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NEW YORK — Boban Marjanovic’s lowered his 7’3″, 290-pound body onto a chair in front of his locker, draped the branches that he calls arms down toward the floor and, with his pencil-length fingers, begun pulling on the laces weaved through his size-20 shoes.
This is how stories about Boban—like all sensations, one name is all we need—typically begin: With references to his cartoonishly large dimensions, similes to describe his limbs and descriptions of his gigantic hands holding everyday things. (Look, there’s Boban using an iPad as a phone! Look, there’s Boban palming a gallon of tea!) So life goes when you’re the largest person in a league full of giants. Boban gets it. That lighthearted, I’m-in-on-the-joke nature is part of his charm.
Thursday night was different, though. It was about a half-hour after the final buzzer rang out here at the Barclays Center, and a pack of hungry reporters had encircled Boban to talk to him about…the game. About actual basketball. About his 14-point, eight-rebound performance, helping lead—yes, lead—a Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers to a convincing and impressive 131-115 Game 3 win over the Brooklyn Nets, giving his team a 2-1 series lead in this Eastern Conference first-round matchup.
“You guys want to talk to me?” Boban asked the reporters. He seemed both surprised and delighted. The light from a TV camera flicked on. Boban lifted his right hand to his knotted, freshly washed head—it looked like someone had plopped a wet mop on top of his scalp—and tried pushing his partially parted hair further to the side.
“I do my thing. I’m not overdoing doing, being simple,” Boban said when asked about his performance. “And I think it’s working.”
Back in February, general manager Elton Brand sat behind a podium at the Sixers’ Camden, New Jersey, training center and fielded questions about a group of players he’d acquired prior to the trade deadline. One was a 7’3″ center who had come over from the Los Angeles Clippers along with near-All Star Tobias Harris and Mike Scott.
“He wasn’t a throw-in,” Brand said of Boban at the time. “We think he’s going to help us.”
At that press conference, Brand talked about how the Sixers seemed to crater whenever Embiid hit the bench. Brand knew that if his team was going to make the sort of run he was hoping for, the type of run a team that collects All-Stars believes it should make, it needed another center capable of walling off the paint.
Enter Boban, who in the regular season allowed just 43 percent shots against him at the rim, according to Second Spectrum data on NBA.com. That mark would rank him just a few percentage points below the league’s top detractors.
And yet, Boban always had the potential to be more than just a backup for Philadelphia’s franchise center. Since being drafted third overall by the Sixers in 2014, Embiid has missed 252 of a possible 410 regular-season games. That’s almost 62 percent and doesn’t include the three playoff games he’s missed over the past two seasons. Brand didn’t mention it that day in Camden, but it’s fair to assume he took Boban in the Harris deal, in part, because he wanted an insurance policy for his fragile star.
Boban’s always boasted an impressive array of moves, as well as a feathery touch. There are even numbers that say he’s the most efficient scorer the NBA has ever seen. But over his three-plus seasons, he’s never been able to stay on the floor. Sometimes it was foul trouble. Sometimes it was his feet, which move about as quickly as a turtle in quicksand. Sometimes it was his low stamina.
The league changed on him too. At the turn of the century, a behemoth with a drop step and a baby hook could be an All-Star. Nearly 20 years later, these sorts of players have become the NBA’s version of coal miners, relegated to the sidelines as a new, faster and more explosive world passes them by.
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But then the playoffs started, and the Sixers were once again forced to charge forward without Embiid. He was limited in Games 1 and 2 and held out of Game 3 because of left knee tendinitis. In his absence, the Sixers turned to a 30-year-old Serbian journeyman who’s spent years waiting for his shot.
To say Boban has saved the Sixers, who seemed to be reeling after an ugly Game 1 loss at home, would be overselling his contribution. We know who the horses are. But it is fair to wonder whether the Sixers would be sitting on a now-comfortable 2-1 series lead if not for Boban’s steady play.
The postseason numbers are impressive: 14.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 17.3 minutes per game. He’s hit 16 of his 26 field-goal attempts. In his 52 minutes on the floor, the Sixers have scored an obscene 131.5 points per 100 possessions—as a reference, the Golden State Warriors led the NBA in offense this year by scoring 114.9 points per 100 possessions—and outscored the Nets by 19.8, according to NBA.com. Much of that was boosted by Boban’s plus-18 rating Thursday night in that pivotal Game 3 win, a contest in which he put up 14 points and eight rebounds in 18 minutes.
“To tell you the truth, he’s a bucket when you throw him the ball,” Sixers guard/forward Jimmy Butler said, adding later, “I tell him to shoot every time.”
But there’s more to Boban than the numbers. There’s something about the way those numbers come about that can serve as a knockout punch to reeling opponents. At least, that’s seemed to be the case against the Nets.
One possession, Boban will can an open jumper that the Nets defense is daring him to shoot, causing shoulders to drop across the Brooklyn bench. The next, he’ll pull down an offensive rebound and slam the ball through the rim—all while keeping it high in the air and his feet glued to the ground. On the possession after that, he’ll palm the ball like an apple, raise it above the head of an opposing player usually considered “big” and flip in a soft jumper over his opponent’s outstretched arms. It’s like watching a little brother trying to take the ball from an older sibling.
“I’m pretty tall, I can affect [shots] with my size,” Boban explained after Game 3.
These are desperate times for the Sixers. Owner Josh Harris has announced that an early-round playoff exit would be “problematic.” Brett Brown is coaching for his job. Their general manager has mortgaged the future for the present. That includes the deal for Harris and Boban, a trade in which he handed over two future first-round picks plus rookie sharpshooter Landry Shamet. That transaction could turn disastrous down the line—thrusting even more pressure on the Sixers to win and validate all those moves.
But these are not the sort of things that Boban worries about; it’s just not how he views life. This is a man who grew up poor during the Bosnian War. A kid who was never recruited by American colleges. A center who, prior to coming to the NBA, played for eight different European teams over nine years.
You wouldn’t know any of this just by watching him play basketball. Or seeing him interact with others. Or listening to him talk after what was probably the best performance of his basketball career.
“My role, I come in the game, [I] help teammates protect the basket, make screen for Tobias and I think he appreciates it,” Boban said. Harris—Boban’s longtime teammate, best friend and Bobi and Tobi Show co-star—drilled all six of his three-point attempts in Game 3 and broke a playoff slump by finishing with 29 points.
“It’s amazing,” Boban said, “[having] your best friend play good and you do too.”
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It’s a nice sentiment and one we could all learn from. But deep down, Boban must know that this is his chance. Whenever Embiid does return to the court, it’s unlikely he’ll do so at full health. In other words: More opportunities will be coming Boban’s way. To help his friend, yes, but also for him to finally prove that, as big and friendly and goofy as he can be, he’s more than just a cartoon.