What made Wake Forest’s Duncan a Hall of Famer? Hornets’ Borrego had up-close view

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One of the things that made Tim Duncan special is he didn’t expect to be treated like he’s special.

Duncan went from unheralded Wake Forest recruit to a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player. He will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend (one year later than his selection, due to the pandemic), after playing on five championship teams with the San Antonio Spurs.

Duncan is among the finest basketball players in North Carolina college history, right there with fellow ACC greats Michael Jordan at North Carolina, David Thompson at N.C. State and Christian Laettner and Grant Hill at Duke.

Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego worked with Duncan for a decade over two stints as a Spurs assistant. Borrego says what made Duncan distinctive was he never cruised on talent. Both physically and intellectually, Duncan kept striving to improve in ways that rubbed off on Spurs teammates.

“He was so coachable from Day 1 — he absorbed information, he wanted information. I call him one of the most curious players I’ve been around,” Borrego said. “Even though he was so talented, beyond what I’d ever seen before, his curiosity on how to get better, how to win, he brought it every day.”

Duncan played his entire NBA career — 19 seasons — with the Spurs. He went from the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft (held in Charlotte) to mentoring the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green late in his career.

Dave Odom, Duncan’s coach at Wake Forest, predicted in 1997 that Duncan would be a better pro than he was a college player. That seemed quite a claim, considering Duncan was national college player of the year and a two-time first-team All-American.

But Odom was right, and his reasoning made sense: That Duncan’s intellect and wide spectrum of skills as a power forward — his decision-making and playmaking — would have more impact when surrounded by NBA players. The Spurs built a core of Duncan, point guard Tony Parker and shooting guard Manu Ginobili that continuously contended in the Western Conference.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were more than a collection of talent — they had common sensibility that created winning culture. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has talked about how the players policed that locker room so that coaches didn’t always have to be the voice to keep players on point.

“He brought it every day — in practice he was laser-focused,” Borrego said. “And every year he came out of the offseason working on something. He was elite already, but every year he wanted to get better.”

Borrego remembers arriving at the Spurs training facility in the summer to see Duncan turning over tractor tires to get stronger. That set a standard for teammates — if the superstar was such a worker, what excuse does a second-round rookie have not to be one?

Odom has similar recollections of Duncan at Wake Forest: How Duncan’s maturity and lack of entitlement raised teammates’ self-expectations.

The Spurs were out in front of the NBA’s player-development trend. Duncan’s example played a role in that, Borrego said.

“When (teammates) saw him work, there were no excuses — (you) were in the gym in the summer,” Borrego said. “When Tim Duncan was boxing and working out to be more agile, everybody had to fall in line.

“He was a great leader. He did it with grace and poise and a super-competitive spirit.”