SAN ANTONIO — Tony Parker was a tough sell for Gregg Popovich. The San Antonio scouts, Sam Presti among them, who touted the 19-year-old Frenchman in the 2001 draft finally got Parker enough audiences with Popovich for the Spurs’ godfather to pick Parker.
But Parker was an even tougher sell for Pop after arriving.
Popovich had a point guard on his hands who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pass the ball.
“When we first got him, I didn’t think he could throw the ball to you,” Popovich said the other day at Spurs headquarters. “He was a scorer. He was a flat scorer.”
Of course, Russell Westbrook wasn’t even that. Yet here in the Western Conference Finals are teams quarterbacked by project point guards. The Spurs with Parker. The Thunder with Westbrook.
Two of the NBA’s best point guards — maybe only Chris Paul and Steph Curry rival them — started out as works in progress.
“I’ve told the story a million times,” Popovich said. “On Day 3, we put a little linear thing on paper, and put his name at this end for scoring point, and at the very other end of the spectrum, we put John Stockton as an assist guy.
“We said, ‘What we’re going to try to do with you is put you right here in the middle. We don’t want to make you John Stockton, because you’re too good of a scorer. But if we can get you in the middle, which is really difficult to do, we want to turn you into half and half here, we’re going to do it.’”
Mission accomplished. Parker has become a maestro. A conductor of the NBA’s best offense.
And while Popovich begrudgingly salutes his point guard for the transformation, he also knows the Spurs are mired in a death match with the Thunder because Westbrook has done the same.
Upon arrival in Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not a shoot-first point guard. He was no point guard at all. But 12 games into the inaugural Thunder season, P.J. Carlesimo was fired as coach after a 1-11 start. Five games later, interim coach Scotty Brooks made Westbrook the starting point guard, and the makeover accelerated.
“A lot of film sessions, a lot of work, but it's all paid off,” Brooks said. “Russell has put a lot of time into the game, not only his game but playing that position. It's a tough position because nobody ever seems to be happy with what you do. They (teammates) always want the ball. Coach always wants something different.
“He has done a good job of managing all the other players and all the other personalities on the team. I think that is one of his major improvements in that position, just understanding all the finer points of that position, just understanding game management, understanding the players that he's playing with, and he's really improved in that area.”