DeJuan Blair was such a Spurs pick heading into the draft that I couldn't help but chuckle when the big man out of Pittsburgh was drafted in the second round by San Antonio.
Let's see: Well-regarded and extremely productive college player? Check. Extremely productive in one area that usually translates to the NBA (rebounding)? Check. Some dodgy medical history or red flag that makes teams scared to draft him? Check. Blair embodies San Antonio's recent model of team-building almost too perfectly -- buy low on a productive college player with red flags and see what happens. Usually good things (hello Danny Green!)
After spending four years with San Antonio, Blair is now in Dallas, swooped up for the veteran's minimum. On the surface, it appears a fantastic move. Blair has been a good player for most of his short NBA career, his strength helps a Mavericks weakness and he's about as cheap as they come. What's not to like? For one, why was Blair so readily available at the minimum and why was San Antonio ready to cast him off? In the NBA, whenever the Spurs do something like this (make a late draft pick, sign/not sign someone) the rest of the league almost has to second-guess itself. After all, the Spurs are the model franchise when it comes to assessing and evaluating talent. If Blair wasn't worth keeping in San Antonio, then what's wrong with him? Under further scrutiny, not much. Well, not anything new that hasn't been a wart on Blair's resume even in his good years for the Spurs.
Going back to his rookie year, Blair's immediate impact in the NBA really shouldn't surprise anyone who watched a handful of college basketball games in Blair's final season at Pittsburgh. While a little undersized at 6'7'', Blair was an absolute terror on the glass, leading pretty much every category a college player can lead that's associated to rebounding.
Low and behold, rebounding is one of the things that if you do it really, really well in college, you'll do it really, really well in the NBA. Scouting and evaluating prospects is such a dicey deal, since the college game is so much different than what those players will see at the next level. So when a sure-producer whose best talent was instantly transferable to the NBA (damned knees and all!) slid to the Spurs in the 2009 draft, I hurled expletives at my TV.
Blair found success almost instantly. In his rookie year, he started 23 games, posted a 17.7 PER and had an offensive rebounding percentage of 16 percent (SECOND IN THE NBA) and a total rebounding percentage of 20.6 percent (SEVENTH IN THE NBA). A second round pick became one of the league's best rebounders, practically overnight.
Watch tape of Blair for maybe a minute and it's easy to see why he's such a successful rebounder. He battles for position as good as anyone, slides in from the baseline to snatch offensive boards and attacks the glass with a relentlessness that's hard not to enjoy. He boxes out, uses good footwork and makes expert use of the chaotic spacing that often surrounds a potential rebound. Blair is a master of cutting in, almost unnoticed, avoiding his man's box out and grabbing an offensive rebound.
Blair's not an elite athlete, but he isn't exactly floor bound either. That combined with an impressive wingspan (drink!) just helped his rebounding even more. Even without two ACLs!
In his second season, Blair posted great rebounding numbers again (4th in offensive rebound percentage, 13th in total rebounding percentage). He continued to refine his game as an offensive player, picking his spots perfectly and becoming a good-to-great finisher around the rim.
It appeared the Spurs had found their link next to Tim Duncan in the post. Blair's PER never dipped below 17 in his first three seasons, an almost unthinkable mark for a second-round pick.
But last season, Blair found himself out of the San Antonio rotation. He started just 16 games, played fewer than 1,000 minutes and had a 14.6 PER (all career lows). His numbers were down across the board, even his rebounding slipped. A combination of Tiago Splitter and the continued holes in Blair's game probably did him in.
Because there were and are holes in Blair's game. Despite his productivity in his first three years, the Spurs were always a better defensive team when Blair was off the court, according the NBA.com. You can't last for too long in Gregg Popovich's rotation if you're bringing down the team defense.
This is where Blair's somewhat lack of athleticism hurts him. His feet aren't quick enough to defend pick and rolls any better than average and he often struggles in space. We Mavs fans have watched first hand how Blair can struggle in pick and roll coverage, with Dirk and Jason Terry routinely being able to pick out Blair on defense and go to work in past seasons.
As an individual defender, Blair's marks continue to be so-so. Looking at his opponent-counterpoint production, Blair typically yielded PERs well above 15 to opposing centers. In fact, in 2010-2011, Blair gave up a 21.3 PER to opposing power forwards and a 24.3 PER to opposing centers. That's pretty alarming and speaks to the overall team numbers in which Blair drags down the San Antonio defense. Especially as a starter, with Blair sometimes being over-matched against quality bigs. He did have some solid post-up defensive numbers last season according to Synergy, but it's hard to tell if that can be sustained.
There are silver linings of course. The aforementioned rebounding will be a gigantic help to the Mavericks, who have struggled to rebound with any consistency lately. I wouldn't suspect Blair's rebounding will decline again, given more minutes in Dallas. Blair has also become fantastic as a finisher on pick and rolls. According to Synergy Sports, last season Blair shot 60.5 percent as the roll man. And that was in a down year. The season before that he was at 62.5 percent. As evidenced in Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright, a good pick and roll big does wonders for the Mavericks Dirk-centric offense.
Blair's also a very good cutter, generating a ton of offense from diving into the lane and scoring off teammates' double-teams. It's a good thing Blair has that skill, because he isn't a good mid-range shooter. He can occasionally take some flat-footed defenders off the bounce but generally does most of his damage off movement -- pick and rolls, cuts, transition. Blair never stops moving on both ends of the floor, and while that sometimes is to his detriment (being out of position on defense, for example) it's still a good trait to have.
It also helps that Blair can match up well at either center or power forward. That should allow Shawn Marion to grab some much needed rest, since Marion has typically been Dirk's "back-up" when Dirk exits games in the first quarter. He'll also be able to spot minutes to Samuel Dalembert and can play with Brandan Wright to help shore up Wright's lack of rebounding. It will also push Bernard James further out of the rotation, and while I agree the Mavericks need to develop their youngsters as much as possible, I'm not as keen on James as most.
Considering the salary and the past production, Blair is simply a steal. It's hard to ask for more from filling out the final spot of the roster and if Blair's off-year from last season continues into this one, he won't be tying up the salary cap in any way. He could also be a useful trade piece once he becomes eligible to trade in December. It's hard not to like this move for the Mavericks.