The Spurs made a small investment on Drew Eubanks last offseason. After having him around on two-way deals for two years, they finally signed him to a modest but normal contract that could extend up to three seasons.
In a very real way. Eubanks made it. After going undrafted, going through summer league and sticking for two seasons with the same team, he made his way to the NBA while more heralded peers fell by the wayside. Then in the last few weeks, he got a chance to prove his worth in a rotation role, which might have actually been the worst thing that could have happened to him at this point.
The signing of Gorgui Dieng in the buyout market is a clear signal that the Spurs feel they need help down low. It’s an understandable decision, since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge left them extremely thin at the center position, but it also probably means that they feel Eubanks is simply not equipped to handle the available minutes. The numbers suggest as much, since the team is an abject disaster on offense when he’s on the court and doesn’t do well enough on defense to offset that issue. There are some lineups that include him that work, namely all sub units, and garbage time might be hurting his net rating, but in general Eubanks hasn’t inspired a lot of confidence on his ability to be a rotation player.
There are flashes of good play, in short bursts, that produce enough highlights to keep everyone intrigued by Eubanks. The Spurs were right to want a closer look. On defense he blocks a ridiculous amount of shots, posting essentially the same block percentage as Clint Capela. On the other end, he tries to dunk everything he touches close to the basket, showing off his explosiveness.
But Eubanks’ limitations are made bear in the same highlight plays that make him stand out. A lot of his field goals are dunks, because he has to be close to the basket at all times, since he has very little range. He blocks shots in impressive manner because he always has to jump to bother attempts, since he doesn’t have the length to do so without leaping. At times, his motor is enough to allow him to overcome his limitations, but just as often he looks outmatched. While intended as a compliment, DeMar DeRozan describing Eubanks’ play as watching a guy riding a mechanical bull actually depicts accurately how out of control and energetic without much purpose or rhythm the big man can be at times.
Eubanks’ situation exemplifies how fragile the careers of fringe NBA players can be. By all accounts, he’s done everything right. He paid his dues in the G-League, was a positive influence in the locker room, was productive on the court on a very small role and has improved. First round picks from his draft class are out of the league already, but Eubanks is still around because while having arguably less potential than, say, Dzanan Musa and Jacob Evans, he landed on a good situation and made the most of it. He’s not a terrible or inviable player by any means, either — just not special or ready for a significant role yet, and that might be enough to supersede all the good things he’s done in the past.
This stretch in which the team had to rely on him has exposed Eubanks’ skill caps and might have made it more unlikely that they’ll keep him long term, which is a cruel twist. As a third big who checked in when there was extreme foul trouble or was bumped to back up duty for a handful of games when someone was out, the scrutiny of him was almost non-existent. Eubanks just had to be solid enough to keep the focus off him. As soon as the spotlight reached him as he was asked to give the team rotation minutes consistently, hiding became impossible. The results were so unimpressive that when the Spurs needed a big man the most to fill an obvious void, Eubanks actually played slightly less than he did when LaMarcus Aldridge was around.
Funnily enough, the return of Dieng could be the thing that helps Eubanks’ future prospects as an NBA player the most. It should allow him to go back into the shadows for the most part while providing a jolt of energy when called upon for short stretches. In certain matchups he could be useful, and anything he provides can go back to being seen as a bonus. Opinions on him would likely switch, as he’d be actually qualified for the role he’ll have. If the Spurs do well and make it to the play-in tournament maybe they’ll keep him for next year in hopes of some more marginal improvement or maybe another team decides to take a chance on a young, athletic big with San Antonio pedigree, just like the Kings did last season with Chimezie Metu.
Eubanks, through hard work, luck and being in an ideal environment got to go from undrafted prospect to G-League standout to a guaranteed contract. But opportunities can be a double-edged sword in the NBA and circumstances are everything for those who don’t have the skills to single-handedly change them to better suit them.
Normally getting a chance to take the next step is a good thing, but for someone like Eubanks, right now, at this stage of his career, it would have probably been better to just sit in the background and remain a mystery rather than be revealed as just another energetic, hard-working, deeply flawed fringe NBA big.