Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 1/30/12
For many NBA rookies, their first year in the Association is all about getting acclimated to the many nuances that come with playing in the league. Whether it's the longer schedule, travel, speed of the game or increased conditioning, most rookies have at least some sort of adjustment to make in year one of their time in the league. And it was no different for San Antonio big man Tiago Splitter last season. The native Brazilian who was the Spurs' top pick in the 2007 NBA Draft (27th overall) managed to play in 60 games, including six starts but averaged just 4.6 points and 3.4 points. It was a season where he battled his way through several injuries and also one where he had to adjust to a new league, especially after spending the previous few seasons in Europe. "I think it was a learning year," Splitter said of his rookie season. "I learned a lot-how to play, how to adjust my game to the NBA. I don't know if it's the physicality (that was the biggest difference between Europe and the NBA), I think it's faster (in the NBA). Over there, they bang a lot too but it's not as fast as here." As a rookie, the 6-foot-11 South American averaged just over 12 minutes a night for the Spurs. However, this year he has seen his minutes increase by some nine per night to an average of 21:30 and now that he's healthy, his numbers have increased exponentially. Through 21 games, he was averaging 9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds as primarily a bench player. So it's not surprising that he's happy with how this season has gone for him thus far. "Very good, I think I have a different role than last year. I'm healthy and feeling good," Splitter said. "Everything is coming along. I'm playing. I have great teammates and am in a great system. It's easy to play like this." Seeing as how Splitter's minutes and numbers are both up, one might wonder exactly what he's done to show such marked improvement. But according to Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, it's not like his 27-year-old center has become a different player. It's more a case of now that he's healthy he's getting to show what he's always been able to do. "He's playing this year. He sat most of the year with injuries and that kind of thing. There's really no difference in his play," Popovich said. "What he's doing now is what he's done for the last however many years in Europe. He's a blue-collar guy. He's really fundamentally sound, not a big skill guy but a really good basketball fundamental type. He works very hard and has been real important for us." Splitter agrees with his head coach that it's not so much how much he's improved it's merely evidence of how confident and comfortable he now is in the NBA game. "I don't know if I've improved from what I did in Europe. I just have more confidence and players know me better," he said. "Of course, I have stuff that I've got to work on like my shot, but still I'm doing what Gregg Popovich wants from me-playing close to the basket, getting rebounds and trying to defend." The veteran San Antonio head coach has led the Spurs to four NBA titles and has a reputation as someone who gets every ounce of potential out of most who play for him, something that this young Brazilian can definitely appreciate. "He wants you to give all your energy on the court and be smart at the same time. It's not easy but in the end, you see the results," Splitter said. But Popovich isn't the only one that a young player like him can learn from. He can also absorb all he can from veteran teammates like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, cornerstones of those great Spurs teams in recent history. "They know how to play this game and the most important thing is they're very intelligent players. So you learn a lot with them-preparing for games, seeing the game and how to deal with situations," Splitter said. "Of course, we have a great coach. He's been in this league for years and he knows how to run a team very well." And even though countryman Nene plays for a Western Conference rival in Denver, he admits he takes great pride in seeing him do well with the Nuggets. "Well, Nene has had a long career in the NBA already. He's doing pretty well. He's had a great career in Denver and he feels at home over there and he's very happy," Splitter said. In a recent road loss at Dallas, the young Brazilian was matched up with former NBA MVP and 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, a fellow import who he has much respect for. "Of course, he's a great challenge. When you've got to guard him, you know he's among the best in the league," Splitter said. "I'm very happy to have the opportunity to play against him and to learn from playing against him too."
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