We’re back with the final entry of our rankings of the all the Spurs draft picks of the Gregg Popovich era. The second round picks who never played for the Spurs have already received a shoutout, and if you haven’t already, feel free to check out picks 27-23, 22-17, 16-11, 10-6 and Also, as a reminder:
- Players whose rights were traded on draft night and never played for the Spurs are excluded. That eliminates Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic, and 9 other picks.
- Three picks who have not played for the Spurs but were either first round draft-and-stashes (Livio Jean-Charles, Nikola Milutinov) or picked with the intention of eventually signing but it never worked out (Luis Scola) are included.
5. Derrick White (Colorado) | 29th | 2017
Is it too early to say White is the Spurs’ 5th best draft pick of the Gregg Popovich era? An extremely late bloomer, the only college offer he received was from a culinary school, and he only played Div. I college ball his senior year. That was still enough for him to become a first round NBA pick and yet another steal at 29th for the Spurs. After a season developing in Austin and winning the G-League championship along the way, White has gradually found his place in the Spurs rotation, whether coming off the bench or starting. He finally broke out in the Bubble, where his two-way game shined and he let go of his fear of shooting threes. If Bubble White is consistent with what we’ll see from him going forward, his ceiling is much higher than the previously-assumed “poor man’s Manu Ginobili”. Hopefully they can agree to an extension this offseason before he gets too expensive.
4. Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State) | 15th | 2011
While Leonard was technically drafted by the Pacers at the behest of the Spurs in a trade for George Hill, they clearly saw something in him that no one else saw for them to give up Pop’s favorite player. Despite being scouted as a Bruce Bowen-type player, the Spurs knew they could develop Leonard into a star. His size and defense helped boost the Spurs back into serious contention after three-straight years of failing to get past the second round of the playoffs, and by his third season he helped lead them to the franchise’s fifth championship, winning Finals MVP along the way. Of course, we all know how it went from there once Uncle Dennis took over, and he didn’t end up being the next franchise player everyone dreamed, but from a draft standpoint, the Spurs have rarely done better.
3. Tim Duncan (Wake Forest) | 1st | 1997
This is where the approach between Noah and me really begins to differ. (Which, again, makes it fun!) Is Duncan the best player the Spurs ever drafted? Of course, no doubt about it, by a landslide. But he was also the most “no duh” pick of them all in these rankings. The Spurs literally couldn’t blow this one, as no one else in the 1997 draft came anywhere close to challenging him for top overall pick. (This wasn’t a Greg Oden vs. Kevin Durant type situation.) In that sense, the best player in franchise history and five-time champion is not the Spurs top “pick” in terms of amazing scouting and chance-taking. To me, there’s a couple of other picks that come ahead of Duncan and lend more credibility to the Spurs as premiere scouters who were (and mostly still are) ahead of their peers.
2. Tony Parker (
France Belgium) | 28th | 2001
The Spurs have a storied history at the end of the first round, but nothing tops what they found in Parker. The Spurs were on the hunt for a new franchise point guard, but no one at the time thought he would come via a scrawny 19-year-old from France. Tony’s draft story is actually one of the more heartwarming ones: he knew he blew it the first time he worked out for the Spurs and begged them for another chance. They granted it, and the rest is history. After battling inconsistency, frequently being in Pop’s dog house, and even being seemingly “settled for” after Jason Kidd chose not to sign with the Spurs in 2003, Parker rose up to become a six-time All Star in an era when the Western Conference was full of star guards and helped lead the Spurs to four championships. He might have even won a second Finals MVP had the-game-that-shall-not-be-named gone differently. People thought the Spurs were crazy with this pick, but soon after they learned not to question them.
1. Manu Ginobili (Argentina) | 57th | 1999
You can’t convince me that this isn’t the Spurs’ draft best pick of all time. Again, Timmy was the best player they ever drafted, but in terms of getting the most value compared to draft position, perhaps no player in NBA history tops Ginobili. This was the very beginning of the Spurs delving into the draft-and-stash approach, much to the confusion of Duncan, and it couldn’t have worked out better. The Spurs finally brought him over the 2002-03 season, the Big Three era was born, and they never looked back. Perhaps no player has been as unselfish as Manu; he never sought huge paydays and agreed to come off the bench at the expense of his own stats, and yet it’s easy to imagine he would have had more than two All-Star appearances had he started the majority of his games for more than just three of his sixteen NBA seasons. Few Hall of Famers come from the end of the second round, and perhaps even fewer have only started 33% of their games, but just as he was as a player, he will find yet another way to be a trend buster.
5. Derrick White (Colorado) | 29th | 2017
While it might feel like a bit of a stretch to call Derrick White the fifth-greatest pick of the Gregg Popovich era, the former Colorado Buffalo has already eclipsed all draft-day projections. Not only did he step up when Dejounte Murray went down with an ACL injury two years ago, but he became one of the breakout stars of the 2019 playoffs after exploding for a career-high 36 points to give the Spurs a 2-1 first-round-series lead over the Nuggets. He should’ve had an opportunity to carry a substantial load this season, though strange rotations kept him from expanding on his progress. White showed out on both ends once San Antonio got to the bubble, and hopefully, that’s earned him more touches heading into the 2020-2021 campaign. He led all guards in blocks, finished second in the league in charges drawn, and was the most efficient pick-and-roll ball-handler in the NBA this season, and I expect him to compete for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award next year.
4. Tony Parker (
France Belgium) | 28th | 2001
Tony Parker is the only 28th overall pick in NBA history to lay claim to six All-Star selections, four All-NBA nominations, and a Finals MVP. The finesse-finishing Frenchman is one of the most distinguished draft-night steals the league has ever seen, and Spurs fans routinely enjoyed lengthy playoff runs with the speedy floor general directing the offense. He often gets overlooked when discussing the best players of his era, though one only needs to look as far as his four top-ten regular-season MVP voting results to see how important he was to San Antonio. Though he lived below the rim, Parker scored points in the paint with a volume and efficiency few points guards have ever achieved, and his fearlessness attacking the rim-protectors at the basket opened up countless opportunities for his teammates. His jersey hangs in the rafters of the AT&T Center, and his impressive resume should make him a near-lock for the Hall-of-Fame.
3. Manu Ginobili (Argentina) | 57th | 1999
Look, Manu has made a legitimate case for himself as San Antonio’s best pick of all-time, and this ranking is the one that has made me lose the most sleep because he is my personal favorite, but I can’t find it in me to place Ginobili in my top two. The Argentinian two-guard is arguably the greatest sixth-man to ever grace a basketball court, and he might have posted James Harden type numbers had he arrived in the league in 2020 instead of 2002. However, with a peak lower than Parker, Leonard, and Duncan, it’s hard for me to justify placing him any higher without citing his late draft positioning as the sole reason. And he might very well be the most renowned draft steal in league history, but that isn’t enough for me. He was never the engine that made the Spurs run, and while he played his role to perfection, the last two on this list are more superior players in almost every way.
2. Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State) | 15th | 2011
Let me preface this by saying it gives me no pleasure whatsoever in naming Kawhi number two. Leonard might be the single biggest reason San Antonio found themselves outside of playoff contention and in the lottery for the first time in more than two decades, and I understand the vitriol directed his way by Spurs fans. He is the preeminent villain of a franchise he once represented so well, though there is no denying his importance. Yes, the 2014 title was primarily a team-first effort, but the Silver and Black don’t take home the hardware that year without the two-way excellence of Kawhi. As much as casual viewers love to say he was never a superstar in San Antonio, the stats say otherwise. Leonard spearheaded three of the winningest regular-season teams in franchise history and finished top three in MVP voting twice as a member of the Spurs. Finding a superstar outside of the lottery is nearly impossible, and that’s exactly what PATFO got out of Kawhi.
1. Tim Duncan (Wake Forest) | 1st | 1997
Timothy Theodore Duncan is by far the best player to ever suit up for the Spurs and easily one of the ten best players in NBA history. I realize Duncan was handed to San Antonio on a silver platter by the lucky bounce of a few ping pong balls, but being the first one off the board doesn’t make you a sure-thing. Of the 73 first overall picks in league history, only 18 are in the Hall-of-Fame, and another 27 never made an All-Star team. The vast majority (28) made at least one All-Star team but failed to qualify for the Hall-of-Fame, which makes Duncan an outlier by top pick standards. The Big Fundamental was the foundation upon which the Spurs built a multi-era dynasty, and the Silver and Black don’t win any championships without him. And for that reason alone, Tim Duncan is San Antonio’s best draft pick of all-time in my book.
Thanks for hanging with us throughout this whole project! We hope you have had as much fun with it as we have during these offseason dulldrums.
The beginning of the new season is still in doubt, but one thing is for sure: the 2020 NBA Draft will take place in just over two weeks on November 18. What will the Spurs do with their first lottery pick since Duncan in a year where there is a lot of solid talent but lacking in standout players? We’re counting down the days until we find out!