Quality centers are a rare breed. Even rarer is a quality center with a polished post game, a kamikaze approach to offensive rebounding and a professorial grasp of the pick-and-roll. So when one becomes available, a team might be willing to wait a year to get him. Or two. Or three. That's how long the Spurs have waited for Brazil's Tiago Splitter, their top pick in 2007, who signed a three-year, $11 million contract in July. It's a classic San Antonio move: Scoop up a skilled foreign player late in the draft (see Tony Parker, the 28th choice in 2001) and stash him overseas for a few years (Manu Ginóbili, whom the team selected 57th in 1999 and signed in 2002). "You could tell me that 29 teams think a guy is lousy," says an Eastern Conference scout, "but if the Spurs picked him, I'd put my money on that guy being good."
When Splitter entered the draft, concerns over his signability—he was under contract with the Spanish league's Tau Ceràmica, which last year changed its name to Caja Laboral—caused him to slip to 28th. "We knew we were going to have to wait for him," says Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, "but we felt he was worth it."
The 6' 11", 235-pound Splitter has benefited from being the focus of Caja Laboral's post offense for the past two years. Last season he averaged 15.4 points on 59.5% shooting. His skills are now on display at the world championships in Turkey, where he averaged 14.0 points and 6.0 rebounds in Brazil's first three games—two comfortable wins and a 70--68 loss to the U.S. on Monday. At times Splitter was too much for the (albeit undersized) U.S. front line, showing a nifty array of post moves as he went 6 for 12 from the floor. He also grabbed 10 rebounds, including a game-high four on the offensive end. "He's a true low post five," says Tony Ronzone, USA Basketball's director of international player personnel. "A lot of European big men like to face up. He sits down on you, has no fear of contact and is a beast on the offensive glass."
In San Antonio, Splitter will be counted on to complement Tim Duncan ("We hope Tiago will allow us to be very judicious with Tim's minutes," says Buford) and help the Spurs transition from their longtime star. Duncan, 34, and Ginóbili, 33, are still the faces of the franchise, but San Antonio has a young core in Splitter, point guard George Hill (26th pick in 2008), power forward DeJuan Blair (37th pick in '09) and shooting guard James Anderson (20th pick in '10). "There's an impression that we are getting older," Buford says. "We're a lot younger than we were a few years ago, and our younger players have the ability to impact a game in a lot of different ways."
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Fast Breaks after every U.S. game at the world championships at SI.com/nba
Carmelo Anthony(below) and the Nuggets are headed for a breakup—and it could be drawn out. Anthony, who is entering the final year of his contract, wants to be traded, but no team is going to surrender significant assets without a guarantee that he will stick around for more than one season. So Denver will have to ship Anthony someplace where he would agree to an extension. Sources say he prefers a major market (New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles) or a team with an elite big man (Houston, Orlando). But the Nuggets, who last week hired a new G.M., Masai Ujiri, "are going to wait for the best possible package," says a Western Conference G.M. "And they are willing to wait until February to get it."
Photograph by MARK J. TERRILL/AP
TURKISH DELIGHT Splitter (right) had 13 points and four boards in Brazil's 81--65 win over Iran in Istanbul.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH