Most of the Spurs already had left the practice floor Thursday afternoon, and Jackie Butler was ready to join them. He started to head to the locker room, then stopped abruptly and turned around.
"See that water," Butler said, pointing to the layer of sweat pooling where he had just been standing on the court. "That shows how hard I'm working."
Butler smiled. If players were judged on perspiration alone, the 21-year-old center might be All-NBA. Since coming to town six weeks before training camp, Butler has lost more than 20 pounds and dropped his body-fat content from 28 1/2 percent to close to 18.
"He's someone who has to continue to work on his conditioning," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Because he's not going to be able to do what he's got to do if his body won't allow it. But he's on the right track."
The Spurs considered Butler a work in progress when they signed him to a three-year, $7 million contract in July. Butler's production last season in New York — he averaged 5.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 13.5 minutes in 55 games — coupled with his soft hands and footwork, showed potential.
Team officials think he'll learn to take better advantage of his skills, given time and structure. Facing Miami last week, Butler ran the floor well, made a bank shot over Shaquille O'Neal and threw a nifty pass under the basket that surprised even Tim Duncan. But as good as he looked, Butler struggled the next night in Houston.
"His best years are going to be ahead of him," Popovich said. "I think most of his playing time in the initial part of the season is going to be in practice learning the system, learning what a work ethic is day in and day out and what it takes to play at this level."
To aid that process, Popovich gave Butler a DVD of Moses Malone last week. Malone's Hall of Fame career ended with the Spurs, and Popovich thinks Butler resembles the legendary big man. Butler's first high school coach said the same.
"When you look at those two guys, their bodies are real similar," Popovich said. "It sounds funny but the more weight (Butler) loses, the less body fat he has and the longer he starts looking.
"We showed him the tape and he got a big kick out of it. But I said the deal there is relentless effort. You've got to keep padding those stats like Moses did.
"You want to be a relentless rebounder, run the floor, be where the ball is all the time. Don't worry so much about scoring. You already do that."
Butler was born in 1985, so he never got to see Malone in his prime. But he said he watches the DVD "all the time."
"I love it," Butler said. "He controls everything. That's basically what I'm trying to do: be a big, physical player. Go out there and beat up on a couple of people. You know how it goes."
Like Malone, Butler turned professional without attending college. He grew up in McComb, Miss., a town of about 12,000, and was twice named the state's Mr. Basketball before attending two prep schools.
After initially committing to Mississippi State, Butler was named in an Auburn recruiting scandal. He later switched his commitment to Tennessee but decided to turn pro.
When Butler wasn't drafted, he went into the CBA and averaged 18.1 points and 10.7 rebounds in 40 games. The Knicks signed him midway through the 2004-05 season.
Butler liked playing and living in New York but was excited when his agent called to say the Spurs were interested.
"I said San An-who?" said Butler, who had to wait a week before the Knicks decided not to match the Spurs' offer. "That put a big smile on my face."
Moving to San Antonio put him closer to his mother, who lives in Houston. Moving to a winning locker room filled with established veterans also should help.
A week ago, Popovich had the entire team run extra after Butler failed to finish a suicide sprint in the allotted 18 seconds. Butler complained he had a cramp. Popovich still made the team run.
After practice was over, Michael Finley shouted for someone to put 18 seconds back on the clock. Then he made Butler and rookie Jamar Smith, who also had cost the team an extra sprint, run on their own as punishment.
The Spurs' longtime staffers couldn't recall a more open display of leadership since the days of Avery Johnson. After Butler was done, Finley told him the team needed him to progress each day and that he couldn't afford to slip behind.
"He was pumping me up through that type of stuff," Butler said. "I love when somebody pushes me."
Notebook: The Spurs waived Melvin Sanders, Charles Lee and Smith after Thursday's practice, reducing their roster to 14 players. As other teams make their final cuts, Spurs officials will see who becomes available before deciding whether to fill their final opening. The Spurs would still like to find a young, athletic swingman. ... Popovich and Johnson, Dallas' coach, both expect to give their starters decent minutes in the preseason finale tonight at the AT&T Center. The teams open the season against each other Thursday in Dallas. "How many new tricks can you actually give (away)?" said Johnson, who had the Mavericks practice Thursday afternoon at the Antioch Family Life Center and Sports Complex he helped build on the city's East Side. "We played them seven times in the playoffs and four times in the regular season."