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Should a Spurs lottery pick still get the Austin treatment?

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When should an organization that doesn’t skip steps reconsider its development approach?

NBA G-League Playoffs - South Bay Lakers v Austin Spurs Photos by Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA has finalized its date for the 2020 Draft, per Woj. With that news we can return to the many questions surrounding how the team can approach things on November 18th.

Whom the Spurs pick and any other moves they try to make that night are most certainly your 1A and 1B considerations, but there’s a less pressing and more philosophical one to simmer on both now and after. It has to do with what the team should do with its highest pick since Tim Duncan —namely, should it be a foregone conclusion that the selected player should spend most of their rookie year up I-35 in Austin?

Through most of the Gregg Popovich era, Spurs fans have gotten used to not seeing the team’s rookies on the floor in San Antonio the year after they’re selected. For some that meant they were international players drafted and left overseas to continue to developing. Other times it meant watching from the bench. Most recently, it’s meant being assigned to work with D/G-League affiliate. (The last Spur to earn Rookie of the Month honors is a telling piece of trivia in its own right: Beno Udrih in December 2004.)

You have to go back to Kawhi Leonard’s first season to find a Spurs rookie that spent their entire time in the Alamo City, much less was a regular part of the rotation. Boban Marjanovic was the closest thing in 2015-16 when he served as a garbage time hero who only saw a few tours of duty in the D-League. Kyle Anderson and JaMychal Green? They spent most of their first years as Spurs in Austin. First-rounders Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson? All Austin fixtures. Aron Baynes as a 26-year-old with overseas experience? You get the picture.

What all of those scenarios have in common is that they meshed well with the team’s win-now construction, with a roster heavy on playable veterans and core stars and light on meaningful minutes for future-facing pieces. It created a steady pipeline to turn fringe players projected as first-round talent into valuable long-term contributors, integrating them into the Spurs’ system. Here’s what R.C. Buford said last year about the G-League approach:

“Austin provides us a great opportunity and our guys have taken great advantage of the work that is available to them. Starting years back, with the approach of our staff and the attention to the details that get carried from Austin to San Antonio, that allows the growth that you see. It puts Cory Joseph in a position to be successful, it puts Kyle Anderson, it puts Dejounte and Derrick in positions to step in. And I think it’s a tribute to Pop and our coaching staff that they trust that process and allow those guys those opportunities to be successful.”

As the team transitions further into this new era, and as it dips into the draft lottery for the first time this millennium, it’s worth asking whether the paradigm needs some rethinking— for a couple of reasons.

The first is what got San Antonio into the lottery to begin with: they’re not world-beaters anymore. After watching the entirety of these playoffs from home, and facing an even more brutal Western Conference next season, expectations for team success should be tempered, and their focus on figuring out how its younger pieces fit alongside one another should carry over from Orlando. You don’t throw everything out because of one down year obviously, but when Death, Taxes and Spurs becomes just Death and Taxes, some reevaluation is necessary.

Picking this high also could in theory produce a player that’s more poised for NBA minutes. Even with the 2020 Draft not packing the same kind of star potential, a Saddiq Bey or Aaron Nesmith could be able to contribute and develop in San Antonio, while younger prospects—such as, say, a Patrick Williams—may still have the raw talent to hold up against NBA athletes. There’s also the question of whether certain prospects, during the draft evaluation and interview process, are turned off by the idea of not seeing the NBA spotlight for a year, or more. Has that influenced how those conversations and picks went in the past? It’s a possibility.

The closest answer to the question posed here is probably ‘maybe’. The Spurs proudly refer to their organization as The Program, and time in Austin has become a foundational part of building a San Antonio player. A team that prides itself on not skipping steps may also have to consider what message it may send to current Spurs who did their time and waited if this year’s rookie foregoes the Austin treatment. The success of rookie Keldon Johnson inside the Bubble may have made the case for the next first-year player, or it may be viewed as the fruits of his time spent in Austin earlier in the season.