By Will Burchfield
Boban Marjanovic has been nothing more than a curiosity for much of this sluggish Pistons’ season.
On Thursday night, he was a star.
The 7’3 Serb dumped in 15 points and grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds to help the Pistons clip the Hornets 115-114.
“He did a great job tonight, on the boards and everything else,” said Stan Van Gundy. “He was tremendous.”
“Great, great, great effort,” he added.
With Andre Drummond in early foul trouble and backup center Aaron Baynes out with an injury, Marjanovic was pressed into action midway through the first quarter. He promptly tallied eight points and seven rebounds in the final 5:49, dominating the rim as the Hornets flailed hopelessly at his side.
“You can’t prepare for 7’4,” said Van Gundy, throwing Marjanovic an extra inch for good measure. “How do you prepare for that?”
In one 53-second stretch in the opening frame, Marjanovic pulled down five offensive boards – five – drew two fouls and converted three of four free throws.
“He was phenomenal. He was major, man,” said Reggie Jackson, who sank the game-winning free throws with 1.9 seconds remaining. “What he did was special. Second-chance points, keeping the ball alive for us, really helping us get them in foul trouble so everybody else got a chance to eat and get to the free throw line.
“Hats off to the performance he had and the energy he brought.”
Never is Boban’s size advantage more evident than when he’s vying for a rebound. While the players around him leap into the air and stretch for every inch, Marjanovic stands on tip-toe and lets his gangly arms take care of the rest.
“He does that stuff in practice,” said Marcus Morris, who chipped in 20 points and ten rebounds of his own. “It’s impossible to block him out in practice because he’s just got his hands up and we’re just swinging at the ball.”
Morris laughed at this thought, before adding, “It’s exactly what I saw out there tonight.”
Asked about his rebounding prowess afterward, Marjanovic said, “I’m good size, strong, I work, lift.”
Then he chuckled.
Of his 15 points against the Hornets, nine came from the free throw line. Marjanovic missed just two free throws on the night, showing impressive touch for a player of his stature.
“They don’t allow me to make these baskets, they put me on the free throw line and – easy,” he said.
Since entering the NBA in 2015, Marjanovic, 28, has become something of a folk hero. There’s his fun name, for starters, plus his unusual background. And then there’s his gigantic frame, his outlandishly large hands and his big, happy smile. Add it all up, and Marjanovic feels like he leapt out of a storybook and landed in Detroit.
If he’s beguiling in his appearance, he’s relatable in his struggle. Basketball doesn’t come easy for Marjanovic, not the way it does for most of his peers. He pays for his height with a gawky stride. He pays for his reach with a clumsy set of hands. In a league dominated by graceful, well-oiled athletes, Marjanovic sticks out.
To the fans, it may be what makes him real.
Earlier this season, it wasn’t uncommon for chants of “Boban! Boban!” to break out behind the Pistons’ bench. A seated Marjanovic would smile, his hands draped over his knees, his knees nearly touching his chest, and then revert his attention to the game. Most nights, his vantage point wouldn’t change.
Entering Thursday’s contest, Marjanovic had seen action in just 14 of the Pistons’ 37 games. But the stars aligned versus the Hornets and Marjanovic thrilled his fans with a sparkling performance.
Afterward, he likened their encouragement to an energy drink.
“I hear it when I go on the court…You drink that and, ohhh, it makes you stronger,” he said. “They help me to be stronger and focused.”
And Marjanovic, one tall glass of water, may have more opportunities to impress them moving forward.
“We’ll see,” said Van Gundy. “He was great tonight, so he certainly made a case for himself. That’s for sure.”