SAN ANTONIO — Salt, meet wound.
The 2011 draft-night deal that sent guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for the rights to two-time All-Star Kawhi Leonard also included a barely known mid-second-round pick. At home in Latvia, Davis Bertans stayed up until 7 in the morning to hear that the Pacers made him the 12th selection of the second round and traded his rights to the Spurs.
"I was definitely happy it was the Spurs," Bertans said. "It didn't matter how many years it was going to take for me to come here. I knew they counted on me coming here, and I was going to wait for my time."
Five years later, Bertans has forced his way into the San Antonio Spurs rotation. This is where Pacers fans should stop reading.
The 24-year-old forward is one of the most confident first-year players head coach Gregg Popovich has seen in 20 seasons on the Spurs bench.
"His confidence and the way he comes into a game—he might come in at the end of the game; he might come in the middle and not expect to be playing—and he doesn't miss a beat," Popovich said. "He comes in and plays like he's been playing all night, so that's kind of cool."
The 6'10" forward from Valmiera, Latvia, has worked his way into Popovich's game-to-game plans with a combination of three-point accuracy (39 percent, even after his Memphis oh-fer), athleticism (he's a fan favorite during pregame layup drills) and quicker-than-expected adjustment to the Spurs' defensive scheme.
Bertans has appeared in 43 of 51 games, averaging 4.2 points in 11.6 minutes per outing. He's started three times, two of which came since Pau Gasol left the Spurs lineup on Jan. 19 with a fractured bone in his left hand. Since Jan. 23, he has averaged 8.4 points in 19.0 minutes across San Antonio's past eight games.
But Bertans will have to improve defensively to carve out a role in this season's playoffs. He acknowledges that the intricacies of Popovich's defensive scheme occasionally leave him out of position.
"It is difficult," he said. "At the same time, it's simple: You know what Coach wants from you, and you just try to stay focused and try to read the game as best you can. Of course, you are always going to make mistakes, and Coach always points them out right away."
Popovich understands the adjustment players from Europe have to make after competing in leagues without defensive three-second rules.
"Obviously, his skill is shooting," Popovich said. "He's already a pretty innately skilled passer. But defensively, he will have to learn team rotations, individual 'D,' learn the league, guys in the league. So, his is just more an experience situation more than anything. But he is a good ballplayer. He understands the game."
Bertans' confidence has been tested plenty of times before.
The wait was longer than either Bertans or the Spurs expected. He spent 2011 with Union Olimpija in Slovenia, where he played alongside future Spurs teammate Danny Green. (Green played there during the 2011 NBA lockout.)
"He was my pick-and-pop guy," said Green, unsurprised by Bertans' confidence as a shooter. "He changed the game for us a lot. He helped us in the pick-and-roll. In Europe, you have no three-seconds [violation], so you need shooters."
After Olimpija, Bertans signed with Serbian power Partizan Belgrade in January 2012. During the Serbian League Finals in June 2013, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee, an injury that has scuttled many NBA dreams.
The Spurs arranged for Bertans to come to San Antonio to have the knee repaired by their orthopedic specialist, Dr. David Schmidt. After returning to Europe and working hard at physical therapy, he returned to the court nine months later and helped Partizan win the 2013-14 Serbian League championship.
In July 2014, Bertans signed with Laboral Kutxa Baskonia of the Spanish ACB League for the 2014-15 season. Near the end of a solid first season in Spain, he again tore the ACL in his right knee.
Surprisingly, the second injury seemed less daunting.
"After the first time that it happened, right away, I thought my career was over," Bertans said. "And that moment was not just about the NBA; it was about my whole career, the whole thing, even in Europe. We all know so many guys before who had the same injury never came back the same. Usually, there was something missing."
Bertans returned to San Antonio for a second successful surgery. He was more patient with his second rehabilitation regimen, understanding every aspect of the process, because he already had endured it.
"The second time was so much easier," he said. "I knew I needed those nine months."
Bertans finally signed a two-year, $1.45 million bargain deal with the Spurs last July. Already playing regularly for a team with the NBA's second-best record, he has the look of a future starter for a San Antonio franchise that always thinks years ahead.
"I don't have any doubt," Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said of Bertans' potential as a future Spurs starter. "Obviously, these guys see him every day so they will know, but from all the film work and the times we've played them, you can see, from Game 1 to now, the confidence that he has and the confidence that they put in him by playing him more.
"You look at him and think he is Matt Bonner, but he is not Matt Bonner. They have a hell of a young player. I'm a big fan of his, and the last time we played them, Tony Parker sat and Dejounte Murray kicked our ass. So, those are two young players who have the luxury of being around Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame coach, and they're just going to soak it all up, and it's just going to be to their advantage."
Never one to tip his hand about future moves, Popovich makes it clear he, too, sees Bertans as an important piece of his team's future.
"He is somebody who has a really bright future," Popovich said. "He just needs minutes and experience. He plays an all-around game. He blocks shots. He works hard defensively. But his skill as a shooter is pretty unique. He's got great range, and he can put it down on the floor, and he can pass the basketball."
Whether or not that future will include a significant role in this year's playoffs will depend on how Bertans responds in the final 31 games of the regular season. There's plenty of reason to be confident.