Blair slims down, earns more playing time with Spurs

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There is less DeJuan Blair to see these days. That might mean you will see more of him this basketball season.

Blair has a homecoming Thursday night when he and his San Antonio Spurs teammates play an NBA preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blair will play on the same Petersen Events Center court where he became an All-American two seasons ago at Pitt. But he certainly will not look the same.

From the end of his rookie NBA season to the start of preseason camp, Blair cut his body fat from 14 percent to 7.2. He lost some weight (now listed at 265 pounds), and he worked on improving his game away from the basket.

"You haven't seen me lately, have you?" Blair said in a telephone interview.

There is certainly less to see, but now less means more -- as in playing time. Blair started the first two games of the preseason and very well might hold onto the starting power forward position, with Tim Duncan playing center.

"I'm looking a lot better, running the floor better and getting a little smarter, day by day," said Blair. "I think I have a bigger role this year. I'm starting now, and it's like a dream come true. At the same time, I'm just staying humble and working as hard as I can. I just want to play my role and get better for this team."

Blair spent a lot of time in San Antonio this summer, working under Mike Brungardt, the Spurs' strength and conditioning coach. Brungardt changed some workout routines of the players, and Blair changed his own body -- and his game. Antonio McDyess, who started 50 games last year at power forward, is 36 years old and in the twilight of his career. He averaged only 5.8 points and 5.9 rebounds last season, compared to Blair's 7.8 points and 6.4 rebounds.

The Spurs also have Matt Bonner at power forward, but he is 30 and averaged only 7 points and 3.3 rebounds a year ago. The door seems open to the starting job, and Blair is running through it.

"I think they just saw how hard I worked this summer," said Blair, a former Post-Gazette high school player of the year at Schenley. "They have given me an opportunity to take and run with it.

"I worked on a lot of stuff this summer. I worked on my dribbling and my outside game. I've been working hard on a lot of things, like bringing the bigs out and going right around them. I worked a lot on my quickness and things like that."

Blair played in all 82 games for the Spurs last year and made 23 starts. But most of those were early in the season and some were made because of injuries to other players.

Last year, he played mostly the center position. But besides having Duncan this season, the Spurs added 6-11 rookie Tiago Splitter from Brazil. That allows Blair to play more power forward, and his improved body -- and skills -- have been noticeable to many.

"He's shown us he knows how to play," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News. "Now it's just a matter of him continuing to work on that shot. He's doing it."

In the Spurs' second preseason game Saturday against the Miami Heat, Blair had a game-high 13 points and a team-high seven rebounds.

"I played more of the 5 [center] position last year," Blair said. "I'll play the 5. It's no big thing to me. But I'll also play the 4, too.

"I'm a lot more confident this year and I'm way more comfortable. I'm comfortable playing with Timmy, and Timmy is comfortable playing with me. I think Coach Pop is more comfortable with me. I just have to keep going. No days off. No setbacks. Once I get a little more consistent, the sky is the limit for me. I just want to keep giving my best and pray I go without any injuries."

At 21, Blair is the young blood of a team that many critics believe is too "old" to contend for the Western Conference title. Besides Duncan, McDyess and Bonner, the Spurs have Richard Jefferson, 30, and Manu Ginobili, 33. Point guard Tony Parker is 28.

"Going down in the first round of the playoffs last year really hurt us," said Blair. "This could be a special team with everyone coming back. Everybody is talking about all the other teams, but not us. That's OK, especially for someone like me because I love being the underdog."

Even if it is "less" of an underdog.

Mike White: or 412-263-1975.


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