The D-League, founded in 2001, was once a little-known passion project of the NBA that yielded mixed results for players and organizations alike. And as recently as a decade ago, it was a place fresh-faced draft prospects and established journeymen actively sought to avoid on their pursuit of earning legitimate minutes in the association.
The aforementioned developmental farm system has since rebranded to the G League following a Gatorade title sponsorship in 2017. And in a revolutionary move made in 2020, they created a prep-to-pro team called the G League Ignite to provide elite high school recruits an alternative to college and overseas experience before declaring for the draft.
Despite the flocculating results across its programs in the early years, the G League has helped produced several notable alumni, including All-Stars Rudy Gobert, Pascal Siakam, and Khris Middleton. Despite its increasing impact, historically, San Antonio has arguably utilized this groundbreaking resource better than any NBA franchise.
More than 100 former/active NBA players have come through the Austin Spurs system since 2001.— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) February 28, 2021
Here is what coach Matt Nielsen says San Antonio’s developmental program aims to teach prospects: pic.twitter.com/L5G1RJMURw
Former Austin Spurs Ian Mahinmi, Cory Joseph, Lance Thomas, Brad Wanamaker, JaMychal Green, Jonathon Simmons, Kyle Anderson, Bryn Forbes, Ryan Arcidiacono, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker IV spent significant time up I-35 before carving out meaningful roles in Silver and Black or elsewhere around the league.
Plenty of other recognizable names such as Josh Howard, Jay Williams, and Tim Hardaway Jr. have suited up for the Austin Spurs as determined veterans attempting an NBA comeback or flex assignees. With 112 former or active NBA players passing through the club since its inception as the Columbus Riverdragons in 2001, their process is tried and true.
Austin has perhaps put together their most talented roster to date this season, and behind the guidance of first-year head coach Matt Nielsen, the Spurs are on pace for another top-five regular-season finish. While the circumstances of playing in a bubble have shortened and condensed the G League schedule, San Antonio’s structure continues to prevail.
Austin Spurs head coach Matt Nielsen on the development he's seen from Tre Jones and Luka Samanic in the Gubble: pic.twitter.com/XMiGxM1KNk— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) February 21, 2021
Though PATFO recalled Luka Samanic and Tre Jones from the G League a week ago, Austin has yet to see another promotion since the departure of their leading scorers. Regardless, their G League affiliate remains home to a handful of gifted individuals, so who should fans expect to rise through the ranks and into the NBA in the coming seasons?
Potential NBA Candidates
Anthony Mathis | Combo Guard | Free Agent
Anthony Mathis has already drawn a few comparisons to Bryn Forbes, which is understandable considering his quick trigger from three-point land, struggles with man-to-man defense, and small stature for a two-guard. Despite the surface-level similarities, Forbes has an extensive efficiency advantage over the Oregon alum, and his self-creation repertoire was far more advanced at a younger age.
Anthony Mathis on the differences between college ball and the G-League: pic.twitter.com/6DeDx5XLtv— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) February 26, 2021
The six-three swingman has a chance to become a long-range specialist for an NBA team in need of a perimeter threat, though he may not garner anything more than a two-way contract if he can’t find more consistency. His stroke is pure, and a 94.4% free throw percentage suggests he has the shooting potential to become a knock-down standstill sniper once he adjusts to the longer NBA lines.
London Perrantes | Point Guard | Free Agent
Unlike Mathis, London Perrantes has experience in the NBA, but he’s just waiting for his next opportunity. The undrafted floor general has an innate feel for the game and can find open teammates, but for all his leadership qualities, everything that caused such a short stint in his first shot at the next level continues to plague him.
London Perrantes on how tight scheduling has affected how the Austin Spurs have built chemistry in the G-League bubble: pic.twitter.com/NMblBXrwvh— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) February 18, 2021
While Perrantes shares a nearly identical build to Fred VanVleet, the latter has found a way to mitigate his height disparity with gritty defense and a surprisingly diverse scoring package. The former remains an iffy outside shooter, and his lack of wiggle or in-between game has made him a predictable and inefficient below-the-rim finisher.
Nate Renfro | Combo Forward | Free Agent
After almost two years away from competitive basketball, recovering from a devastating ACL injury, Nate Renfro has burst onto the G League scene as a swiss army knife. The former San Francisco University star doesn’t score much for this crowded Austin squad, but his 5.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.0 blocks per game show off his immense two-way versatility.
Nate Renfro on how he continued to round out his game despite being away from competitive basketball for two years: pic.twitter.com/AJf0aCG9eh— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) March 1, 2021
Renfro can finish well on the interior with a clear runway to the hoop, but his complete lack of a three-point jumper is the one area that might keep him from breaking into the league. Otherwise, he has the unique blend of elite athleticism, defensive acumen, tireless motor, and court awareness that franchises covet from modern forwards. Should the 24-year-old ever expand his range, he’ll have loads of NBA suitors.
Cam Reynolds | Small Forward | Free Agent
At 26-years-old, Cam Reynolds is by default the seasoned veteran of this collection, but the one-time Timberwolve deserves another look from NBA executives. Although his shot selection can be a bit questionable at times, and he tends to get tunnel vision when taking the rock to the tin, Reynolds has a smooth offensive arsenal for a player his size and could add a nice scoring punch off the bench.
Cam isn’t the most technically sound defender, but there isn’t an instance this season where he looked disengaged on that end of the floor. He has also shown the ability to put his rumored seven-one wingspan to good use, coming up with deflections and racking up almost two stocks (steals and blocks) per game. The lanky forward would make for a fantastic depth insurance piece for any organization.
Khyri Thomas | Combo Guard | Free Agent
A back-to-back Big East Defensive Player of the Year at Creighton, Khyri Thomas figured to have a chance to stick around in the league and make a name for himself as one of the premier second-round success stories of the 2018 NBA Draft. Instead, a lengthy foot injury combined with sporadic appearances made for a less than ideal situation with the Detroit Pistons.
While the combo guard failed to earn a two-way deal during the offseason, the Exhibit-10 contract he signed with San Antonio ensured he would have another opportunity to prove himself. And with 67 points in 86 minutes (on 49% shooting) through three contests with the Austin Spurs, Khyri is beginning to show everyone he deserves another chance.
Adam Mokoka | Shooting Guard | Flex Assignee (Chicago Bulls)
Spurs fans probably shouldn’t concern themselves too much with Adam Mokoka. He wasn’t on my radar when he went undrafted in 2019, and he still hasn’t displayed enough for me to believe in his NBA future. He began the season on Chicago’s NBA roster after inking a second straight two-way deal with them in November but struggled to break into the rotation and found himself flex assigned to the Austin Spurs.
Mokoka took home the Pro A Best Young Player Award for BCM Gravelines-Dunkerque in 2018 as a teenager and flashed signs of continued growth by winning MVP honors at the Amiral League summer competition in his native France last July. However, the 22-year-old shooting guard hasn’t translated any of his overseas accomplishments into a stateside breakthrough.
Robert Woodard II | Small Forward | Flex Assignee (Sacramento Kings)
Last but assuredly not least, we have the man-child that is Kings forward Robert Woodard II. The Sacramento rookie has balled out for Austin and seamlessly meshed with the Spurs this season, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the 21-year-old will force head coach Luke Walton to think twice before sitting him at the end of the bench by the time the G League bubble comes to a close.
Robert Woodard II on which players he molds his game after: pic.twitter.com/u4JRH8SGzQ— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) February 26, 2021
The former Mississippi State standout is a determined defender, physical rebounder, and dynamic scorer who can put the ball on the floor and get to the line with stunning regularity. Woodard is still learning how to get his teammates involved, and his jump shot is far from a reliable weapon, but his mindset, work ethic, and body are all NBA-ready. Don’t be shocked if the 235-pound slasher ends sneaks into Sacramento’s rotation.