by Maurice Bobb / @ReeseReport

After watching him bend, contort, lean, writhe, slash, juke and Euro step his way to the basket like a whirling dervish for the deuce for lo these many years, I’m convinced: Manu Ginobili is some kind of magician.

How else could he knife through two, three and sometimes four defenders for that lefty tomahawk dunk? Or shake and bake his way past defenders for that patented step back J? Or cradle a Spalding around his back like a rock-a-bye-baby lullaby for another one of his WTF shots that kiss the glass with the kind of expert English reserved for pool hall hustlers? And who could forget the way he snatched a bat down midflight with his bare hands during a game?

Forget that he’s No. 28 on our list this year, Manu is friggin’ Houdini.

The icing on the cake was the corner jumper he nailed while falling out of bounds to stave off elimination in Game 5 against the Memphis Grizzlies during the first round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs. As the shot left his curled fingertips, it’s not hard to imagine him mouthing the word “Voila!” as the ball tinkled the twine to save the San Antonio Spurs’ playoff hopes.

And the crazy part? We’re immune to it all. We’re immune to his startling body control and Darwinian exploits into the lane. We’re spoiled by the Bahia Blanca, Argentina native’s feats of strength (Festivus for the rest of us!). We don’t flinch at the news that he plays full throttle despite a small fracture in his right arm. He’s an international wunderkind with the rock? Meh. He can beat you from anywhere on the floor? Yawn. We’ve watched the former Italian League MVP pull so many rabbits out of his hat that it only elicits a restrained Kanye shrug from fans when he goes all abracadabra on defenders.

For years, Ginobili has been tagged as underrated—which raises hackles for those who consider him overrated, but how can a player who has a Euro league title, an Italian league title, three NBA championship rings, an Olympic Gold medal, a Sixth Man of the Year Award and three nods as an NBA All Star be underrated? Truth be told, it’s just a case of perception. We see what we want to see.

We rely on Kobe, LeBron, Wade and Durant for our nightly “oohs” and “ahhs” on ESPN’s highlight reel, but the focus is seldom on the crafty two guard who slipped to the 57th pick in the 1999 draft. Ginobili drafted after the likes of Trajan Langdon, Frederick Weis and Jonathan Bender? Bet no one saw that blowing up in their face. And although he’s been reliable as HBO’s original programming with career averages of 15.3 ppg, 3.9 apg and 4 rpg, Ginobili continues to dwell in the shadows of the swiftness that is Tony Parker and, of course, the greatness that is Tim Duncan.

Obi Wan Ginobili’s numbers won’t raise any eyebrows either, but they have steadily increased for the last three years: 15.5 (’08), 16.5 (’09) and 17.4 ppg (’10). And at 4.9 dimes per contest the last two seasons, he’s almost as much of a distributor of the ball as the Frenchman.

With The Big Fundamental on the steady decline, Ginobili will have to steady the ship and serve as Coach Gregg Popovich’s key scoring option (he was the team’s leading scorer in the playoffs at 20.6 ppg) if the Spurs are to recover from being ousted in the first round last year. All he has to do is stay healthy, which is easier said than done considering his nagging injuries and penchant for taking no play off. Additionally, his ability to get into the teeth of the defense and space the floor will open up opportunities for burgeoning post man Dejuan Blair, sharpshooter Gary Neal and even Richard Jefferson, should he manage to find his long lost game during the lockout.

The Spurs have been consistently good this past decade, but let’s face it, this year, they’ll only go as far as Ginobili takes them. And if you think Manu doesn’t have enough tricks left up his sleeve to push San Antonio into the 2012 playoffs, get ready, cuz you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13
37Kevin GarnettCelticsPF12
36Eric GordonClippersSG7
35Tony ParkerSpursPG10
34Andre Iguodala76ersSG6
33Al JeffersonJazzPF11
32Al HorfordHawksC2
31Stephen CurryWarriorsPG9
30Tim DuncanSpursPF10
29Josh SmithHawksPF9
28Manu GinobiliSpursSG5

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.