Recently we’ve seen 20-year-old rookie Dejounte Murray get a lot of playing time, by necessity, in the wake of Tony Parker’s latest injury. As recently as a month ago, that scenario might have sounded catastrophic. The had Spurs waived Nicolas Laprovittola (also a rookie, but at least one who had some professional experience overseas and a fellow who’d looked solid during his cameo appearances with San Antonio) but much to my surprise, Murray hasn’t just been serviceable, he’s been an asset. He scored a career-high 24 points in a home win over Denver and followed that up with an impressive 14 points and 6 assists in the national-televised overtime thriller at Cleveland, followed by more modest numbers at Brooklyn and Toronto.
In the first real sink-or-swim test for the youngster, he passed with flying colors. In retrospect, the coaching staff must have been impressed with his performances with the Austin Spurs in the D-League (where he’s averaged 17.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists in 13 games) and his work in practice. Surely they understood the risks, given Parker’s recent fragility, that it was likely that the third point guard on the roster would be pressed into serious duty, and with that understanding they still waived Laprovittola, trusting that Murray wouldn’t be fazed by the challenge.
And so far, they’ve been proven correct.
I bring this up because Gregg Popovich and the Spurs front office in general (a.k.a. PATFO) have a reputation as being an organization that prefers veterans and shuns rookies. People talk about how it takes a while players to learn Pop’s trust and how he has little patience for rookie mistakes. Some recall Popovich burying a rookie Tiago Splitter on the bench against the Memphis Grizzlies in 2011 while undersized veterans Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair were getting abused by Zach Randolph, or perhaps when Popovich declared “this playoff is probably not for” then-rookie George Hill.
But time has a funny way of messing with our memories, and the truth is that Pop not only has played far more rookies than you’d expect over the past 20 years but that he’s trusted most the familiar names quite a bit, including Splitter and Hill.
Before this season, the Spurs have had 36 true rookies: guys who played their first NBA game for San Antonio. That’s almost two per season. 10 were first-round picks, seven were second-round picks and 19 were undrafted free agents. They ran the full gamut, from participating in all 82 regular-season games during their maiden voyage through the league (Blair in 2009-10) to one-and-done (Marcus Williams in 2007-08). Like with any team, many of these rookies were mid-season signings to fill out a roster during an injury crisis, dudes who were live bodies destined for a cup of coffee and nothing more.
15 of the 36 lasted just one season with the Spurs and most of them significantly less. Most were waived within a month. Of those 15 only two saw any action at all during the playoffs: Boban Marjanovic, who averaged 6.0 minutes in seven playoff games last season and a random by the name of Gerard King, who saw 14 minutes total of mop-up duty over eight playoff games for the title-winning 1999 squad. If you have any recollection at all of King, you are a more devoted fan than I.
First, let’s discuss those 15 castoffs. Like King, most of them made no imprint whatsoever on the league. The biggest “one who got away,” exception —quite literally— will likely be Marjanovic, who’s a legit player and unjustly buried on Stan Van Gundy’s bench in Detroit at the moment. The Spurs didn’t want to let him go, but simply couldn’t afford him after shelling out big money on contracts to Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili. Heck, Popovich had to tell Marjanovic to accept the Pistons’ three-year, $21 million offer, because the Serbian giant was worried about being “disloyal.”
Marjanovic aside, the most recognizable name on the list might be Anthony Tolliver, who’s carved out a respectable nine-years in the league so far and is still going strong. However, he’s a journeyman who’s been with nine teams, none of them for more than two seasons, and the Spurs already had a better version of him —a floor-spacing stretch-four— in Bonner. Ira Newble lasted eight seasons, mostly with Cleveland, and is known mainly for being one of the guys Ginobili torched for 46 points because LeBron James wouldn’t take a turn guarding him. Malcolm Thomas, a collegiate teammate of a slightly-more-accomplished Aztec, had pit-stops with five different NBA teams and is now playing ball in China. James White won a dunk contest in the Turkish league.
The best of the bunch may well be JaMychal Green, who lasted all of four games for the Spurs before being waived in 2014-15, just so they could sign Reggie Williams (and keep Jeff Ayres). He was quickly snatched up by the Memphis Grizzlies and has started 45 games for them this season. Don’t let the status fool you, however. He’s been replacement-level as a starter, with a 12.7 PER, which is shoddy for a power-forward, and the Grizzles have been better with him off the floor than on.
If Green represents the biggest example of a player the Spurs gave up on too quickly, their front office is looking pretty good, I’d say.
Let’s look at the other group now, the 21 rookies who lasted more than one season with San Antonio. 14 of them participated in playoff games.
Here are the seven who didn’t:
Ian Mahinmi lasted six games into his rookie year before succumbing to injuries that would shelve him for almost two full years. He saw bit action in 26 games in his third year but the Spurs finally cut the cord after that. To his credit he contributed quite well as Tyson Chandler’s understudy to Dallas’ 2011 championship squad and had a few good years as a backup in Indiana after that, but his been injury and foul prone throughout his career.
James Anderson, picked 20th out of Oklahoma State in 2010, holds the distinction of being the highest-drafted Spur since Duncan (remember, the one you’re thinking of was a draft-day trade). He scored 10 points in his debut and never reached that total again the rest of the year. He was hurt in game six, made it back in late January and was never a rotation player again. He lasted another year-and-a-half but PATFO quickly realized he couldn’t get his own shot off, couldn’t shoot well enough from outside and was hopeless defensively. He’s bounced around from Houston to Philly to Sacramento, and is currently playing in the Turkish league.
Devin Brown was an undrafted free agent who the Spurs waived after seven games but resigned the following off-season. His role increased over the next two years but he was on the outside looking in by playoff time. He spent time with five other clubs after that and averaged 11.6 for the NOOCH in 2006-07, but was out of the league after eight years.
Malik Hairston, the 48th pick of the 2008 draft was traded to the Spurs for Goran Dragic, whom San Antonio picked three slots earlier. Whoops. He played 15 games as a rookie, 47 more before being waived mid-season the next year and never saw a second of NBA action again. He’s had quite the tour of Europe, moving from Italy to Turkey to Greece to Israel, where he plays now.
The above-mentioned Williams played one game (and two minutes at that) for the Spurs as a rookie, got cut, signed with the L.A. Clippers, played ten games for them and then re-signed with the Spurs the next year, a more mature, battle-tested player. Pop was so impressed that this time he lasted two games. That was it for him in the league and he played for five seasons in China.
The sixth guy was Cory Joseph, whose exemplary attitude and work ethic PATFO use to preach patience to young players to this day. Joseph, rotting on the vine as a rookie, asked to be sent to the D-League so he could improve, totaling 40 games in the minors over the next two seasons. Eventually he made himself into a player. Like Marjanovic, he was a cap casualty, the Spurs couldn’t re-sign him due to money they laid out for LaMarcus Aldridge. But Joseph did well for himself, returning to his native Toronto for a four-year, $30 million deal and he’s unquestionably one of the best backup point guards in the league.
The seventh is Kyle Anderson. Ahem.
Finally we’ve arrived at the 14 rookies who played in playoff games for the Spurs.
Here they are, ranked by regular season minutes-per-game averages they had during their rookie season:
Tim Duncan 39.1
Tony Parker 29.4
Kawhi Leonard 24.0
Gary Neal 21.1
Manu Ginobili 20.7
DeJuan Blair 18.2
George Hill 16.5
Jonathon Simmons 14.8
Beno Udrih 14.4
Tiago Splitter 12.3
Derrick Dial 11.9
Boban Marjanovic 9.4
Aron Baynes 8.8
Fabricio Oberto 8.3
Gerard King 3.3
As you can see, Pop didn’t really play favorites. Fourth on the list is Neal, an undrafted free agent. Sixth was Blair, a second-rounder. Eighth is Simmons, another undrafted free agent.
Here’s where it gets interesting though. Let’s rank them by their playoff minute averages.
Tim Duncan 41.6
Tony Parker 34.1
Manu Ginobili 27.5
Kawhi Leonard 27.1
George Hill 19.0
Gary Neal 18.5
Tiago Splitter 16.7
Beno Udrih 11.5
DeJuan Blair 9.1
Jonathon Simmons 8.7
Boban Marjanovic 6.0
Aron Baynes 5.8
Fabricio Oberto 4.9
Derrick Dial 4.0
Gerard King 1.8
So, it turns out that Hill and Splitter played quite a bit after all, but that’s not the real interesting part, right? No, what we have here is almost a perfect sync of what these 14 players have represented to the Spurs and the NBA as a whole, historically to date, with maybe a minor quibble or two. Joseph is the exception that proves the rule here, and I’d probably slot him between Blair and Simmons.
The point here is that PATFO know what they’re doing, and despite whatever cliches they might offer the public at times, it’s the actions that matter, not the words. They figure out pretty quickly who’s got the goods and who doesn’t. Parker had experienced vets like Terry Porter and Antonio Daniels on the roster as a rookie and he was starting after five games at 19-years-old. Ginobili had Steve Smith and Steve Kerr in front of him and they were cast aside. Leonard, who I teased above, made Richard Jefferson disposable and still played in front of Stephen Jackson.
The Spurs have been able to separate the wheat from the chaff quickly and they’ve gotten considerable production from rookies despite not having the traditional bevy of lottery picks to sift through and mold. Again, the only player they’ve drafted in the top 25 since Duncan was James Anderson. I’d say they’ve done pretty well, considering.
It remains to be seen what’s in store for Murray, but history tells us that if PATFO thinks he’s a player, they’ll find a way to give him playoff minutes by hook or by crook, regardless of Parker’s health. If he’s shelved for the playoffs, well, that likely tells us something too.