To the dismay of many bewildered fans, the San Antonio Spurs unexpectedly selected projected second-rounder and little-known Croatian teenager Luka Samanic with the 19th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Not only was the announcement immediately met with disapproval over social media, but considering more polished prospects like Matisse Thybulle and Brandon Clarke remained on the board, many — myself included — had a difficult time applauding the decision.
PATFO have made a career of identifying unheralded talent and molding them into productive NBA players, and in the case of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, Hall of Famers, but even for a big man with guards skills, something about reaching so far so early for Samanic felt like a mistake.
Of course, Luka said all the right things upon arriving in San Antonio, and a strong showing in the Summer League and the annual Silver and Black scrimmage quelled much of the skepticism and concern surrounding his physical and mental greenness.
Some players hope to get drafted early and secure the bag. Other players hope to fall to SA and secure a career.— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) June 29, 2019
The Spurs have built their reputation on player development and success, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Excited to see Luka grow in the 210. pic.twitter.com/S0rLVAovnu
The 19th pick in the NBA Draft, Luka Šamanić, put up 11 PTS & 7 REB in the Salt Lake City Summer League win for the San Antonio Spurs last night pic.twitter.com/zsUDn6tIoW— NBA UK (@NBAUK) July 2, 2019
I’m here to spam your timeline with Luka Šamanić highlights tonight.— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) October 11, 2019
Peep this spicy spin move off the dribble from the rookie for two easy points at the rim.
Did I mention he’s only 19-years-old? He might just be the next international success story for the San Antonio Spurs. pic.twitter.com/3l1TBS4tZv
Alongside fellow first-year professionals Keldon Johnson and Quinndary Weatherspoon, Samanic began the season in Austin in what has become a rite of passage through the G-League for all Spurs rookies looking to break into the NBA rotation.
And although San Antonio began the year a solid 5-3, things began to deteriorate quickly. The good guys found themselves 5-11 after an eight-game losing streak, and to make matters worse, little to no adjustments were made to their floundering approach.
Marco Belinelli, Bryn Forbes, and Rudy Gay continued to sieve points on the defensive end while struggling to maintain a semblance of offensive efficiency, and with the Spurs outside of the playoff picture, fans began to clamor for changes that largely didn’t materialize.
Luka Samanic, Keldon Johson, Drew Eubanks, and Chimezie Metu were called up to the NBA on several occasions, only to spend time warming the bench regardless of the score, and their G-Leauge numbers seemed to warrant an opportunity at the next level.
Unfortunately, by the time Luka finally made his scoreless NBA debut in a blowout loss against the Brooklyn Nets, the frustration and impatience from the fanbase resulted in a conglomeration of disappointment and harsh premature criticism.
The situation was compounded by the fact that numerous first-rounders selected after Samanic, including Thybulle, Clarke, Grant Williams, and Darius Bazley, were playing an integral role in their team’s success.
Although Johnson wasn’t single-handedly leading the Spurs back into the postseason conversation, his emergence before the hiatus, a breakthrough in the bubble, and a white-hot motor at all times on the court magnified Samanic’s poor body language and lack of productivity.
I only think about Keldon Johnson locking up Luka Doncic about 100 times a day: pic.twitter.com/9GSk8yy8ok— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) July 17, 2020
The international forward didn’t exactly do himself any favors either. He looked disengaged and timid during the exhibition games leading up to the NBA restart, and his second professional appearance was somehow less effective than his mediocre debut.
Samanic has looked more like a guy running through the motions than a rookie hungry for minutes.— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) July 25, 2020
Luka has a single FGA, three fouls and no other statistics through 11 minutes over two scrimmages.
Can’t read too much into these games but I would really like to see more from him.
With nothing to lose, Samanic showed out in the final game of the regular season. In what was also the first start of his NBA career, the 6’11” forward tallied 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists on 50% shooting from the field while nailing a trifecta of three-pointers.
His career-night was an outlier performance in a tiny sample size, but Luka flashed all of the skills that made him such a tantalizing prospect on draft day. And despite the justified annoyance with how the 2019-2020 campaign unfolded, fans shouldn’t allow those emotions to determine how they feel about Samanic just yet.
Sure, Clarke or any number of other prospects might have been able to provide day-one impact for San Antonio. However, PATFO didn’t draft Samanic to make immediate contributions; they picked him with hopes of unlocking his astonishingly high ceiling.
You may not agree with their choice to draft a toolsy teenager with a frighteningly wide range of peak outcomes, though who can blame a small market Spurs team for gambling when rebuilding for the future should take precedence over maintaining their middling composition?
As much as we want to believe Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, or Paul George might consider the Spurs when they hit free agency in 2021, let’s be honest, their best bet at returning to title contention starts with their in-house player development.
If San Antonio wants a superstar, they’re either going to have to trade for one or cultivate one themselves. While they might not be on the roster right now, we’ve seen plenty of players exceed their projections with the Spurs, and Luka has about as much potential as any prospect they’ve chosen in recent memory.
Being patient isn’t easy once you get used to decades-long playoff streaks and perennial championship runs, but rushing to anoint a 20-year-old with three NBA outings to his resume is a laughable overreaction. Give Luka Samanic some time to grow into his body and refine his craft, and he could prove to be well worth the wait.