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.”
Some irony there, Westbrook managing the personalities on the team, since the team managing Westbrook’s personality is a full-time job. But I digress. Westbrook indeed has turned into an elite point guard, in every sense of the word. Witness his 10 assists Tuesday night in Game 4. And impeach all the gooberheads who continue to say Westbrook isn’t a point guard.
In fact, the Parker proctor himself says there are similarities between the evolution of Parker and Westbrook.
“I think that’s a great comparison,” Popovich said of Westbrook. “He was a scorer. He’s still a scorer, because he’s such a dynamic player and so talented. But he finds people way more than people give him credit for. There’s no doubt about that. Fans just see the dynamic way that he plays. But he’s perfectly willing to hit the open man. He knows the importance of it.”
Westbrook being Westbrook, he wanted no part of the Parker comparison.
“I don’t know if they (the Spurs) started 3‑29 like we did,” Westbrook said. “Maybe you can look at it a different way,”
But it’s clearly the truth. Parker and Westbrook have turned themselves into great point guards. Kevin Durant rode shotgun with Westbrook during that maturation, including that excruciating 2008-09 season.
“I think it's an adjustment period for any young player to come into the league, no matter if you were a point guard in college or not,” Durant said. “I think with point guards, it’s a longer adjustment period because that's the hardest position to play in the game. For him just being a role player in college to being a point guard in the NBA, I don't think a lot of people gave him a fair enough assessment, especially because of the time period and how you need to grow in that position, and he's grown leaps and bounds.”
Sounds a lot like the point guard in the other uniform Thursday night. Parker has done exactly what Pop asked of him so many years ago.
“Over time, I can honestly say he’s done that,” Popovich said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the way he’s adjusted his game.”
The same sentiment goes in Oklahoma City for another remade point guard.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.