The Oklahoma City Thunder have blazed a trail this off-season with the way they've handled the draft of first round pick Josh Huestis out of Stanford. Up until now, it seemed teams were limited to two options when it came to first round picks: sign them to a rookie scale contract that would lock them down for two guaranteed years, or stash them in Europe where they could develop on someone else's dime while not taking up a roster spot.
The stash option was almost always limited to foreign-born players, as very few Americans have chosen that path. Getting someone to do that would have been a win for the Thunder but they actually managed to do something better: get a first round selection to agree to forego his NBA salary and roster spot and sign with the D-League instead.
Josh Huestis was a second rounder at best, an undrafted rookie at worst. He likely would have ended up in the D-League anyway, as he didn't want to go to Europe. So his agent agreed to a deal with the Thunder that he would be selected with the 29th pick of the draft in exchange of foregoing the guaranteed contract attached to first round picks for a couple of years. Huestis will be assigned to OKC's affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers. And the Thunder will retain exclusive rights to him but his salary won't count against the cap for this season -- once he signs the standard one-year D-League contract.
By doing this, the Thunder have retained more breathing room below the tax as well as securing the services of Huestis for at least an extra season, as his four year rookie contract won't begin until he's signed by the Thunder proper. His rights could also become a nice trade chip if he shows promise at the D-League level since he would, as mentioned, have all four years left on his rookie contract. The other options would have been selecting a foreign-born player and keeping him in Europe or selling the pick. So while the maneuver wasn't ideal, it was a really smart asset-gathering move. It's also extremely Spurs-y.
San Antonio has been using the draft-and-stash method for years. Two of the team's core players, Tiago Splitter and Manu Ginobili, were acquired this way. Past players like Ian Mahinmi and Nando De Colo, were brought over years after being picked in the draft. And right now the Spurs have former first round pick Livio Jean-Charles developing in France, not to mention a bevy of former second-rounders playing in Europe to whom they still hold rights. A couple of those could be part of the future of the team.
Simultaneously, the Spurs have pioneered the use of the D-League as a player development tool. San Antonio has had their own affiliate since 2007 and have experimented with different ways of developing talent for the big club. While the second rounders the team was hoping to mold into contributors (James Gist, Malik Hairston) didn't pan out, former late first rounder Cory Joseph and, to a lesser degree, Mahinmi stand as examples of the benefits of keeping young players close by to develop.
That combination of a willingness to delay gratification on first rounders and use the D-League well would make the Spurs the perfect team for picking up where the Thunder left off and continue the experiment of the domestic draft-and-stash. Huestis even said that the only two teams he would have considered doing this for were OKC and the Spurs. So can we expect the Spurs to target potential second rounders only to select them with a first round pick and stash them in Austin? It doesn't seem likely.
The first thing to take into account is the fact that the Spurs and Thunder are in completely different team building and cap management situations. OKC has young talent already on the roster and is bumping against the luxury tax. Adding a raw first-rounder that can't contribute now but might push them into tax territory makes little sense. The Spurs, on the other hand, have ample room below the tax at the moment and will likely continue to be in a great financial situation. So the downgrade in talent from someone like Kyle Anderson to Huestis is impossible to justify.
So there is no financial motivation for the Spurs to follow the Thunder's lead. And even Huestis' agent said he doesn't feel like this is situation is anything but an anomaly. So the Spurs selecting someone on the first round to be stashed in Austin doesn't seem likely. But trying to bring in all those past second rounders to Austin, where they get to learn the Spurs' system, would make a ton of sense.
Unfortunately, D-League salaries are not competitive.
The D-League has three tiers of fixed contracts worth $13,000, $19,000 and $25,500 dollars a season. The salary cap is set at $173,000, so having a full roster of players making the highest salary is not even a possibility. There is a lot more money to make in the top leagues in Europe and even in places like China and South America for select players. Former second rounders Adam Hanga and Davis Bertans play in the ACB league of Spain. They are part of a Euroleague team and compete at the highest level outside the NBA. There's is not motivation for them to leave their current situation for a D-League spot.
Even players like Ryan Richards, who will probably make more money in Austria but hinted to an interest in playing in the D-League, have not made the leap into D-League waters, mostly because they know there is no chance a team like the Spurs makes the type of commitment the cash-strapped Thunder made to Huestis about signing him in the future. And with the rights remaining to the team that drafted them (provided they issue a required tender) that potential extra attention that excelling in the D-League could get them loses its appeal, as no other teams could bid for the players' services.
The Thunder maneuvered the CBA's bylines to stay under the tax and retain an asset in Huestis. As an experiment, it is fascinating and could very well pan out for them. But the way in which they did it really doesn't seem like much of a path to follow for the vast majority of teams. Hopefully, this situation alerts the league about a potential interest of franchises in having designated roster spots and contracts available just to use in these types of situation. But until then, the domestic draft-and-stash unfortunately doesn't seem very repeatable.