by Adam Figman / @afigman

On page 16 of The Art of a Beautiful Game, while waxing about Kobe’s over-competitiveness, author Chris Ballard drops this little quote from No. 24: “‘I love Manu,’ says Bryant. ‘He plays exactly the way I play, balls to the wall.’”

Hold up.

You’re just gonna sit there and tell me that Manu Ginobili, the guy who uses the fútbol-inspired flop-and-hope-for-call strategy and who’s knoManu Ginobiliwn more for dives than dunks is one of the NBA’s fiercest spirit’s favorite players to go up against? Yeah?

OK then.

I won’t overemphasize that information any further, because its reasoning is pretty straightforward: Manu plays his ass off. He races around the court, D’s up on each possession like it’s his last, curses himself after every missed shot, and puts his all into assisting his teammates and coming out victorious. His attitude, both on and off the court, is exactly what fierce competitors like Kobe thrive on—the style of guys who aren’t afraid get right in their opponent’s face and dare him to make a move.

This season, the Argentine will be playing for a team on its last legs. Point guard Tony Parker is in the final year of his contract, and will be shopped if San Antonio isn’t a contender off the bat. Tim Duncan is still producing, but DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter are preparing to step up. Fact is, if this group can’t put a deep playoff run together in ’10-11, a new crew of faces will be leading the Spurs come next October. Regardless, Ginobili will be in tow; he just signed a three-year, $39 million extension that’ll keep him in the AT&T Center locker room mentoring the young crop for what could be the remainder of his career.

Statistically speaking, the guy’s been a model of consistency. For six straight seasons he’s scored in the mid-to-upper teens per contest, while dishing an average of 3-5 assists and swiping a steal and a half each outing. His health has wavered as of late, but when he’s on the court, you know what you’re getting: 110 percent effort, whether he’s working with 10, 50 or 80 percent of his body in tact. And for such a talent, he made no fuss about coming off the bench year after year; he simply doesn’t care about starting the contest, because he knows he’ll be finishing it.

He’s been rewarded for his play, too. The Spurs have won three championships with Manu as an integral piece, and he made the All-Star game once (’05) and took home the Sixth Man of the Year medal in ’08.

But even more impressive is how his skill translates in all formats. Before he played a single NBA game, Ginobili had a hell of an international résumé: Italian League All-Star in ‘99, ’00 and ’01; FIBA Americas Championship Most Valuable Player in ’01; Italian League Championship and Euroleague Championship with Kinder Bologna in ’01; Italian League MVP in ’01 and ’02. And that was just in Italy.

With the Argentina national team, he won silver at the 2002 FIBA World Championship and gold at the 2004 Olympics. His career should be viewed as a how-to guide for players looking to expand their games, especially as an increased number of ballers take their talents to Europe and beyond.

So yeah: Dude pulls some flops that’d bring a smile to an aging Vlade Divac’s face. Chances are, he can’t help it. Manu’s competitive. He wants to win. Every game. And if that means falling down when the contact didn’t exactly call for it, then it’s happening. You might be inclined to throw your bowl of popcorn at the TV as the ref blows his or her whistle and points down the court, but let’s be real: You wouldn’t complain if he was on your side. There’s a reason why he’s so loved in San Antonio, and why, at the veteran age of 33, he was locked up through ’12-13 for a franchise that’ll be looking to rebuild well before then.

It’s because the Spurs’ front office knows passion like his is contagious, and will rub off on the up-and-comers. It’s because, though he’ll get older and lose much of the quickness that helped him slide through defenders en route to the basket for the past decade, he’s the perfect role model for younger guys who, without focus, could lose their way.

And it’s because, in the fourth quarter, somebody has to guard Kobe. The Lakers’ superstar might enjoy it, but you can bet Manu does even more.

Ray AllenCelticsSG50361110
Gilbert ArenasWizardsSG4934109
Lamar OdomLakersPF48331410
John WallWizardsPG47NR13NR
OJ MayoGrizzliesSG4646912
Al HorfordHawksC45NR6NR
Jason KiddMavsPG44451210
Joakim NoahBullsC43NR5NR
LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF42391312
David WestHornetsPF4131128
Monta EllisWarriorsSG40NR8NR
Andrew BogutBucksC39NR4NR
Yao MingRocketsC38NR3NR
Brandon JenningsBucksPG37NR11NR
Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF36NR11NR
Stephen CurryWarriorsPG35NR10NR
David LeeWarriorsPF34NR10NR
Brook LopezNetsC33NR2NR
Gerald WallaceBobcatsSF32NR6NR
Manu GinobiliSpursSG312978

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’10-11 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jeremy Bauman, Maurice Bobb, Erildas Budraitis, Sean Ceglinsky, Ben Collins, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Manny Maduakolam, Eddie Maisonet, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Charles Peach, Branden Peters, Quinn Peterson, David Schnur, Todd Spehr, Kyle Stack, Adam Sweeney, Dennis Tarwood, Tracy Weissenberg, Lang Whitaker, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.