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On the list of free agents available last summer, Marco Belinelli's name certainly didn't stand out.
He spent six years bouncing around the league, was traded once for an on-his-last-legs Devean George and again for failed lottery pick Julian Wright. So when he signed a two-year deal with the San Antonio Spurs in July, it didn't grab much attention.
Tom Thibodeau knew better. The Bulls coach saw firsthand what Belinelli was capable of during his one year in Chicago and knew that San Antonio was the perfect place for him.
"We hated to lose him," Thibodeau said.
Belinelli is averaging career highs in shooting percentage, 3-point percentage, rebounds and assists while his 11.3-points per game average is just below his best season (11.8) for New Orleans in 2011-12.
In doing so, Belinelli has added his name to a seemingly endless list of role players who have flourished while playing off of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
"He's been more than we expected because it usually takes someone a while to figure out the system and feel comfortable and he's done it very quickly," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "So he's been a pleasant surprise in that respect."
Picking up the intricacies of the Spurs' offense — one predicated on ball movement, cutting away from the play and synergy with teammates — is no easy task. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have played together for so long that the challenge for a new face is figuring out where he fits in and how to effectively play off of a trio that knows each other as well as they know their own family.
The Spurs have always had an affinity for international players, subscribing to the theory that the universal language of basketball can transcend any cultural or communication issues that may arise in such a melting pot of a roster. Of course, Belinelli having someone on the team who does speak his native tongue doesn't hurt.
"That really helped me a lot," he said of Ginobili's ability to speak Italian. "It helped me to learn how to play in the system, how to understand the system on offense, on defense. How to understand what Pop wanted from the players.
"Everything for me, after about two months, was easy. The system on offense is not difficult. We just try to move the ball all the time, try to play together like crazy. We really love to move the ball. And on defense, just play hard, play hard."
Belinelli, who first played with Ginobili as a teenager in Italy 13 years ago, has returned the favor by giving the Spurs' second unit another versatile, instinctive player. His presence has helped Ginobili bounce back from a shaky regular season last year with renewed life.
And Ginobili's game isn't the only thing that has come back. His Italian has, too.
"I was starting to lose it," Ginobili said with a chuckle. "The fact that he's new in the system, that he needed to figure things out, I can help him with that and meanwhile I practice my Italian. Even though under pressure a few times I have been very confusing with the Spanish and English, because with Tiago (Splitter) I speak Spanish. And I said some things that I still can't understand. But it's been great to have somebody that I know for so long."
It's been quite a two-year span for Belinelli from an education standpoint. He has played for Popovich and Thibodeau, widely regarded as two of the league's very best coaches, in that time and watched his game take off because of it.
"Amazing. They are different, but at the same time, they are the best coaches in the league," Belinelli said. "For me, Thibodeau was great and everybody knows that Pop is the best coach in the league."
Belinelli is so much more than a standstill shooter now. He's been an occasional point guard when Parker has sat out, feasted on hard cuts to the basket and figured out how to minimize his deficiencies as an individual defender by committing to the team concept.
"I think the biggest thing for him is his winning characteristics," Thibodeau said. "He plays for the team. The team is first all the time with him. I was not surprised that San Antonio picked him up because I know how much Pop values those things. He's had a terrific season for them."
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