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When trying to predict the Spurs’ next draft pick, look West

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Guessing who PATFO will select is never easy, but recent history gives us a decent starting place.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Early May isn’t typically the time for Spurs fans to be eyeing draft boards, but that’s where many may find themselves right now, pondering what young piece could be a part of that next great squad. There are a lot of directions to potentially go — the team has a handful of free-agent and retirement decisions still pending, they could probably use another big, they struggled shooting the ball, and then there’s the whole Kawhi thing — but here’s one half-baked theory from where that nameless person may come from.

The Spurs own the 18th pick in this year’s draft, which is technically the highest they’ll have selected since 1997 if you don’t count acquiring the rights to Kawhi Leonard (15) on draft night. For the sake of this article, though, we will be counting the Leonard pick — both because it required all the homework and risk-taking of any other selection and (more importantly) because it leads into the point I want to make.

Since the Kawhi draft in 2011, the Spurs have used five more first-round picks. Two went to overseas prospects (Nikola Milutinov and Livio Jean-Charles) and the other three were domestic: Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, and Derrick White.

The former group is symbolic of how we’ve typically thought of the Spurs as talent hunters, scouring the globe for the next Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili. It worked into our wider idea of the PATFO hive brain always exploiting the market’s inefficiencies, as the league played catchup in valuing and evaluating international talent. But Milutinov may never come over from Europe, and Jean-Charles disappointed in his dress rehearsal two seasons ago, his guaranteed salary coming off the books this summer.

More importantly, the league has changed. While there’s no reason to think the Spurs can’t pull it off again (Davis Bertans worked out OK), teams are smarter, and there’s more coverage of talented overseas teens than ever before. As a result, it’s worth wondering if the Spurs’ approach has changed. Which brings us to the latter group.

One possibility, based on recent history: PATFO is paying more attention to the homegrown kids who are playing while most of the East Coast, including a swath of national media that highlight college talent, is sleeping.

To recap: Leonard was at San Diego State, Kyle Anderson at UCLA, Dejounte Murray at Washington. Playing his last season at Colorado, Derrick White wasn’t technically on the west coast, but his school was in the PAC-12, which still had him on the radar of west-coast scouts. The Spurs may have also had Utah’s Kyle Kuzma queued up, had the Lakers not taken him at 27 (Utah is also in the PAC-12).

These could be coincidences. One draft expert I spoke to said that most teams have regional scouts in most areas, and it would take a special brand of Spurs Exceptionalism to assume they’ve got a better read on a chunk of the country than 29 other teams. And even if we entertain this West Coast Corollary Theory, there’s enough randomness at play on draft night to make predicting a pick in the late teens any more than a crapshoot.

Still, it might give us a starting point for the players the front office could be evaluating right now. If they end up going with a Troy Brown (Oregon) or Chandler Hutchison (Boise State), we may have a better idea of how the front office has looked to evolve and stay a half-step ahead of the league.