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Josh Primo is an unexpected gamble that could pay off for the Spurs

There were plenty of safer prospects available, but the Spurs front office decide to gamble on the potential of the youngest player in the draft.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

With the 12th pick of the 2021 NBA Draft, the Spurs selected Josh Primo, from Alabama. It was a move that surprised everyone but could pan out well for a San Antonio team looking for shotmaking and potential.

There are plenty of reasons to be a little worried about this pick. Primo, the youngest player in the draft, was projected to be a late first round pick by most experts, so grabbing him in the lottery could be considered a reach. The Spurs going for yet another player under 6’8 despite a clear need for forward depth could make the selection seem questionable, considering the other prospects available. Yet it’s undeniable that Primo could turn into a very good NBA player and, while not filling a positional need for San Antonio, he does fill an individual skill need by being a shotmaker.

In his freshman season in Alabama, the 6’6” guard averaged eight points on 50 percent from floor while connecting on 75 percent of his free throws and 38 percent of his three-pointers. He mostly played off the ball and clearly has the ability to connect from range when others create for him, which is a nice base skill to build on. If that was all he could do, he would still be an interesting prospect, considering his youth and physical tools, but he also flashed some playmaking potential leading up to the draft that suggests there’s untapped potential in his offensive game. At worst, it seems like Primo could be a floor-spacer who can hold his own on the other end. At best, he could become an all-around scorer who can provide some secondary creation for others.

The upside is there, and the Spurs clearly went for it. Seemingly safer prospects like Moses Moody and Corey Kispert were available if the Silver and Black were trying to add shooting, but San Antonio went for a riskier pick instead. It’s fair to wonder if there was a chance to trade down and get not only Primo but also another asset in the process, since he was projected to go outside of the lottery, but in an unpredictable draft in which there had been some surprises already, it’s hard to blame the front office for simply getting their guy. Similarly, some will gripe with the decision to go with yet another guard/wing, but the Spurs are clearly in talent acquisition mode, and if they felt Primo was a tier above the bigger forwards and big men available, they were right to get him and worry about roster balance later.

The big question is how they are going to develop the 18-year-old Canadian. Minutes with the big team might be hard to come by, since San Antonio has Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Devin Vassell and potentially Keldon Johnson slotted to get playing time at the shooting guard and small forward positions. A trade sending out at least one of those guys is certainly a possibility, but there have been no reports of anything imminent. If there’s no roster shakeup, Primo will probably spend most of his first year in Austin, which would test the patience of the fanbase. Yet with the Spurs’ high success rate of developing prospects in the G-League, it might be a good idea to simply let Primo refine his game, develop physically against lesser competition, and get ready for a bigger role as a sophomore. There’s no rush considering the depth the Spurs currently have.

The selection of such a young, raw player is definitely a surprise, but it also seems to be a sign that the Spurs are willing to fully commit to a slow rebuilding effort and a true youth movement. Whether Primo will reach his potential as a quality two-way player is unclear, but sometimes taking a risk pays off, and for a San Antonio team that already has safer prospects in tow at his position, gambling on a project with upside makes sense.

Surely few people believed Primo was going to be a Spur on draft night, but once the shock wears off, the pick starts to make some sense. San Antonio simply went for what, in the front office’s eye, was the best player available in terms of upside, which is hard to argue against. Hopefully the decision will look brilliant in retrospect, but even if it doesn’t, it should at least be defensible.