How Spurs’ Champagnie is finding his role in NBA

Spurs rookie Julian Champagnie knows his days of averaging nearly 20 points a game like he did as a sophomore and junior at St. John’s likely have ended.

And he’s OK with it.

Undrafted after starring three seasons for the Red Storm, Champagnie entered the NBA last July on a two-way contract with Philadelphia determined to adjust to a new role out of the spotlight.

“I am a glue guy, role player,” the 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward said.

The Spurs signed the two-time All-Big East first-team honoree Feb. 16 to fill a two-way slot after the 76ers waived him. In college, he averaged 9.9 points in his freshman season before averaging 19.9 points and 19.2 points in his sophomore and junior seasons, respectively.

As a pro, he’s more concerned with doing yeoman’s work rather than starring as a scorer.

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“I don’t need too many shots,” he said. “I am a guy who fills the gap, and I am perfectly fine with that. It’s what I like to do anyway.”

A native of Staten Island, New York, who went to high school in Brooklyn, Champagnie’s feet-on-the-ground approach fits well in San Antonio, where Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has long preached the need for players to “get over themselves.”

Worst defense seeks improvement through practice

Not surprisingly, the Spurs focused on defense in practice this week with four days between games.

The Spurs entered Friday’s game last in the NBA in defensive rating (120.1) after giving up 122 and 142 points in their consecutive losses to Houston.

The Nuggets rank second in the league in offensive rating (118.1).

“Defense, defense,” rookie guard Malaki Branham said when asked about the Spurs’ top practice priority. “Pop is defense, defense, defense. That’s it. The offense is going to come, but we need more grit and just willingness to win.”

Consider Champagnie’s humble self-assessment when asked to describe his assets.

“Spot-up shooting — moving off the ball is one of my biggest things because I am not the quickest guy off the dribble,” he said. “Just kind of moving, rebounding and doing my best to give effort. And I know I am not the best defender, but I am getting there. It’s a process for me.”

One thing he can do is shoot. In his first game as a Spur after playing several with the club’s G League affiliate in Austin, his first two shots against Houston last weekend were successful 3-point attempts.

Injuries to several regulars forced the Spurs to call up Champagnie and give him meaningful minutes against the Rockets. He was back with Austin along with fellow rookies Blake Wesley and Dom Barlow for its home game Friday night while the Spurs hosted Denver.

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“That was my first game in a really long time with an NBA squad,” said Champagnie, who previously appeared in two games in November with the Sixers. “I was thrown into the mix (with the Spurs) really early. This was a new experience to me.”

To put Champagnie at ease, his new teammates and coaches gave him plenty of pre-game encouragement.

“‘Just do you,’ they told me,” Champagnie said.

Having left a veteran team with championship aspirations in the Sixers, Champagnie is thrilled to have an opportunity to develop with the young, lottery-bound Spurs.

“They gave me an opportunity and I am really happy about that, to be able to show I can play on an NBA court,” he said.

Champagnie, 21, arrived in San Antonio already having relationships with three of his new teammates.

“(Second-year center) Charles (Bassey) was in Philly with me,” Champagnie said. “We did Summer League and training camp together. I also know Dom. I know some of his people and he knows some of mine. And (recently signed second-year forward) Sandro (Mamukelashvili) went to Seton Hall, so we have been playing against each other for a while.”

Mamukelashvili has fond memories of his college clashes with Champagnie.

“We used to give each other problems,” Mamukelashvili said. “My senior year (2020-21) we were two main players. He was the top scorer on his team and I was the second top scorer on mine. He can definitely shoot the ball, definitely make a basket.”

READ MORE: Spurs sitting pretty as lottery chase hits homestretch

Mamukelashvili said he and Champagnie have become close since joining the Spurs. The Spurs signed Mamukelashvili on March 3 after Milwaukee let him go, converting his two-way contract into a standard NBA deal.

“We came in together, so we spend a lot of time together,” Mamukelashvili said. “We stay in the same hotel, go out to eat. I can see after talking to him how down to earth he is, how seriously he takes stuff, how badly he wants to be here and how appreciative he is of the opportunity.”

All told, Champagnie said his transition to the Spurs has been “pretty easy.”

“It’s a great atmosphere, and it’s good knowing I have an opportunity here and they are going to help me develop into a regular NBA player,” he said.

Twitter: Tom_Orsborn

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