Luka Samanic has been faced with nearly impossible expectations from the instant the San Antonio Spurs selected him 19th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. A scrawny 19-year-old forward out of Croatia, he has the skills, speed and body type to be a promising NBA player — in the future. The problem is “future potential” is not what Spurs fans were hoping for with that particular pick.
The Spurs knew Samanic wasn’t NBA ready when they drafted him and didn’t expect him to be, but fans have higher expectations for higher draft picks, especially from a class that has ended up being so deep. While 19th was higher than almost any mock draft had him, the Spurs had reason to believe he wasn’t going to be there by the time they picked again at 29th, so they snatched him up when they could. That, combined with the fact that they brought him right over to develop under their watch instead of stashing him overseas shows they truly see something special in him and that he was worth the risk, whether fans see it currently or not.
With just 59 minutes across seven NBA games under his belt so far, Samanic has not had much chance to prove himself has an NBA player, let alone a potential one. It hasn’t helped that players chosen after him — such as Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke and the Spurs’ own Keldon Johnson — have had much more productive careers so far. Now, beginning his second stint in the G League, Samanic is ready to prove himself and isn’t shy about admitting it.
Before the G League season began in the Orlando Bubble on February 10, he discussed what all he is working to improve on, from offense to defense, leadership and focus:
“I work on my offense everyday. Obviously, I’ll be focusing on that too but it is secondary right now. For me I want to improve on things that I really didn’t show as much because last year I was mostly focusing on offense. On defense, some days I was really good and some days with not as much focus. I just want to to the things that’ll let me play in the NBA.”
Gregg Popovich had the following to say regarding the improvements he’s seeing in Luka, which also happen to coincide with some of the doubts fans have about his potential:
“The two areas that have been most significant for him, number one, just a work ethic. Just knowing how hard it’s going to be and how much work he’s got to put in to develop. That it’s not always going to be easy. Secondly, just gaining a little bit of confidence in his game.”
If the Austin Spurs’ first two games have been any indication, where he has posted back-to-back double-doubles with 20 points, 17 rebounds, and 6 assists against the Memphis Hustle and 23 points and 10 rebounds against the Lakeland Magic — a jump from his 15.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists averages last season — that improvement might be coming to the forefront.
Not only has he been able to to show off his improved touch in the paint, but also an awareness and ability to cut or drive rim, good ball-handling skills for a big, and three-point shooting. His effort was enough to even impress the announcers. (Also notice the speed on the closeout to the three-point line in this clip. That is definitely something that the Spurs have been missing.)
Here's Andre Ingram on what he's liked from Luka tonight (plus you get to see a crazy contest from Luka in this clip) pic.twitter.com/Iis34lojRa— Ty Jäger (@TheTyJager) February 12, 2021
Obviously there’s still a long way for him to go, and he knows that. But listening to Samanic self-critique himself after his performance against the Magic goes back to one of those eras Pop said he is improving on, work ethic:
“I think my first three quarters, I think I played good defense but the effort wasn’t as good as in the fourth.”
“My role was just to be active and as a big guy, rebounding is my responsibility. And then when your shot is not falling, there’s other ways to contribute.”
“So that (sustained effort) will be the first thing. The things I can control, I want to keep for a longer span throughout the whole game.”
Of course, G League success doesn’t always translate over to the NBA, but anyone who has actually been around him and seen him practice and play more than casual Spurs observers — from San Antonio and Austin teammates to coaches — have had nothing but high praise for him. It may take longer than Spurs fans want for him to become the player Pop knows he can be, but patience is a virtue. The Spurs know that, and that’s all that really matters.