Which international big men might the Spurs be looking to draft?

Before Baynes and Splitter were NBA Champs, they were international prospects who caught the eye of R.C. Buford and San Antonio's coaching staff. - Bob Donnan-USA TODAY

With the 30th, 58th and 60th picks in tonight's NBA Draft, the Spurs aren't likely to take a household name, but based on the moves they've made before, some guesses can be made about who they might be looking at.

While we wait through the final hours before the 2014 NBA Draft, I decided to dive into the numbers and videos for some of the better NBA 2014 Spurs prospects. This is a "nerd post", and if you have an allergy to data tables filled with numbers, or grainy videos narrated in a foreign language, this would be a good time find more interesting reading. I tend to use DraftExpress and EuroBasket for my source material, among others.

It is important to remember that when evaluating basketball players, both numbers and visual impressions are important, but neither are perfect representations of a player. Numbers can be from dramatically different contexts, and cherry-picked video highlights can be very misleading.

Particularly when dealing with numbers, it is important to have benchmark values in mind. For San Antonio fans, current San Antonio Spurs players are clearly good benchmarks to use. So first, before diving into numbers on prospects, here are tables of numbers for Aron Baynes and Tiago Splitter. This data provides some reasonable benchmarks to compare the Adriatic League, the D-League, and reserve NBA time, as well as for the Spanish League (ACB).

Table 1 - Aron Baynes Data

League

G

Min

Pts

2%

3%

FT%

RT

AS

PF

BS

ST

TO

NBA’14

60

9.3

3.0

44.7

0

87.0

2.8

0.6

1.5

0.1

0.1

0.7

NBA’13

19

8.7

2.7

52.4

0

58.3

1.9

0.3

1.4

0.3

0.1

0.6

DL’13

11

26.5

13.9

52.5

0

73.0

8.7

1.1

3.6

1.0

0.5

2.2

Adr.’13

16

24.3

12.4

57.1

50

63.8

6.8

0.8

3.8

0.9

0.9

1.9

G, Games; Min, Minutes per game; Pts, Points per game; 2%, 2-point FG%; 3%, 3-point FG% (remember that Europeans completely separate these catagories, unlike Americans!); FT%, Free-throw %; RT, Rebound Total per game; AS, Assists per game; PF, Personal Fouls per game; BS, Blocked Shots per game; ST, Steals per game; TO, Turn overs per game.

Clearly, Baynes’s free-throw percentage has increased, he is a better per-minute rebounder and his assist-to-turnover ratio has improved significantly since coming to San Antonio. This reflects well on the Spurs player development efforts. In general, Adriatic League numbers are comparable to the D-League, but it is easier for a big man to rebound in the D-League. This is not a surprise considering the lack of size in the D-League, while the Adriatic has plenty of size. And no, Aron Baynes was not a great 3-point shooter in the Adriatic League, that was 50% on 1-2 shooting. However, the Adriatic League is definately a better place to develop a big man than the D-League.

Table 2 - Tiago Splitter Data

League

G

Min

Pts

2%

3%

FT%

RT

AS

PF

BS

ST

TO

ACB’04

18

10.6

2.8

47.1

0

46.2

2.0

0.3

2.1

0.4

0.3

0.7

ACB’05

42

20.7

8.5

58.6

0

66.0

4.7

1.0

2.9

1.0

0.8

1.0

ACB’06

39

22.8

10.2

64.0

0

62.0

5.0

0.8

3.2

0.8

0.9

1.3

ACB’07

37

24.3

11.0

60.7

0

62.4

5.3

0.6

2.7

0.7

1.2

2.0

ACB’08

41

26.1

13.8

64.5

0

64.8

5.2

1.4

3.4

1.0

1.1

1.8

ACB’09

35

28.5

14.7

62.4

0

68.5

6.6

2.1

3.4

1.0

1.3

1.6

ACB’10

39

29.3

15.3

58.7

0

75.9

7.0

2.2

2.8

0.7

1.2

2.2

NBA’11

60

12.3

4.6

53.2

0

54.3

3.4

0.4

1.5

0.3

0.5

0.5

NBA’12

59

19.0

9.3

61.8

0

69.1

5.2

1.1

2.3

0.8

0.4

1.5

NBA’13

81

24.7

10.3

56.1

0

73.0

6.4

1.6

2.0

0.8

0.8

1.2

NBA’14

59

21.5

8.2

52.8

0

69.9

6.2

1.5

2.0

0.5

0.5

1.3

Splitter made solid improvement over time, but the decision on drafting him was made based upon the ACB’07 data.

So all of this data is great. Let’s move on to looking at the current crop of Adriatic League big men.

Table 3 - Adriatic League Prospects

League

G

Min

Pts

2%

3%

FT%

RT

AS

PF

BS

ST

TO

Baynes’13

16

24.3

12.4

57.1

50.0

63.8

6.8

0.8

3.8

0.9

0.9

1.9

Nurkic’14

28

16.6

11.7

56.0

14.3

70.1

5.7

0.7

3.2

0.8

1.1

1.6

Jokic’14

25

25.2

11.3

63.4

22.4

64.4

6.3

2.1

3.3

1.0

0.8

1.6

Briefly, Nurkic is producing the same numbers as the other two in just 2/3rds the time on the court. When you correct to per 40 minutes, Nurkic’s numbers sky rocket. All of them, including the PF’s. What is really interesting is that he shot 5.6 FT’s per game, or 0.34 FT’s per minute. So while he is fouling other players a great deal, he is also getting fouled at a high rate. That is a very good sign. If you watch some of the clips of Nurkic, you notice he is pretty aggressive on the offensive glass, and this is an important source of his points. That does NOT translate to Spurs basketball, because Popovich doesn’t believe in offensive rebounding. However, Nurkic also has a really nice left-to-right across the lane sweeping hook-shot with his right hand, and can shot the ball off the glass from the wing like Duncan. His left hand is nowhere as developed as the right hand, however. He can run well, and can play above the rim too. He is not a stiff that can’t run or jump at all. However, you can see him yelling at the other players, so he seems to classify as an "emotional" player. That isn’t going to go over well with Popovich at all. The issue here is do you believe in artificially inflating Nurkic’s numbers to a standardized 40 minutes or not? If you think that is reasonable, Nurkic is easily the best big man to come out of the Adriatic League in years and years. If not, he is just another big guy who fouls a lot and can score a little.

Jokic is very similar to Baynes, with three major differences. Baynes put up these numbers when he was 27, and in his 3rd professional year after graduating from Washington State. Jokic is putting up these numbers as a 19 year old. This is really his first professional year, as he only played 5 games last year as a professional. Secondly, Jokic has a high number of assists, and does so without turning the ball over any more than Baynes or Nurkic. He does have 3-point range, but his shooting percentage has to improve. The good news is that the Forcier/Engelland tandem can likely make some big improvements rather quickly with Jokic. I don’t think he is that far away from making a substantial improvement in his shooting. The third major difference is that Jokic lacks athletic explosion, and is strictly a below-the-basket type of player. He isn’t anywhere near as athletic as Aron Baynes. I also think he has only average length arms. His defense isn’t good, but he isn’t very experienced either, so there is at least hope for improvement on that front, although his physical limitations will always cap his defensive capabilities. I like Jokic a lot. I like the slick passing. I think he can be a good shooter both 3-point as well as pick-and-pop mid-range. I like his dramatic improvement from last year to this year, and I like his attitude. He would fit in great with the Spurs. Does he deserve a first-round pick? I’ll climb out on a limb and say yes. I think most professional talent evaluators would say no, that he deserves to be in the middle of the second round at this time, and they are probably right. However, I like the combination of the passing, the shooting, the low block skills and the attitude to improve, and will take a chance on his up-side.

Now, let's examine prospects from the top league in Europe, the ACB.

Table 4 - ACB Prospects

Player

G

Min

Pts

2%

3%

FT%

RT

AS

PF

BS

ST

TO

Splitter

37

24.3

11.0

60.7

0

62.4

5.3

0.6

2.7

0.7

1.2

2.0

Porzingis

31

14.7

6.5

52.9

31.1

57.7

2.7

0.3

2.6

1.0

0.6

0.8

Tavares

31

21.1

6.0

59.8

0

71.4

6.6

0.2

2.7

1.6

0.5

0.8

Larsen

27

20.0

6.1

46.5

28.6

76.0

4.0

0.3

2.0

0.3

0.4

1.6

Diagne

30

14.7

3.6

61.3

0

60.8

4.7

0.3

2.9

0.8

0.5

0.8

Balvin

33

22.4

5.7

56.7

0

67.9

6.4

0.8

2.4

0.6

0.5

1.5

Note: Players who did not play at least 20 games in the ACB this year were not included, such as: Joonas Caven, Alejandro Suarez, Goran Huskic, and Victor Arteaga.

Porzingis is clearly the best 2-way big man on the table. He has a good minute-to-point ratio already, plays the fewest minutes, and matches Tavares in blocks per minute. Needs to shoot better and rebound better, but clearly a very promising player. Tavares is a defensive specialist, and may never have a robust offensive game. However, Tavares does have rim-protecting capability. Tavares can’t share the same floor with Splitter, but could give the second unit rim protection and rebounding. Larsen has a developing offensive game, but isn’t much of a defender. However, he is playing as an 19-year old in the ACB, which is quite remarkable. I think he is clearly draftable, but will need some more time to develop. Diagne is like Serge Ibaka, but without the mid-range scoring. Probably an outstanding athlete. This guy might be very appealing to the Spurs in the second round. Balvin is tall, and is a decent rebounder, but isn’t athletic enough to be a shot-blocker or a scorer. I'm not sure that Balvin has NBA potential.

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