For the second year in a row the Spurs find themselves drafting inside the lottery, a position of opportunity and, you’d think, some urgency for an organization used to selecting much later. With that comes plenty of speculation from fans on what Brian Wright and the rest of the Spurs’ braintrust are looking to do with the 12th and 41st picks.
And because the Spurs are the Spurs, speculate is all we usually can do. Information around the organization’s intentions is routinely scarce, which leaves us filling in the blanks with interview and workout reports (shoutout to Noah’s great work there) and what we know about the team’s past and present. Fellow Pounder Walker Bailey and I were already talking draft over DMs, so we decided to speculate a little louder in the leadup to July 29th, starting here with a focus on what the past can tell us about the team’s approach to draft night.
That recent history provides a helpful lens into some combination of their process, philosophy, and scouting as well as a yearly reflection of how they see their roster needs. It’s also meaningful because the timeline for the team’s current youth movement, dating back to Dejounte Murray’s selection in 2016, aligns with the arrival of Wright, who’s an interesting figure both because of his role, reputation and increased visibility. Here he is speaking on the selection of Devin Vassell at 11th last year:
Speed, length, shooting ability all hold value, so we’ll continue to look for those things... I think the league has really changed where you look at guys as one-position players—you’re either a 1, 2, 3, 4 or a 5. I think what you see now is you’ve got guards, you’ve got wings and you’ve got bigs, and depending on who they’re playing with you diversify. And you want guys who are versatile, who can play multiple positions. I think with Devin for sure he can play across multiple positions. As he gets stronger, he’ll be able to do that even more.”
Walker, looking back over this recent stretch, what themes if any have you noticed in how the Spurs have drafted? Are there any priorities or preferences you see coloring how they head into this year?
Walker Bailey: You’d notice exactly what GM Brian Wright was talking about. They’ve drafted versatile prospects who can play numbers of different positions. Another thing is that the Spurs long had the reputation of drafting players from overseas, but under Wright that hasn’t been the case. Since 2016, the only player not selected from a NCAA school was Luka Samanic. So when you look towards 2021, you’d think at 12 that they’ll be looking towards versatile wing types who can play anywhere 1-4. Especially with the pressing need for a big wing on this roster.
Bruno: That’s a good point about the front office’s sights potentially shifting domestic. Maybe it has to do with the rest of the league catching up with San Antonio in its scouting efforts overseas, maybe not, but it’s not like the team isn’t continuing to look for market inefficiencies to exploit: when talking the Keldon Johnson selection a few years ago, RC Buford noted that players that go through the UK program often have untapped potential due to how talented John Calipari’s teams often are. That pick, at the end of the first round, appears to have worked out well.
The point of versatility definitely tracks. From Murray to White to Walker to Johnson and Vassell, all players profiled as useful defenders who could guard multiple positions and do a bit of everything on offense. They’re interchangeable, switchable and facilitate cobbling together lineups in a number of ways, which is why Pop leaned into his drive-and-kick system so much last season. On the offensive end, few possess specialized skills as isolation scorers, pick and roll creators, or shooters, whether standing still or off movement. If they were kitchenware, they’d be sporks. And sporks are still pretty great.
That said, can a team that now has amassed a lot of these guys, but now faces deficiencies in outside shooting and playmaking (whether or not DeMar DeRozan leaves), chase that type of player again? Can you have too many sporks?
Walker: You can have too many, and I think that’s a problem that San Antonio is running into. I don’t think that they can afford to go that route again. With the current roster construction, you’re looking at starting Murray, White, and Johnson while still seeking minutes for Vassell, Walker, and even Tre Jones if you want to throw his name in the proverbial hat. I think that the premise of versatility is a strong one, but there’s more than one way to be versatile.
The target here should be more someone who can switch 3-5, and offer that versatility as a larger player. Primary creation is a large issue but with a rebuilding team, and the Spurs are rebuilding, but you’re not going to solve all of your issues in one draft. I think Brian Wright and Co. are in a place where they have strong, versatile lineup options, but none of those options present top level NBA talent. The organization is in a place where they need both a first and second option, and I am of the opinion that those options are not on the roster. I think in this draft you have to look at some of the large wings that can score, and hope that you can turn that prospect into a viable top line scoring option in the NBA. It’s a player ascension pattern we’ve seen happen before in San Antonio, so it can absolutely be done. That presents the question though, how strongly do the Spurs consider trading up?
Bruno: That’s a big question, and it ties into a bigger one of how they view this roster and young core going forward. We can unpack the options and need to trade up later, but let’s frame this back within how they’ve approached the draft in the Brian Wright Era. There have been no trade-ups, obviously, but how would you characterize the nature of their picks — in both rounds? Consensus value plays? Well-scouted gems? How out of character would a bigger swing that pairs higher reward with higher risk?
Walker: I think it would fall under consistent value plays. It seems like they’ve taken a true “best player available” approach and that’s great in the beginning of a rebuild, but we’ve gotten to a point where they have five or six similar types of players from a position standpoint, and none of them are leaps and bounds ahead of the others. It’s a tough situation to be in, but they almost certainly have to take someone with significant size in this draft, and said prospect is going to have to play fairly significant minutes throughout their rookie campaign. I don’t think the Spurs can take the “best player available” approach that Wright is accustomed to, because what if that player is a guard? If the Spurs select a guard it feels almost certain that a substantial trade would be on the horizon. So, I think this year is a critical time for Wright, because he’s going to have to shift gears with this 2021 draft, and do something that he’s not used to doing.
Bruno: I don’t disagree. It’s also a little concerning that for all the guards this team has, we’re not sure anyone is built to be (or grow into being) the focal point of a good offense. And again, that makes sense for where this team’s drafted in the past and how they’ve been able to find and develop most of these prospects until now.
So let’s close this on a hypothetical. Setting aside new roster needs and any positional logjams — the team has like you said gone more of a best player available approach anyway — and using history and Wright’s quote as something of a lens, let’s each pick a player that would most fit their draft profile? Not necessarily the one we like the most, or who makes the most sense, but the one an algorithm might spit out if we use the past 5 years as data points. Let’s also use players who are realistically getting mocked outside the top 8 or 10.
I’ll go first: Michigan’s Franz Wagner. Few major holes in his game; appears to have a fairly safe floor; defends well; doesn’t really fit into the traditional 1 through 5 positional paradigm but he gives you a bit of everything; even has an international background to boot. Who would you go with?
Walker: I’ll go with Duke’s Jalen Johnson. Johnson gives you positional versatility and he’s a strong defender. He’s not a strong shooter, but that hasn’t stopped San Antonio in any of the Brian Wright drafts. Johnson has only played stateside so there’s no international flare there, but as I’ve said before I’m not sure that matters anymore. The Spurs have shown confidence in their ability to develop players outside shooting ability, and that may very well be the case again in this draft with a prospect like Jalen Johnson.