from the field and he dunked so hard he loosened the rim, forcing a considerable delay as a crew tried to fix the broken hoop.
In an early December win over the tanktastic 76ers, the Serbian skyscraper had his coming-out party, scoring 18 points on 8 of 10 in just 17 minutes. He beat the shot clock with a fadeaway jumper after fooling fellow rookie Jahlil Okafor with a killer ball fake and he was so impressive that the home crowd turned on their own team, cheering for every Marjanovic bucket. Now that he is getting steadier minutes, fans cheer any time he checks into the game, anytime he touches the ball, anytime he does anything at all.
There is even a Twitter account for people wondering when Boban might play — @DidBobanPlay. Coach Popovich told reporters recently that he worries that some fans (and media members) are treating the European behemoth as some kind of freakshow, but sports fans will always be attracted the spectacle of unnaturally large humans.
“I think sometimes guys that size people don’t necessarily take them as seriously as they should,” David West told me about all the attention. “But he’s dedicated to his game, improving and he’s heck of a ballplayer.”
Amazingly, Marjanovic isn’t the tallest man to put on a Spurs jersey — 7-foot-5 Chuck Nevitt played one minute with the team in 1993-94. Marjanovic, dubbed “The Chimney of Kostolac” by Spur’s announcer Bill Land, has a standing reach of 9-7 which eclipses those of Yao Ming, Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal. He also has enormous feet – size 19 shoe – and his hands may be the largest in the universe.
“He’s got enormous hands for sure,” Spurs veteran Matt Bonner told me. “When he’s playing the way he just like picks the ball up like it’s a nerf ball and just palms it, moves it around. It’s something the defense is probably not used to.”
He has been a fan favorite since the start of the season, due mostly to his size, but the best part about it is that he can play and he’s only getting better.
“One thing I’ll say about Boban is in my entire career he’s possibly the hardest working teammate I’ve ever had,” said Bonner, who is in his tenth season with the Spurs. “He like lives in the gym. He lives in the gym, he’s super professional, does everything he can to be prepared physical and mentally and get better every single day.”