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NBA 75 Series: #9 Tim Duncan

Updated: Aug 17, 2022

At #9 of my NBA 75 Greatest Players of All Time list is the greatest power forward to ever play the game (and who, as a five-time champion, three-time Finals MVP, two-time MVP, is the greatest San Antonio Spur of all time), the quiet, stoic, uncharismatic Tim Duncan. Duncan was born on April 25, 1976, in the Virgin Islands of St.Croix, to his mother, Ione, and father, William. Duncan was part of a very athletic and smart family — from his sister, Tricia, who swam for the Islands in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, to his brother, Scott, who became a film director and cinematographer.

As great of a player Duncan would become at basketball, his first love was actually swimming. He excelled by dominating in the 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyles. His goal was to participate in the 1992 Olympic games as a member of the U.S., but the reality of becoming a professional swimmer and olympian would come to a screeching halt in 1989, when Hurricane Hugo destroyed the only Olympic-sized pool that the island had. This forced Duncan to swim in the ocean, but his fear of sharks zapped his joy for swimming away.

As if taking away swimming from a 13-year old wasn’t enough, Duncan would have another emotional blow a year later, when his mother passed away due to breast cancer. While her life was slowly fading away, she made Duncan and his sisters promise that they would graduate college, which explains why such a transcendent talent as Duncan refused to leave school early for the NBA.

With swimming out of the realm of possibility, Duncan dedicated his focus onto the game of basketball. The transition to the sport didn’t go as smoothly as he would imagine, as he found trouble adjusting to the speed and physicality of the game, considering he was a big, tall, and awkward guy while at St.Croix Country Day School. Duncan would overcome his awkwardness, though, at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal High School, going on to average 25 points per game as a senior, which would attract many college coaches to the Virgin Island native.

Duncan committed to playing for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons under coach Dave Odom despite other offers from Hartford, Providence, and so forth. Odom has had his eyes on Duncan since he saw the 16-year-old hold his own against NBA star Alonzo Mourning in a 5-on-5 pickup game. At the time, Odom was searching for a tall and physical player for the program, and Duncan fit the archetype of what he needed.

As a freshman in 1993-94, Duncan initially struggled to keep up with the speed of the college game — he was held scoreless in his first game. However, he and forward Randolph Childress helped lead the Deacons to a 20-11 record. Duncan would only average 9.8 points per game, showing how raw he was offensively as a freshman, and showing elite defensive capabilities by averaging 3.8 blocks as a freshman!

His play was simple but effective, and he had a plethora of low-post moves, like one Kevin McHale; he could shoot the mid-range bank shot like Sam Jones (of those championship Boston Celtics teams in the 1960s); and he was a defensive anchor in the paint, like Bill Russell.

As a sophomore in 1994-95, Duncan began getting looked at as one of the top NBA prospects in the nation, with former Los Angeles Lakers general manager, Jerry West, suggesting he could become the top overall selection in the 1995 NBA Draft. Duncan made it clear he had no intentions of leaving college early for the NBA, as he pursued his degree in psychology that he promised he would get to his mother.

Duncan would lead the Deacons to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) championship with averages of 16.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and a mind boggling 4.2 blocks per game! Absolutely staggering. They won the ACC that season, over the North Carolina Tar Heels, who had Rasheed Wallace (who Duncan neutralized) and Jerry Stackhouse, who would become top selections in the 1995 NBA Draft and have long productive careers, even becoming All-Stars.

To no one's surprise, Duncan would win the Defensive Player of the Year that season, becoming the third best shot-blocker in NCAA history with his 4.2 per game. He would be named to the All-ACC First Team, a title that he repeated the next two seasons. He would help the Deacons reach the Sweet 16 by putting on a dominant display against Bryant Reeves and the Oklahoma State Bulldogs, scoring 12 points, grabbing 22 rebounds and swatting eight shots. The Deacons would unfortunately still lose 71-66, despite Duncan’s dominance.

Wake Forest looked different during Duncan’s junior season in 1995-96, as Childress graduated the year prior and was now in the NBA. Childress’s departure increased Duncan’s scoring load, improving his average from 16.8 points to 19.1 per game. The Deacons finished with a 26-6 record and 12-4 in the ACC to capture the ACC crown once again, and Duncan won the Defensive Player of the Year for the second time and ACC Player of the Year for the first time. The Deacons would advance to the Sweet 16 once again, but Duncan came down with the flu that caused them to miss their shot at a Final Four appearance.

In 1996-97, Duncan’s final season as a Deacon, he would be moved to the power forward addition, with the addition of 7-foot-1 center Loren Woods to ease some pressure off Duncan in the paint. Wake Forest would win their first 13 games of the season that year, but would fail to win their third consecutive ACC title after a midseason slump. Duncan averaged 20.8 points, 14.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.3 blocks per game, looking like the unanimous No.1 pick for the 1997 NBA Draft, with teams like the Spurs and Celtics tanking for a chance to select the promising Deacon forward.

He won the Defensive Player of the Year for the third straight season, while also adding to his trophy case by being named the Naismith College Player of the Year, a All-American First Team selection for the second time and winner of the Oscar Robertson trophy. Duncan graduated from Wake Forest in the spring of 1997 to fulfill the promise he made to his mother before her passing. He would go on to become the No.1 pick in the 1997 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs, who were coming off one of their worst seasons in franchise history, with a 20-62 record, due to their star center David Robinson suffering injuries to his back and foot that limited him to just six games that season.

Duncan would not only be forming a “Twin Tower” tandem with Robinson, but he would also form a great relationship with Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich, throughout his career, who was the one and only coach he ever played for in the NBA. He would show why he was the No.1 pick in 1997-98 by averaging a double-double of 21.1 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, along with 2.7 assists and 2.5 blocks. Duncan was so great he not only won the 1998 NBA Rookie of the Year Award, but also was named an All-Star and an All-NBA First Team selection as a rookie! Yes he was that good!

The great Charles Barkley even had high praise for the new kid in town dominating the league when he stated, "I have seen the future and he wears number 21.” The future he was, as he would become known as “The Big Fundamental” due to his dominant yet boring style of play. He was the driving force of the Spurs dynasty from the moment he came into the league in 1997.

He helped lead the San Antonio Spurs to all of their five NBA championships in franchise history. He and Robinson formed one of the most dominant Twin Tower pairings in league history, which culminated in two championships together in 1999 and 2003. He won back to back MVPs in 2002 and 2003 and has three Finals MVPs to his name, and in one of those Finals games he almost accumulated a quadruple double! He’s a 15-time All-NBA member, 15-time all defense, 15-time All-Star, the 1998 ROTY and perhaps the best defensive player of all time to never win a Defensive Player of the Year award.

Duncan wasn’t the flashiest player, and he was probably the most quiet, boring superstar in league history, but the impact he made on both ends was incredible. He’s the only player to ever win a championship in three different decades (1990s, 2000s, 2010s) and has the most wins of any player on one team, with 1,001.He also has the most wins, 575, by a trio, with NBA legends Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. He’s one of four players to be named the Finals MVP three times or more — the others are Michael Jordan (six), LeBron James (four), Magic Johnson (three), and Shaquille O’Neal (three).

Duncan had 17 consecutive 50-win seasons and is one of four players (Kobe Bryant, John Stockton, Dirk Nowitzki) to spend 19 or more seasons with one franchise. He was the ultimate competitor, a true team leader and by far the greatest power forward of all time.

He is "The Big Fundamental!"

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