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Bank Shots: Neal’s long road has taken him to All-Star Weekend

16 February 2011 By Andrew Constant, Sports Editor No Comments

As I write this column, the NBA enters its final week of the first half of the season. This weekend, the basketball world will shift its attention to the City of Angels for its annual All-Star festivities.

These festivities will include the ever-popular Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, along with the 3-Point Contest and a bunch of other things that the competitors don’t even seem to care about. And yes, that last part refers to the game itself, which will be played Sunday afternoon in front of glitzy celebrities and pop culture icons to less than rave reviews.

But this year, the event I’m most looking forward to is the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge and Youth Jam on Friday night. Not because the Celtics have a rookie or sophomore I want to watch, and not because I’d like to see Blake Griffin and John Wall as teammates. But because former Towson standout Gary Neal will be playing on the rookie team, and I absolutely love watching him play.

Since he joined the San Antonio Spurs roster last summer, I’ve checked every single box score to see what he’s done against the toughest competition he’s ever faced. There have been some awesome stretches for him, most notably his back-to-back 22-point games against the Suns and Nuggets in December. There have also been some lulls where his shot hasn’t really been there and he’s scored less than10 points. He and George Hill have been getting a lot of minutes together in the backcourt of the Spurs offense, with Hill sometimes getting the more impressive stat line.

But that hasn’t discouraged me or head coach Gregg Popovich from rooting for Neal to succeed. With Jermon Bushrod getting a championship ring with the New Orleans Saints last year and Casper Wells on the cusp of stardom with the Detroit Tigers, Towson is getting the recognition it deserves, although a lot of the time announcers call our university “Towson State” or “Townsend.”

Neal has averaged 8.7 points in just less than 20 minutes per contest while making 40 percent of his 3-point attempts. He also made more than 43 percent of his field goals for the year. Those are all really good numbers for a guy that is behind Tony Parker and Hill on the depth chart. Heck, these are good numbers for anyone that is just three years out of college.

Oh, did I mention the fact that the Spurs have the league’s best record at the All-Star break and Neal has a great opportunity to play in some very meaningful playoff minutes later this year?  Unless they completely fall apart and lose 20 games in a row, San Antonio is primed for the Western Conference’s top spot and home court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Gary Neal’s story is pretty awesome if you ask me. He has gone from playing at LaSalle and Towson in his college career to the European leagues and now the Spurs. Every stop of the way has come with bumps in the road, but there have been more peaks than valleys with the league-leading Spurs.

I’ll be glued to my TV set this Friday night to catch a glimpse of Neal amongst the NBA’s brightest young stars at All-Star Weekend. I can see it now: Neal throwing an alley-oop lob to Blake Griffin, who throws it down and gives the Spur a high-five as he struts down the court. Everyone smiles. Especially me.

I can dream, right?

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