Story by KL Chouinard
The Atlanta Hawks took a number of measures this summer to re-organize themselves around a younger core. They also acquired 31-year-old guard Marco Belinelli, their oldest player this season, in a trade with Charlotte.
“This is my first time,” the 10-year NBA veteran said of being the oldest team member. “I don’t really care. I feel young, and I’ve got more experience than other people so I can help my teammates to be better.”
Head coach Mike Budenholzer said Belinelli has taken a subtle approach to sharing his basketball know-how.
“I’d like for him to share his experiences whether it be from his years in the NBA or his international experiences,” Budenholzer said. “He kind of does it a little bit on the sly. He’s not super vocal. But I think that he is someone that we all respect, and I think he has good insight for young players.”
If you talk to Budenholzer at length about Belinelli, he will likely say that he has always wanted to coach the 6-foot-5 guard. Then he’ll slip in his favorite phrase for describing him.
“Marco just knows how to play.”
Belinelli’s path to learning how to play the game began at his home in San Giovanni in Persiceto, Italy. He and his older brother, Enrico, played basketball in the yard and watched VHS tapes of 1980s NBA teams.
A dozen miles away in the city of Bologna, a basketball culture was blooming. Two local teams, Virtus Bologna and Fortitudo Bologna, rose to prominence in the top Italian league, Serie A. In 14 out of the 15 seasons from 1993 to 2007, the Italian Finals included one of the two teams from Bologna.
“There’s a big rivalry between those teams,” Belinelli said.
As one might expect, when Belinelli earned a berth on Virtus’ junior team, it was a big deal. It was an even bigger deal three years later when he started getting minutes with the senior Virtus squad in Serie A. He was 16 years old.
Virtus fell on hard financial times soon after, and Belinelli had to pick a new team. While there were suitors across Europe, Belinelli wanted to stay home, so he picked the cross-town foes, Fortitudo. The decision stoked the flames of the rivalry.
“For a young guy from Bologna, there is nothing better than to play for both teams when I was young,” Belinelli said. “Some people were mad because I changed teams between one and the other one.”
In Belinelli’s four seasons with Fortitudo, the team won one Italian League championship and finished as the runner-up two other times. Belinelli’s most notable performance came in the deciding Game 5 of the 2006 semifinals.
Fortitudo lost Game 4 in disappointing fashion on the road. In the final minute, an opposing player hit a critical corner three to seal the game and broke into a celebration that included, alternately, a hip thrust, a mid-court dance and a celebratory yell within a few feet of the back of Belinelli’s head.
A seething 20-year-old Belinelli countered in Game 5 with a masterpiece. In the opening minutes, he made a pair of threes. Later in the first half, he made another pair of threes – but this time over his Game 4 nemesis. On their way back down the court, a camera caught Belinelli chiding him.
“Dance now! Dance now!”
Marco was hot in every sense of the word. And he was nowhere near done. He ended his 24-point first half with a wrong-legged 40-footer at the buzzer, and his 34 overall points pushed Fortitudo to an easy series-clinching win.
A year later, the Golden State Warriors drafted Belinelli with the 18th overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft. The Don Nelson-coached team was fresh off their “We Believe” playoff victory over the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks. Current Hawks General Manager Travis Schlenk was an assistant coach, and Belinelli had to wait patiently for an opportunity on a team stacked deep with guards.
But Belinelli counts one of those guards among the many mentors who helped him learn the NBA game.
“My first year, Baron Davis was there,” Belinelli said. “Then I went to Toronto and (Hedo) Turkoglu was there. Chris Paul was really important to me when I was in New Orleans. And for sure when I was in San Antonio, (Manu) Ginobili was a big part of my improved game, on the court and off the court.”
The two years that Belinelli spent with the Spurs left a deep impact on him; one has to go no further than the Larry O’Brien tattoo on his left arm that commemorates the 2014 title that he helped win. He will, quite rightly, sing the praises of Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich to no end.
Belinelli’s satisfying experience in San Antonio led to his excitement over landing in Atlanta, where the Hawks and Budenholzer run a similar offensive scheme to the one that Popovich uses. To date, the pairing of Belinelli and Budenholzer’s offense has yielded strong results: Belinelli has shot a career and team-high 5.4 threes per game and converted them at an outstanding 46.1 percent rate.
The Hawks’ offense has run smoothly with Belinelli on the court. He plays like a shooting guard with point guard skills. Two facets of his game have stood out to observers and teammates and, while Belinelli said that he has been doing them for his whole career, he also said that he honed them more in San Antonio than he did anywhere else.
One technique that his teammates have asked him about is his pump fake. The younger Hawks have seen that more often than not, when Belinelli catches a pass and lands in a triple-threat position (pass/shoot/dribble), the passes and dribbles are preceded by a faked shot. Belinelli gave credit to Ginobili for helping him perfect the fake that has often gotten defenders leaning the wrong way this season.
The other off-the-charts skill Belinelli has shown is his off-the-ball movement.
“Never stop. Keep moving,” Belinelli said. “I think Ginobili is one of the best players to move without the ball, so I just tried to take something from him.”
His current coach agreed.
“The way he moves off the ball, his cutting, his slashing, his IQ: I think it’s unique,” Budenholzer said.
It may be unique now, but if Belinelli and his coach have their way, he won’t be the only cutter for long. Some of his younger teammates have already begun asking Belinelli about moving without the ball, and for the ones who weren’t already posing questions, Budenholzer has begun preaching the same.
“Just thinking about the film session today: When Marco is playing well and moving away from the ball,” Budenholzer said as he pantomimed pausing a video, “‘Watch that. Do what he does.'”
“Sometimes it takes years of experience to get the timing of cutting and when to cut and things like that, but there is no doubt that (Marco) has been a good influence for us.”