Few complaints about the way the Spurs run their operation have been as prevalent among fans as San Antonio's use of the draft-and-stash route of asset accumulation. While other teams gamble on late first and second rounders, the Spurs are often content with keeping their selections overseas, hoping for a future payoff, to the chagrin of all who want an immediate infusion of talent.
This year, the Spurs seem ready to attempt to cash in on their patience. They are bringing over former selections Livio Jean-Charles, Davis Bertans and Ryan Richards, as they hope to shore up the holes at the forward and big man positions. How these three perform will play a big part in shaping the opinion of fans on the strategy that led to their selections.
The burden of expectations will be heavy on Jean-Charles, as he's the only former first round pick of the new arrivals. He was selected 28th overall in the 2013 draft, with the Spurs fresh off a Finals appearance and looking to win their fifth championship. There was simply no room on the roster for a rookie, so picking one of the most intriguing international prospects — Jean-Charles had dominated the prestigious Nike Hoops Summit — made sense at the time.
It's easy now to criticize the pick. Jean-Charles lost a season to a knee injury and never developed into a dominant player in the mediocre French league. The Spurs could have had Allen Crabbe, Raul Neto, Joffrey Lauvergne or Mike Muscala instead, all players with NBA experience and a clear role in the league going forward. Jean-Charles didn't look good enough to make the jump last season, so the pressure will be on him to prove that he has enough potential to emerge as a better prospect that those selected after him.
Bertans and Richards, on the other hand, were obtained with lower picks, so less is at stake with them. The Latvian forward was picked with the 42nd pick in the 2011 draft with a selection the Spurs received from the Pacers from the George Hill for Kawhi Leonard trade. While Isaiah Thomas was picked later, the Spurs can't be blamed for failing to project him to become one of the few players under six feet to succeed in the NBA. A year before that, Richards was the 49th player selected after impressing in the draft combine. No players selected after him are in the league.
If there are expectations fpr the two, they come from the intrinsic intrigue that these unknowns elicit. Since fans only have highlights, box scores and measurements to go by when it comes to projecting how good these players can be, it's hard to keep the imagination from running wild. Not even a poor Summer League showing can prevent some from fantasizing about the 6'11" Richards becoming a quality rotation big. And anyone who has seen Bertans shoot has no choice but to think about Kyle Korver as a comparison. His frame and scoring ability have even caused the more irrationally optimistic to evoke Kevin Durant, which is obviously just silly.
This crop won't likely fully convert any the draft-and-stash skeptics. At least not right away. The Spurs would be fortunate if they get good minutes from Bertans next season, the one prospect who truly seems ready for the NBA. It's hard to see Richards, who is on a non-guaranteed contract, cracking the final roster. If he doesn't, San Antonio won't keep exclusive rights to him, although he could stay close by in Austin. Jean-Charles seems like a long term project, which is not a bad thing. He's barely older than 2016 lottery picks Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine and he does have some intriguing physical tools.
If a few years down the line San Antonio has a couple of solid rotation forwards on the roster from a low first rounder and two middle second rounders, the strategy has to be considered a success. We've seen it work more famously with Manu Ginobili, of course, but also with Tiago Splitter and, to an extent, with Ian Mahinmi. Another, more recent proof of success, however, might be needed to incite some reasonable optimism about the prospects of Adam Hanga, Nemanja Dangubic and Nikola Milutinov.
As big a role as the draft-and-stash has played for the the Spurs, it's important to note that they are clearly not married to any single strategy when it comes to drafting. The recent selections of Kyle Anderson and Dejounte Murray illustrate that. They also don't really need to select international players to enjoy significant success low in the draft. They've gotten production out of players coming from the NCAA in the past years, including George Hill, Cory Joseph and DeJuan Blair. As with everything else, San Antonio's front office does a good job of adjusting to the circumstances when it comes to the draft.
The patience they are afforded when it comes to the draft-and-stash route — which is obviously enabled by the success the team has had — however, gives them more latitude than teams whose decision-makers need to show immediate results. Few franchise are unafraid to delay gratification in order to truly get the best prospect available on their board — even if it takes five years to bring him over as in Bertans' case. That's why the Spurs are in a privileged spot to exploit the strategy.
Unless someone completely exceeds expectations and becomes a star in the vein of Manu Ginobili, the draft-and-stash strategy will probably continue to be questioned by some, especially in the offseason, when other teams have hope to sell their fanbase in the form of a rookie, while the Spurs only get a statement translated from Serbian about their pick. Occasionally a first round selection will be wasted on a player who never blossoms overseas, bringing even more pointed — and rational — criticism.
Despite those objections, there is evidence that even now as most teams are taking a more serious approach to scouting abroad, the Spurs have as good an eye to pick foreign talent as they do domestic and they should continue to dip their toes in the international pool, especially when they don't have any immediate roster holes to fill.