With San Antonio not inspiring much hope with their play early this season, (6-11, currently 11th in the West), some fans are throwing in the towel for not only the 2019-20 season, but the Spurs seemingly eternal playoff streak as well, moving on to focus on building the next dynasty.
While I’m not here to talk about which way the Spurs should go, I do know that San Antonio has a plethora of young talent within its ranks. If Gregg Popovich and RC Buford do decide to focus on development, fans might not exactly know what they are getting from some of players who have not gotten much of an opportunity within the rotation. Luckily, I have had the opportunity to watch a good portion of the Austin Spurs G-League games this year and can catch you up to speed on what I have seen from San Antonio’s two first round picks: Keldon Johnson and Luka Samanic.
Per game stats: 20.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.0 APG, 53/0/90 shooting splits (FG%, 3P%, FT%)
Johnson’s biggest strength has been scoring at the rim, where he has been absolutely dominant. He leads Austin with just over 8 shots per game from inside 5 feet and is converting on 76.2% of those shots. It hasn’t just been straight line drives or bully points, as was the case at Kentucky. He has showcased flashes of diversity getting to the rim, whether it be in the half court or transition, and even the types of moves that gets him a bucket.
Unfortunately, this level of shooting efficiency has not carried to other areas of the court. From every other range, Johnson takes less than 2 shots per game and shoots less than 35% from all areas. Specifically, I’m concerned with his outside shooting, both from a volume and accuracy perspective, as he attempts just 1.8 threes per game and has yet to make one this season.
Billed as a relatively strong on ball defender coming out of college, Johnson has been inconsistent during his time in the G-League, both film and numbers wise. His defensive rating of 104.3 might just be some positive indicators, but opponents are shooting 45% from the field and 40% from 3 against him. Additionally, his low steal and block numbers (0.2 and 0.0 respectively) clearly show his deficiencies in generating plays on defense.
However, Johnson has excelled on the glass, where he is fourth on the Spurs with 6.4 rebounds per game. That mark is higher than bigger teammates such as Drew Eubanks and Kavion Pippen, which shows Johnson’s energy and activity while on the floor.
Within a team setting, Johnson has been a pretty good ball mover, keeping the offense flowing. However, when taking the next and creating for others himself, he falters. A less than 1:1 assist/turnover ratio is clearly not very ideal. It appeared that he made some improvement in the first couple of games, but that has not kept up consistently. You have to appreciate that he’s is making an effort to create, but it just is not turning into many positive plays right now.
I think it is safe to say that Johnson has been the more consistent and productive freshman. However, I have been disappointed with the lack of improvement or additions to his game since last spring at Kentucky. At least in games, he is sticking to his strengths. While that is admirable within the team concept, his purpose in Austin is to develop his areas of improvement. So far, he just has not done that.
As someone who was high(er) on Johnson in the draft, I still believe in him due to his motor, energy, and IQ. But I need to see changes to his game sooner rather than later.
Per game stats: 15.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.2 APG, 48/29/71 shooting splits (FG%, 3P%, FT%)
Samanic boasts the ability to score at all 3 levels. His size and touch creates opportunities inside, while his shooting stroke keeps defenses honest at minimum. Unfortunately, that has not translated numbers-wise. Samanic is shooting 58% around the rim and 29% from deep, both of which can be improved. As a shooter, he is reliant on being a floor spacer and defenders helping on drives. There is not much self-creation from outside, but I would not be entirely shocked to see him develop this area of his game due to fluidity. Within the paint, he is able to convert on his attempts due to a wide variety of moves.
The only issue I have in this category is his aggressiveness. Samanic can drift out of the flow of the offense at times and just stand around the three point line. This can cause defenses to help off him when helping and not get punished. Improving his off ball skills and awareness will be the key in him taking the next step offensively.
There are some stark positives and negatives to Samanic’s defense. At 6-foot-11 and approximately 230 pounds, he has really good size for his position. Add that to his tendency to be in the right position (when engaged, of course), whether it be on or off the ball, and the foundations are in his favor. Despite the perception (likely due to stereotyping), he has shown the ability to stay with guards in space. His negative wingspan and average athleticism limits some of that potential, but he has continued to meet my projection as an above average defender. Samanic’s defensive rating of 100.3 and opponent field goal percentage of 42% helps confirm these claims.
Rebounding wise, Samanic is good-not-great for his position. He still gets by just fine, but he probably does not change the game in any factor, which in today’s game it is fine.
Samanic was not projected to be skilled in this area coming into the draft, and to be completely honest, it still might be a stretch to ask any positive impact from him here. His handle is still too loose and high, which causes him to be VERY susceptible to turnovers (and he has been, second on Austin with 3.0 turnovers per game). BUT, he has made a few nice passes and reads this season that has made me at least question my evaluation on this part of his game, which at least provides intrigue for Samanic becoming passable in this aspect with time to grow and improve.
When engaged, Samanic has really impressed me. The amount of fluidity, skill, and feel he already plays with is higher than the average rookie, especially one who was billed to be a project. His shooting, touch around the basket, and defense seems like it will translate to the NBA relatively clearly, it’s just a matter of when. This might be a minority take, but I am a bigger fan of his defensive potential than on offense. As someone who rates motor relatively highly (especially offensively), his tendency to disappear really concerns me. Even when I’m paying attention to Samanic, there are times where I almost forgot he is on the court. Talent wise, I am all in. The only question is if he can produce consistently.