NEW YORK — Tony Parker backed up behind the 3-point line on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. He cleared out against New York Knicks rookie Mitchell Robinson, crossed over, drove left and hit the center with an up-and-under, finishing with a lefty layup as Robinson went flying the wrong way. On the Charlotte Hornets’ bench, Parker’s teammates jumped out of their seats. One of them, Devonte’ Graham, did a little pirouette. Parker may be 36, but his old tricks still work.
“He’s so crafty,” Hornets forward Marvin Williams told CBS Sports. “It’s kind of fun to watch, and you see younger, more athletic guys guarding him. He still finds a way to get to the basket, man. He’s just so smart. He’s been doing it for so long, man. That’s what makes him great.”
On Charlotte’s next possession, Parker turned the corner on a pick-and-roll and went right at Robinson, accelerating at just the right time to finger roll the ball past the 20-year-old’s long arms. A couple of trips later, Robinson was the victim of Parker’s patented floater. After a crossover set up another layup, he had scored eight points in two minutes.
“Obviously, Mr. Parker is not done,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said
Parker is on a new NBA team for the first time since he left Paris for San Antonio 17 years ago. He is fully healthy, unlike last season, when he came back from a 10-11 month quadriceps injury in only seven. He is averaging 10.5 points and 4.3 assists in 19.5 minutes, both backing up Kemba Walker and sharing the court with him.
According to Cleaning The Glass, Parker’s usage is higher than it’s been since the Spurs won the 2014 championship. He is not the star that he was in his prime, but in stretches like that one at MSG, he can look an awful lot like he used to. It turns out that, when you are the quickest guard in the league at your peak, you can lose some of your burst and still get where you need to go.
“I worked hard this summer to get my leg strong, and I feel healthy again,” Parker said. “I feel like I have my 20-years-old legs, and I can get back to the paint and penetrate and create. It feels good. It feels good to have my body back. That’s the key.”
Walker’s All-Star-to-superstar turn is the biggest story in Charlotte, but if this team maintains its playoff position, it will not just be because of its starting point guard. After years of self-destructing whenever Walker sits, Parker has provided stability. In the 282 minutes he has played without Walker, the Hornets have a plus-5.8 net rating.
Fizdale called it an “incredible luxury” for his longtime friend James Borrego to be able to sub Walker out and put in someone with Parker’s pedigree. It also helps that the two of them love working together. Ex-Charlotte assistant coach Stephen Silas used to cut up clips of Parker running pick-and-rolls, making floaters and finishing around the rim for Walker to watch. When Walker found out the Hornets could sign the four-time champion and six-time All-Star, he was geeked.
Since then, Walker has told Parker that he used to study him, and Parker has been happy to take some of the pressure off Walker when he gets tired or trapped. Parker even gave Walker the ultimate compliment, saying his lack of ego and commitment to winning reminded him of Tim Duncan.
The respect is clearly mutual: Walker said it has been amazing to have Parker around, as the veteran has “changed our team in many ways” and helped him make yet another leap.
“I’m no genius,” Walker said. “I’m no genius at all. I mean, I’m always learning, I’m always trying to get better. I don’t know if anyone can ever stop learning. I’m a student of the game forever, regardless of how much older I’m going to get, year by year, I’m always going to learn. T.P. has been doing this for 18 years. He’s played tons more games than me, been in tons of situations. I’m always learning from him. Always.”
Parker has been everything Charlotte hoped he’d be, and it seems like the Hornets have given him exactly what he needed, too. “I think it’s fresh for him,” Borrego said: The new home, the new people, the frequent visits to cities in the East. Borrego appreciates that Parker has embraced his role, served as an extension of the coaching staff and helped lead the team, especially because he could have easily walked away.
“I’m really happy for him because, you all know, you guys saw that injury, he could have been done after that injury and he could have just shut it down and all of us standing here would have gone, ‘Heck of a career, Hall of Fame career,'” Borrego said. “And he put the time and the effort in to not go out that way. He didn’t want to go out that way.”