Before the 2001 NBA draft, future hall of famer Tony Parker was merely a skinny Parisian kid who was making some minor waves overseas. He was an unknown diamond in the rough.
At the time, former New York Times reporter Mike Wise predicted he was a chance to scrape into the first round of the draft, but nothing more. Standing at a meager 6-foot-1, Parker didn’t even start in his debut season for French club Paris Basket Racing. However, after earning the starting role and putting up 14.7 points and 5.6 assists per game. After the breakout year, the time was right for the 19-year-old to make the move stateside.
When the big night did arrive and the San Antonio Spurs did nab the Frenchman with the 28th pick, he was the typical giddy teenage soon-to-be millionaire basketball player.
“I’m excited, I’m happy. Playing with a good team, play with superstars, very exciting. Can’t wait to meet them and play with them” he said in his post-draft interview.
Parker entered the Spurs fold at the ideal time, as incumbent point guard Avery Johnson bolted to Denver that summer, leaving the starting position wide open for head coach Gregg Popovich’s newest draft pick.
His maiden regular season in the big leagues wasn’t a mind-boggling one by any means, as he put up 9.2 points, 4.6 assists and 1.2 steals a night in the starting role. Although he did log the third highest minute total – behind legends Tim Duncan and David Robinson – on a team that won 58 games, which provided a crucial building block for the soon-to-be All-Star.
Parker used that stepping stone to explode in his first ever NBA playoffs. As we know now, it was a sign of things to come. San Antonio was eliminated in the second round by Kobe and Shaq’s Los Angeles Lakers, but Parker announced himself to the world, averaging 15.5 points and 4 assists while nailing 37 percent of his 3’s.
It was an awesome showing by the Parisian – if the Big Fundamental, who was already a fully-fledged star, didn’t take much notice. As Parker explained to ESPN Los Angeles’ Dave McMenamin back in 2014.
“[Duncan] didn’t talk to me for a whole year. It was kind of weird coming from France and you have your superstar player that doesn’t talk to you as a point guard, it’s kind of tough, you know? Because you’re supposed to talk to everybody.” Parker said.
As Robinson’s star-studded career reached its twilight, Tony Parker – who only just snuck into the first round of the draft just a year earlier – was already Popovich’s undisputed second fiddle. Still just a tender 20-years-old, he carried his playoff momentum into his sophomore season, a campaign that ended with the first of four championship runs.
Now, Manu Ginobili had joined Parker and Duncan as the future of the organization, one that blossomed into the winningest in 21st-century hoops. By the 2004-05 season, the trio had just won their second NBA title, with Parker at the helm every step of the way. A year later, the skinny French kid was an All-Star for the first time.
Parker was averaging 18.9 points and 5.6 assists per outing, those shifty in-and-out dribbles, floaters and mid-range jumpers, up-and-under layups and crisp passes had become second nature for Spurs viewers, and so had winning games consistently.
The following season the Spurs capped off their third championship in six years, on the back of an all-time NBA Finals performance by the 24-year-old. Tony Parker played a hefty 37.8 minutes per night and put up 24.5 points, 5 rebounds and 3.3 assists, shooting a blistering 56.8 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from long-range, spring-boarding his squad to a finals sweep over Cleveland.
Six years after drafting him, Gregg Popovich stood on top of the world with his star point guard. In an interview with Reuters’ Steve Ginsberg, Pop explained what he told his point guard on the stage as the trophy presentation took place.
“I reminded him that when we gave him his first workout, we didn’t think he was tough enough and we sent him home,” Popovich said. “Then we set up another interview, another workout where we stacked it and had some people go after him physically and he was fantastic in that one.
“I reminded him of that and he had a big laugh. And I said, ‘Now you’re standing here on the stage with the finals MVP trophy,’ and he just kept laughing. He couldn’t believe it.” he said.
While the Spurs stayed relevant as ever for the next six seasons, that fourth championship ring eluded Parker and his usual band of talent. However, the wily guard continued to cement his resume as one of the best point guards to play the game. He averaged 18.8 points and 6.7 assists, featuring in three All-Star games and three All-NBA squads.
Tony Parker was in career-best personal form throughout those six seasons. He exploded on the Minnesota Timberwolves for a personal best 55 points in a 2008 tilt and posted a career-high 17 assists against New Orleans back in 2012. The personal accolades were coming in abundance, but there was one final title-winning run for that same kid who couldn’t even start for Paris Basket Racing back in France.
After falling at the last hurdle of a grueling seven-game series against LeBron James’ legendary Miami Heat in the 2013 Finals, Parker and the Spurs got their revenge in 2014. San Antonio slapped the Heat to the tune of a five-game series win, and the now 31-year-old was his usual productive self – pumping out 18 points and 4.6 assists per game while shooting a sizzling 41.6 percent from 3-point land throughout the series.
After that last outburst from the hall of famer, it Father Time was slowly but surely catching up with him. However, like all of the best players, Parker quickly adjusted his game to remain effective for a few more years.
A career 32.6 percent 3-point shooter, he was never a high-volume shot taker from behind the arc (1.3 attempts per game), but he re-calibrated as the NBA as the NBA game evolved into a long-range game. Parker nailed 42.7 percent of his triples in 2014-15 and backed that up by hitting 41.5 percent in 2015-16.
Now, after his final two seasons in Texas failed to cover him in glory, Tony Parker will likely finish his all-time great career in Charlotte after signing a 2-year, $10 million deal this summer. Bringing an end to one of the most underrated but brilliant careers San Antonio – or the NBA in general – has ever seen.
Kudos Tony Parker, thank you for 17 years of magic.