Gorman: Blair back where he belongs
DeJuan Blair cherished a childhood where he never strayed far from his Hill District home for high school or college, and the former Schenley and Pitt star dreamed of the day he would return as an NBA player.
The Blair that returned with the San Antonio Spurs to a rousing ovation Thursday night at Petersen Events Center showed off the same, dimpled "million-dollar smile" as the one he wore while declaring for the NBA Draft after his sophomore season.
"I never left," Blair said before Thursday night's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. "This is real special. It shows something in the Spurs, what they've got (invested) in me."
It's no wonder the Spurs made a special trip to Blair's hometown for the second-year pro, who moved into their starting lineup earlier this preseason.
But that smile may be the only thing you recognize about Blair nowadays. The 6-foot-7 forward/center has trimmed down to 265 pounds.
"It's kind of hard to adapt to playing how I am now," said Blair, who needed 100 tickets for family and friends attending the Cavs game. "I'm used to being big and sloppy - well, I was never sloppy. I was big and beautiful."
Although Blair slipped to the second round - going 37th overall, to the Spurs' delight - he entered the NBA with the reputation of a rebounder and did nothing to tarnish it. Blair had 14 games with 10 or more rebounds last season. Twice, he had 20-plus boards, and he became the first NBA rookie since Tim Duncan to post a 20-20 game.
It didn't hurt that Duncan is both a teammate and mentor. Blair calls the future Hall of Fame forward his "big brother," and complimented the Spurs star for taking him under his enormous wing and providing the perfect blend of prodding and praise.
"DeJuan having Duncan there is like Tim having David Robinson when he came in," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "You have a player who's been in the league for a decade, and he also happens to be a great leader and a great person. And DeJuan understands that."
Popovich said that while Blair has worked hard to expand his game, improving his shooting form and range to fit in with the NBA's free-flowing style, the Spurs have emphasized that they don't want to change his contagious persona.
"DeJuan is an energetic, passionate guy on the court, and that's the way we want him to stay," Popovich said. "When you watch him play, his energy and his rebounding are probably what you notice first, but he has more than that. He has a knack for scoring, he has great hands, he has a feel for the game, he understands spatial relationships, and he's one heck of a passer. When you add those things up, he's a lot more than just a rebounder."
Blair's playing time as a rookie was as up and down as his weight, and his regular-season averages of 7.8 points and 6.4 rebounds in 18.2 minutes dipped to 3.7 points and 3.9 rebounds in 9.1 minutes in the playoffs. What impressed Spurs guard George Hill was how Blair handled it like a pro and worked on his weaknesses, all of which is showing this pre-season.
"It's going to be a breakout year for him," Hill said. "He worked extremely hard, not just being a one-dimensional player. He wants to be one of those players you can count on night in, night out. That's how you make a name for yourself in this league. You have to have one thing you're great at and be good at a lot of other things."
What makes Blair flash his million-dollar smile nowadays, especially last night, is the irony that his leaner frame has helped round out his game.
And the longer he plays in the NBA, the more he feels right at home.