Boban Mania: Marjanovic jumps into NBA with both feet – and lands dunking on someone

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Boban Marjanovic got his big break in 2010.

Or so it seemed.

After four professional seasons in Serbia, Marjanovic appeared ready for the bigger stage. European powerhouse CSKA Moscow signed the 21-year-old center to a three-year contract.

But Marjanovic played part in a flop. The coach that signed him was fired after just five months. CSKA loaned Marjanovic to a lesser Lithuanian team then released him.

He eventually signed in the Adriatic League, where he developed into a star. Marjanovic played for the Hawks’ summer-league team in 2013, but nothing came of it. He looked headed for a nice, safe career in Europe.

Then the Spurs called last summer offering a contract.

After what he’d been through with CSKA, how quickly did Marjanovic choose to leave his comfort zone for the NBA?

“No consideration,” Marjanovic said. “Immediately. No thinking.”

Nearly as quickly, Marjanovic has made his mark in the NBA.

Marjanovic has played just 180 minutes, but he has produced like an all-time great in them. Boban Mania is sweeping the league – fans rallying behind a player who’s part Rudy Gobert, part Brian Scalabrine, part Monstar.

Yet, Spurs president/coach Gregg Popovich throws a bucket of cold water on the hysteria, unready to anoint Marjanovic.

“The more minutes he gets, the more I’ll be able to tell if he’s somebody that’s going to have an impact in the program or not,” Popovich said.

For now, Marjanovic is, quite literally, the NBA’s biggest novelty.

He’s 7-foot-3 and 290 pounds with a 7-foot-8 wingspan and hands engulf an average man’s:

Marjanovic puts his elite frame to good use on the court. Though his playing time is a tiny sample, his statistics are astounding. How many players with even 50 minutes have completed a season topping his…

Combination of points (24.8) and rebounds (14.4) per 36 minutes (edit: since the NBA-ABA merger)? Nobody.

Win shares per 48 minutes (.357)? Nobody.

PER (31.8)? Nobody.

Marjanovic at least has company there. Wilt Chamberlain also had a 31.8 PER in 1962-63, and Stephen Curry is posting a 32.2 PER this season.

Simply, Marjanovic produces like an all-time great when on the court. He’s just not on the court much.

Marjanovic scored 18 points in 17 minutes on 8-of-10 shooting against the 76ers in December. He sat the next game.

He had a three-game string later in the month with 10 points and seven rebounds, 17 points and four rebounds, seven points and 12 rebounds in 15 minutes each contest. That sustained success didn’t even preserve his spot in the rotation.

In all, Marjanovic has played in just 24 of San Antonio’s 42 games. A majority of his minutes have come in the fourth quarter with the Spurs ahead more than 15.

Unsurprisingly, fans  have embraced the Marjanovic show. Not only does his presence in the game typically signify San Antonio’s dominance, he keeps it going in incredible ways.

Marjanovic has shown touch as a shooter:

And as a passer:

And, of course, he’s a bludgeoning finisher:

But when fans chanted “MVP!” during Marjanovic free throws, Popovich shuddered.

“Sometimes it actually worries me,” Popovich said. “I think the crowd, they really get a kick out of him and all that, but he’s a basketball player. He’s not some sort of an odd thing.”

Marjanovic doesn’t see the fans’ support as harmful.

“They give me some power,” he said.

Yet Popovich still finds more reason for concern, particularly noting Marjanovic’s speed.

Marjanovic is slow. That’s a downside of his size. And as we’ve seen, teams are better than ever at going small and exposing immobile big men.

Popovich has carefully picked when Marjanovic plays, not forcing him into those difficult situations. But for Marjanovic eventually to receive a bigger role, he must face key questions:

Can he handle more minutes without becoming fatigued? Can he keep up with smaller, faster opposing lineups?

The answers could prove huge for the Spurs as they transition to the Kawhi LeonardLaMarcus Aldridge era.

Aldridge famously prefers not to play center. That works fine with Tim Duncan right now, but Aldridge is nine years younger than Duncan. What happens when* Duncan retires? Could Marjanovic start at center with the jump-shooting Aldridge at power forward?

*If?

First things first, San Antonio must re-sign Marjanovic before counting on him long term. The 27-year-old becomes a free agent this summer when his one-year, $1.2 million contract expires.

Despite Popovich’s reservations, the Spurs will probably offer Marjanovic the $1.5 million qualifying offer. That’ll make him a restricted free agent and subject him to the Gilbert Arenas provision.

The Arenas provision prevents other teams from signing a player to an offer sheet that starts above the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($5,628,000 next season). But they can jack up the salary in the third season to what the max would’ve been without the Arenas provision, as the Rockets did with Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. They can also add a fourth year that offers a 4.1% raise on the third year.

For Marjanovic, that means the highest-paying offer sheet he can sign projects to be worth $58,110,398 over five years:

  • 2016-17: $5,628,000
  • 2017-18: $5,881,260
  • 2018-19:$22,832,503
  • 2019-20:$23,768,635

If the Spurs don’t match a back-loaded offer sheet, Marjanovic’s cap hit will be his average salary ($14,527,599 in the case of the projected max) each season with his new team.

If San Antonio matches, Marjanovic’s cap hit will be his actual salary. That’d cause obvious complications if he’s earning more than $20 million in a few seasons.

Marjanovic’s situation will also be difficult to manage next summer.

The Spurs don’t have Marjanovic’s full Bird Rights, just his Non-Bird Rights (technically a form of Bird Rights). Unless they ink him to a deal that starts at $ 1.44 million or less – which seems unlikely – they’ll need cap space or another exception to re-sign him. Using the non-taxpayer exception – or, less likely, bi-annual exception – would hard-cap San Antonio. That could get tricky with more than $80 million in committed salary and player options for Duncan, Manu Ginobili and David West – all of whom could be seeking raises.

Will anyone see the Spurs’ predicament and Marjanovic’s potential and pounce?

Far more teams will have enough cap space this summer to sign a star than stars will be available. Some teams that strike out will play it safe and split their room on role players.

But will anyone swing for the fences? If a team isn’t satisfied with incremental improvement – fearing the treadmill of mediocrity – Marjanovic offers plenty of upside.

Just look what he’s doing right now.

There are major questions about the sustainability of this production, but Marjanovic has plenty of margin for error while remaining elite. There’s reason to be tantalized.

Marjanovic also has reason to stay in San Antonio, where he plays for a winning team with an excellent record of player development. Does he want to re-sign with the Spurs?

“This is my dream,” Marjanovic said.

Marjanovic offers little else about his plans – for the rest of this season and free agency. He just hopes for the best.

“If you don’t think positive,” Marjanovic said, “you’ll never get a chance to do something in your life.”