Before arriving on American soil three summers ago, center Tiago Splitter had been a Most Valuable Player and the centerpiece of championship teams in Spain.

So when he joined the Spurs before the 2010-11 season, the big Brazilian naturally assumed eventually he'd be starting alongside Tim Duncan, one of his basketball idols.

"You always want to play and do your best," Splitter said. "So, yes, I expected one day to be a starter."

He wasn't the only one. Spurs fans envisioned the 6-foot-11 Splitter paired with Duncan as the modern-day answer to the Duncan-David Robinson "Twin Towers" frontline that earned NBA titles in 1999 and 2003.

It took two-plus seasons speckled with injury, but Splitter — drafted 28th overall in June 2007, two weeks after the Spurs won their fourth and most recent championship — is at last beginning to occupy the role for which he has long been ticketed.

In the throes of the most productive stretch of his short NBA career, the 27-year-old Splitter is expected to make his fourth straight start tonight when New Orleans visits the AT&T Center.

"He's playing great," coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's earned a spot."

In 10 games in December, Splitter is averaging 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 64.5 percent. He has scored in double figures in nine consecutive games, by far the longest streak of his NBA life.

Truth be told, even Popovich expected Splitter — who spent three additional seasons ripening in the Spanish League after being drafted — to be starting with Duncan before now.

Injuries limited Splitter to 60 games as a rookie. He showed flashes as a sophomore, averaging 9.3 points and 5.2 rebounds, even as the NBA lockout robbed him of important development time with Spurs coaches over his first offseason.

"What you see him doing is what he's done his whole career (in Europe)," Popovich said. "He's just been hurt so damn much since we brought him over, he's never had any consistent playing time to get into the system."