As it tends to happen at this point in the offseason, we are starting to get videos and photos of workouts from players, carefully leaked to hype up the fans for the next season. In the Spurs’ case, a picture of a buff Luka Samanic was the one to make the rounds.
The difference in physique compared to how he looked when he was drafted is striking, which provides a good reminder of how much of a project he was back then, as well as some extra bit of hope that he’ll finally be ready to make his mark next season, which will be a make-or-break one for the Croatian big man.
The front office has been very patient with Samanic’s lack of production so far, picking up his third-year option, but at some point they will need their faith validated. Samanic finds himself entering his third season at age 22 but with not a lot of experience and only one year left on his rookie contract after next, a team option that the Spurs could simply decline. He’s not a project anymore and won’t likely be treated as such, so it’s time for him to show real progress and, more importantly, consistency if he’s going to become an important player for these rebuilding Spurs, or it would be tough to make a case for him to stay around past 2021/22. It seems like he’s physically ready now, which is encouraging, but the two biggest hurdles for him in the past have been a lack of consistency and a lack of opportunity.
Luckily for him, the latter shouldn’t be an issue anymore. LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay are gone. Thaddeus Young might be on the move as well, and it would be surprising if Al-Farouq Aminu is in the rotation (or even the roster) on opening night. That leaves Johnson, Doug McDermott and potentially Zach Collins as real competition for minutes for Samanic. The first two are on the small side for the power forward position while Collins, after two ankle injuries, might lack the foot speed to play anything but center. Assuming some contender actually makes a good enough offer to grab Young, and Aminu finds his way out of San Antonio, Samanic would be the only natural power forward on the roster. The Spurs might decide to continue starting small, with McDermott and Johnson at the two forward spots, but at least off the bench there should be some opportunities for Samanic.
The consistency problem might be harder to solve. Samanic appears to be a momentum player who can string together several good possessions in a row but can just as easily get down on himself and become passive and hesitant. The concerns about his motor and mindset came up in draft profiles two years ago and haven’t been disproved, although the lack of a fixed role in San Antonio might have exacerbated the issue. There is one stretch from last season that provides reasons for optimism about how Luka would look with regular playing time. In five straight games in which he got more than 10 minutes a night, Samanic averaged seven points and five rebounds while shooting around league average from beyond the arc and playing tremendous defense. In his first real shot at consistent minutes he didn’t blow anyone away, but he definitely looked like he belonged.
If those five games are a glimpse of what Samanic can do given the chance, he could become a big part of next year’s puzzle because of his unique skill set. If the outside shooting ability that he’s teased becomes a reality, he’d allow the Spurs to stay big while keeping the floor spaced. Samanic has showed a willingness to let it fly if he’s open despite so far hitting less than one in three attempts, so all he needs is to raise his percentage to the mid-30s mark to become a real threat. Even if he doesn’t, the fact that he might be flanked by more accomplished big man shooters like Jock Landale and, to an extent, Collins, could mean that the paint will be open for Samanic to drive if he’s guarded by a natural big, or post up if his defender is smaller. His versatility, which has mostly been theoretical so far, could earn him minutes if he shows aggression.
Samanic enters a crucial season that could determine how the rest of his career goes, and it seems like he’s putting in work to be ready for it. Unless something changes drastically between now and opening night, he should have a real opportunity to get the minutes necessary to show that he can be a consistent contributor.
Since it might be his last chance to prove he belongs in the NBA, and the Spurs definitely have a need for a player with his characteristics, hopefully a breakout year is coming to reward the franchise’s patience.