- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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You could call him King O' The Circus Layup, because he makes at least one every night.
Steve Kerr once called him "the best loose-ball-getter in the league ... if that's a word."
We like to call him The Shooting Guard From A Faraway Land Famous For Everything Except Shooting.
Manu Ginobili laughed at that one.
"I've never been a great shooter," he says. "I'm not a regular foreigner player."
No he's not. As much as he belongs now in the same sentence with the rest of the league's best perimeter-based international stars -- Dirk Nowitzki, Peja Stojakovic and Steve Nash -- Ginobili still winds up in a category of his own, making all the other lefties look orthodox.
He has apparently been that kind of Manu "since the age of six," by his own reckoning. That's when Ginobili started playing shooting guard, the only position he has ever known, and that means he has spent 20 years compensating for his less-than-silky jumper with timely steals, nifty passes, handy deflections, purposeful drives, fearless charge-taking and, after his late-in-life growth spurt, the revered art of at-the-rim showmanship.
"I know I'm not the most orthodox kind of player," Ginobili admits. "I just feel normal being like that."
It's a greater satisfaction to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich that Ginobili also feels a sense of self-belief and belonging that neither of them could even imagine at this time a year ago. The Spurs made the decision after last season's championship that Ginobili, their most critical playoff performer after Tim Duncan, would be a starter this season in place of the soon-to-depart Stephen Jackson. Ginobili's strong start in his new role -- in spite of 35-percent shooting from the field -- has San Antonio quietly convinced that its lead trio of Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker will be as good as anyone's in May and June.
Robert Horry, who defected from the Lakers to the Spurs over the summer, reached that conclusion during training camp. "Those three guys right there," Horry said last month, "... man, you can just add anybody to that." Ginobili didn't waste time making Horry's statement sound pretty reasonable, posting a 33-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist display in a nationally televised showdown with L.A. Largely because of the new Manu, San Antonio nearly toppled the Lakers despite playing without the injured Duncan and Parker.
Just imagine what awaits if it's true what Manu says now about that game. If it's true that he really isn't that much better than the old Manu yet.
Asked what he's doing better now, compared to last November, Ginobili said: "Almost nothing."
"Yes. I just ... I'm feeling more confident. I'm starting, getting a lot of shots, so that makes me look better.
"What I'm better at is my knowledge of the NBA, my teammates and Pop. A little bit of everything."
He's right, in a way. What Ginobili has clearly mastered already is his coach's penchant for downplaying everything. Gregg Popovich, King O' The Never Satisfied Coaches, suggests that "what we're seeing now is basically what we've seen when he plays for Argentina all the time."
Eventually, though, even Popovich concedes that Ginobili has progressed to the point that he has to call plays for him now. Some of the same plays he used to call for Sean Elliott.
"He's involved," Pop said. Meaning Ginobili is involved in everything the Spurs do.
It goes beyond whatever the stats say, and it's the reason San Antonio -- once it realized that Jason Kidd wasn't coming to the Alamo City -- didn't want to add a single newcomer to the roster with more than one season of guaranteed salary left. Ginobili is eligible for free agency this summer and the Spurs know they need cap room to keep him. That's because the new (or not-so-new) Ginobili is also the new Gilbert Arenas. As a second-round draft pick whose original NBA contract was only a two-year deal, Ginobili would be limited to a $5 million-per-season starting offer from the Spurs if they didn't have cap room.
They weren't going to let that happen, knowing that a guy like Ginobili, who always seems to end up where the ball is, is irreplaceable. Maybe not as indispensable as Duncan, since no one is, but definitely one of a kind.
Ginobili changes directions, at full speed, maybe better than anyone in the league. That's why it's so difficult for defenders to sit on his left hand and try to force him right. Horry, who's just getting to know Manu as a teammate, is also impressed by Ginobili's balance. "He stays so low," Horry said. "Plus he's left-handed."
Ginobili scoffs at the idea that the Spurs have too many newcomers to repeat as champions, pointing out that "that's what they said about us last year."
Manu scoffs louder at the idea that there is pressure on he and Parker to make Duncan forget that the Spurs failed to sign Kidd ... and that the Lakers are lining up with four future Hall of Famers to San Antonio's one ... and that Dallas and Minnesota have loaded up, too.
"With only one star, we won the tournament," Ginobili said, subbing tourney for title. "I don't think it's like a pressure on me and Tony. We want that."
That much was evident in the recent Laker thriller. Despite besting his previous career high by a whopping 13 points, Ginobili was beating himself up in the aftermath for missing a potential game-winning jumper at the buzzer of the first overtime.
"I couldn't sleep that night, not being able to hit that shot," he said. "I scored 33 points, but for nothing. It could have been much better."
The shooting guard insists that his shooting will get better, even if he's admittedly "not a great fan of only shooters." The other option, teammate Malik Rose volunteers, is making more of those circus layups every night to go with all of Ginobili's other good work.
"We know he's going to make one or two every game," Rose said. "We're waiting for three or four."