The San Antonio Spurs have long been one of the best franchises in basketball. They have been an NBA team for 45 years and over that span, they have been a playoff team 39 times, including five championships, all since 1998. This season was supposed to be somewhat of a rebuild, but the San Antonio Spurs consistency has continued.
There are several keys for this, including Head Coach Gregg Popovich. However, the successful development of recent draft picks has been incredible. The Spurs had to quickly replace their franchise stars when Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker left the team. Sure, some of that was done through trades, like acquiring Demar Derozan and Lamarcus Aldridge. However, the success of the Spurs on draft night has been remarkable.
Let’s start in 2011. The Spurs are coming off a 61 win season, but a first-round playoff exit. Ginobili, Duncan, and Parker are all aging stars and the Spurs need to start building for the future. In the 2011 NBA Draft, they acquired the rights to Kawhi Leonard and Davis Bertans, as well as draft Cory Joseph. All three players still are playing at a high level in the league, but none more than Leonard. The Spurs staff did a masterful job helping Leonard take that next step and the result was an NBA championship in 2013-14. Of course, there can be a discussion on the exit of Leonard and all the events that lead to that, but the Spurs did well to get Derozan.
What is important to realize with Leonard is that he bridged the gap between the all-time great Spurs and the current Spurs. In the year following Duncan’s retirement, the Spurs won 61 games and Leonard led them to the conference finals in 2016-17. What separates the Spurs is their ability to develop their draft capital. Leonard averaged 7.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game in his rookie year. In his final full season in San Antonio, he averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists. Sure, his usage went way up, but make no mistake, Leonard turned into a star.
Then, the next season, Leonard only played nine games and the writing was on the wall. That meant it was time to retool again.
In the 2016 NBA Draft, the Spurs selected Dejounte Murray with the 29th pick in the first round. Much like Leonard, his career started slowly, averaging only eight minutes per game. However, after Leonard’s exit, Murray picked up his game big time. This year, he is the key to the Spurs being in the heart of the playoff hunt. Murray is averaging 15.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. That’s pretty good for a guy known for his defense. He very clearly is the next Spurs star who Popovich and crew will build around. Next season will be Murray’s sixth season, but he missed a full year due to a torn ACL. If he continues the trend of past Spurs stars, he will take another massive leap.
In the 2017 NBA Draft, the Spurs selected Derrick White with the 29th pick in the first round. Again, White started slowly only playing in 17 games. However, he quickly flipped the switch and averaged 11.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. White is known for his defense, much like Murray. He is going to be a big part of the Spurs guard rotation for a long time.
In 2018, the Spurs selected Lonnie Walker IV with the 18th pick. Shockingly, Walker got off to a slow start only playing in 17 games in his rookie season. This season, he has increased every aspect of his game and is averaging 10.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. Are you sensing a trend?
The 2019 NBA Draft is proving to be a big one for the Spurs. They selected Luka Samanic with the 19th pick and Keldon Johnson with the 29th pick. Samanic has hardly played so far, but he was very successful with the Spurs G-League team in the bubble this year. If history is true, Samanic will have a long Spurs career.
Johnson is the one to discuss here. He had lottery pick written all over him during his time at Kentucky, but his college career didn’t go as expected. He slipped to the 29th pick and the Spurs jumped at that opportunity. Maybe they should ask to pick 29th every year because they hit a home run every time. In his rookie season, Johnson showed flashes, but this year he took a huge step. He is averaging 14.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game while still trying to figure it out. It seems clear that Johnson will join Murray as the next great Spurs duo.
If history has anything to say, the Spurs 2020 draft picks, Devin Vassell and Tre Jones, will have huge careers as well. Vassell has shown solid flashes so far and Jones lit up the G-League bubble with Samanic.
Greg Popovich gets plenty of credit for how great of a coach he is and rightfully so. The entire Spurs organization deserves more credit for hitting home runs in the draft when it is absolutely necessary. They find guys that fit what they want to do and then develop them year after year. One thing that is common with all of the guys mentioned here is they were not highly regarded on draft night. The Spurs identified them as their guys, got them, and have developed them, and reaped the rewards. If that continues, the Spurs will be going nowhere any time soon. The San Antonio Spurs consistency should be a prototype for many teams to follow on draft night.
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