Luka-mania is sweeping over San Antonio. In his second year in the league, the Croatian prospect the Spurs picked 19th in the 2019 draft is showing signs of being exactly the type of modern power forward the franchise hoped he’d be.
There’s every reason to be cautious, of course. So far, we’ve only had flashes in a small sample size of just a few games. In reality, Luka Samanic wouldn’t even be getting minutes now if not for a COVID outbreak that left the Spurs severely shorthanded. When everyone is back, will Tall Luka revert back to his more passive, hesitant self, knowing he could get benched after a mistake? It’s possible — of course, he could just be sent down to the G-League again.
So why have the fans have become so excited about a guy that is currently averaging five points and three rebounds? Because, as absurd as it might sound, he might actually be the most important player on the roster when considering the future.
The thing about the Spurs’ young core that’s rarely discussed is that it consists mostly of guards and wings. Apart from Jakob Poeltl, the rest of the group have a serious overlap in positions and potential roles. Assuming Dejounte Murray and Derrick White are the backcourt of the future, that leaves Lonnie Walker IV, Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson to fight for the small forward spot. Johnson clearly can hold his own at power forward, but his overwhelming physicality would make him even more dangerous as a wing. That means there’s a giant hole in that core to be filled by a more natural power forward. Luka Samanic is supposed to be that player. If he pans out, the Spurs would still have a logjam at other positions but would also not have to worry about big man depth.
There are ways the Spurs could fill that gap in their core if Samanic had turned out to be a bust. They could have ample cap room this offseason to make a big addition, for example. Unfortunately, there are no young power forwards who have actually produced in the league that are unrestricted free agents. It could be fine to just sign a veteran as a stopgap solution, especially if the team decides to hold on to DeMar DeRozan, but that wouldn’t further the cause of going younger. The Spurs would still have the draft to take another crack at finding a core piece, but if things go as they have so far, they won’t be selecting in the lottery. There are always gems lower in the first round and the Spurs have traditionally been good at finding them, but a likely scenario has them picking a project big man, just like Samanic was at the time of his selection, and developing him slowly.
The problem with that is the rest of the young core should be ready to take over next season. White, Murray and Poeltl will all be on their second contract and are already starters. Johnson is still on his rookie deal, but he’s proved he’s ready for a big role. Lonnie has been a little lost in the shuffle but he will either have signed an extension or be in a contract year. And Vassell, the only Spurs lottery pick of the bunch, has showed that even as a rookie he’s ready for minutes. After this season all the work that went into rebuilding the core of the team is expected to pay off. But if neither Samanic nor a potential rookie power forward is ready to contribute as at least Johnson’s backup, the turning of the page could be delayed or a trade sending out one of the young wings for a big could become inevitable.
Fortunately, these good performances by Samanic suggest that won’t be necessary, as he’s showed development in exactly the type of areas he was supposed to. Those who haven’t seen Samanic play much in Europe or the G-League probably don’t know he can lead the break and post up, which are skills he’ll hopefully develop at the NBA level in time. For now, all the Spurs need for him is to hit his open threes, rebound adequately and be a versatile defender. He’s checked all those boxes in recent games. Luka is shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc, rebounding 23 percent of opponent misses, and has played good defense even when matched up with players as different as Julius Randle and James Harden. He’s not playing like a star, but has showed that he could potentially be a good role player right away.
For all those reasons, Samanic’s development is such a huge story line for the Spurs right now. Had he not showed progress, the youth movement in San Antonio would have had stalled out a bit or required a drastic decision, like a trade of one of the young players for a big man or a likely overpay on the signing of a young restricted free agent big (John Collins? Lauri Markkanen?), to remain on pace. Now, while those options remain available, the Spurs also have the possibility of simply penciling in Samanic as their power forward of the future or, at the very least, a more traditional option off the bench while Keldon Johnson mans the spot.
Luka Samanic looking like an NBA player opens up a lot of possibilities for the front office and makes the future look a lot brighter. That’s why it’s not a surprise that Spurs fans have been ecstatic to see him finally show his worth, even if he’s only done so for a couple of games.