Marco Belinelli is a better perimeter shooter than his current field-goal percentage suggests. But he is not, he freely admits, in the Peja Stojakovic category.
“No, no, no,” Belinelli insisted, laughing. “We both have won the long-distance shootout (All-Star Weekend), and when we were teammates in New Orleans, we played one-on-one after practice all the time. But he destroyed me. The one time I beat him this season, he was wearing jeans, so that doesn’t count.”
The jeans were tight, of course. Stojakovic arrived from Greece in 1999 with a golden right arm, a worn Kings athletic bag, and a European flair for clothes. If the pants are baggy, they would never be worn by Peja then, or Peja now.
Belinelli, 29, is less interested in fashion, but similarly consumed by his on-court sense of style, one that continues to evolve. A native of San Giovanni, a tiny suburb of Bologna, he has been a point guard and a designated shooter. He has been a starter and a valuable sub. He has won titles in Europe and in the NBA. He also has played for six teams since being drafted by Golden State in 2007 (18th overall), including the past two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, the gold standard for small-market franchises.
For someone with Belinelli’s skills, playing for the Spurs is like sitting in the orchestra behind the three tenors. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker conduct nightly concerts, a basketball ode to joy, with their exquisite passing, movement, spacing.
The Kings are an indirect beneficiary. The Spurs’ decision to re-sign veteran guard Danny Green last summer left Belinelli on the free-agent market, receptive to a three-year, $19 million offer from the Kings. It also provided an example of first-year general manager Vlade Divac’s global reach: Divac and Spurs coach/GM Gregg Popovich are close friends. Divac and Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, who is coaching the Italian national team for a second time, are legends overseas. Belinelli began his pro career as a 16-year-old playing for Messina in Bologna and experienced his greatest success while the two were reunited in San Antonio.
Still. The Spurs to the Kings. This was a leap. Imagine leaving the three tenors for a team that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs for a decade? That is taking a machete to one-on-one basketball and a habit of dribbling into the annual lottery? But as Divac often says, you have to start somewhere. The addition of Belinelli already is benefiting Ben McLemore, who is coming off two erratic seasons. Belinelli not only generously shares his knowledge, he relates to McLemore’s early struggles.
“Marco didn’t have the great touch he has now,” said Don Nelson, the Warriors’ head coach when Golden State drafted Belinelli in 2007 . “In Europe, he was an incredible shooter, and he had good size. We traded him after two seasons because he wasn’t making shots. But one of the things I always liked about him was that even when he wasn’t scoring, he kept working to become a good defender, and he’s a very good playmaker.”
While Belinelli’s best season statistically was 2013-14, when he shot 48 percent from the field and 43 percent beyond the arc during the Spurs championship run, he began tinkering with his shooting motion three years earlier in New Orleans.
“I was shooting off-balance a lot of time,” he said, “but I worked on that a lot, just a lot of repetition, a lot of shooting. And I work very hard at moving without the ball. I want to be a complete player, not just a shooter.”
Though the 6-foot-5 Belinell is converting only 36 percent of his attempts, he continues to hit timely jumpers. His mere presence as a deep threat balances the floor, and his continual movement is a revelation. The last Kings scorer to be this active without the ball was Kevin Martin. And before him, Stojakovic.
“Marco makes us big guys look good,” said backup center Kosta Koufos, “because he really needs how to use screens.”
McLemore, 22, said he spends hours watching tape of Belinelli, emulating his technique and studying his older teammate’s lively, aggressive demeanor. He hears the Italian in his ear, telling him to keep shooting, to take better shots, to find open teammates, to play the passing lanes.
“It’s just like when I came over here from Europe when I was 20, almost 21,” said Belinelli. It was a very hard adjustment. What helped was having my brother stay with me, and my family and friends coming often to visit. San Francisco is very big, and I come from a very small city.”
Did we mention Belinelli is Italian? Close your eyes and his accent reveals his roots. Sit next to him for any length of time and his hands engage in an ongoing conversation. The right hand shoots into the air, the left hand taps his leg, the long, slender fingers become clasped on his lap, then snap loose as he sketches an image in the air.
Despite the Kings’ 3-7 start, he paints a promising image. The season is young, he says. No one morphs into the Spurs overnight.