The Spurs will return to action soon, but their goals for the last stretch of the season will likely be modest. Making it to the postseason seems extremely unlikely, especially with LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles out, so the focus might be to further the development of the young players.
One of the most exciting prospects on deck is Luka Samanic. The Spurs highest 2019 first round draft pick has spent most of his time in the G-League, but with two rotation bigs out, he may finally get some minutes with the big club.
The expectations shouldn’t be high, for now. If his performance in Austin is any indication, Samanic is not fully ready to help the team now, but he’ll show off flashes of intriguing potential that should hopefully provide hope for the future.
The selection of Samanic was questioned by fans and experts at the time, but by now it’s become clear that he’s a uniquely interesting prospect. There are simply not a lot of big men with his combination of physical tools and perimeter skills. Standing at 6’10 and with the quickness and athleticism to play power forward at the NBA level, Samanic could be the type of player that allows a team to stay big while having enough shooting and interior scoring to punish opponents who go small. That projected versatility and modern game is surely what intrigued the Spurs in the first place, and it has been on display in Austin at times, especially on the offensive end.
Samanic already has an intriguing pump fake and drive game that puts pressure on the defense. He doesn’t have the tightest handle yet — which causes him trouble when he tries to run the break: a skill he should develop in time — but he has a good first step and attacks closeouts aggressively, often going for dunks or drawing fouls by not shying away from contact.
The fact that he can do that consistently even at the G-League level at this point in his career is impressive, especially considering he doesn’t have a reliable outside shot yet with which to bait those closeouts. Because Samanic will not hesitate to pull the trigger, opponents have to respect his three-point prowess to a degree, but he shot just 31 percent from beyond the arc. At some point, those looks will start falling more often once he refines his already good-looking mechanics and gets accustomed to the NBA three-point line, and when he does, he’ll be exponentially more dangerous as an off ball threat.
If driving after closeouts and hitting a few threes was all Samanic could do, he would still have a potential role in an NBA that values spacing from big men. But he also has post skills that could make him a match-up nightmare.
Samanic is legitimately big, and while he’s not strong enough yet to dominate match-ups against NBA-caliber power forwards, he can definitely punish smaller players inside. He can shoot over them or use his quickness to spin past them as they try to push him off his spots, once again not shying away from contact.
Defensively, Samanic isn’t special at this point, but he’s not bad, either. As is the case with most young players, he sometimes appears lost, but in general is a solid team defender. His biggest issue at the moment is a notorious lack of disruption and play-making on that end, as he averaged under a block and under a steal per 36 minutes in G-League play. Yet as a power forward, he has the quickness to close out well on shooters and to stay in front of guys on switches, and his size should allow him to eventually be a passable option as a small ball center. He’ll likely never be the centerpiece of an elite defense, but he could potentially play a part in one.
So if Samanic is so promising on offense and not a complete sieve on defense, why not give him as many minutes as possible in Orlando now that there will be plenty of playing time available? The answer is that he currently has one big flaw, which not only hinders his positive impact in the present but might make it hard for him reach his potential: his inconsistent motor sometimes negates his skills and physical ability.
While most young players try to do too much, Samanic at times seems like he’s not doing enough. Because he’s big and springy he can still do a decent job on the boards and occasionally make a play on defense, but his lack of energy at times is worrying. It doesn’t manifest itself only on one side of the ball, either. When he’s off the ball on offense, he tends to float on the perimeter, setting picks that barely make contact most of the time. It’s possible that he avoids that type of physical work now because his body is not ready for the rigors of it, but when he’s actually directly involved in plays he’s happy to mix it up. At this point, he just seems to have trouble staying focused and active for full games.
None of this is new. There were concerns about Samanic’s mercurial nature and intermittent motor before the draft. The Spurs were surely aware of it and have surely worked with him in his time in Austin to make sure his mindset and effort improve. He’s still 20 years old, so there’s time, and he’s definitely worth the investment. Right now, however, he’s probably not ready to fill a substantial role with the big team under a disciplinarian like Gregg Popovich, so expecting him to do so is setting him up to disappoint.
Samanic will likely get more minutes as the NBA resumes the season, and he should. He’s a promising big man with unique skills who would benefit from getting more experience at the highest level. Those who have not been keeping tabs on him in the G-League will likely be pleasantly surprised by his obvious potential.
There could be tough moments ahead, though. As talented as Samanic is, he’s also extremely young and still figuring out how to remain focused, engaged and aggressive for more than short stints.
The key for both the organization and the fans when it comes to evaluating the development of the promising big man will be to manage expectations for now and enjoy the good while not worrying too much about the bad.