clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The curious case of Nikola Milutinov: the Spurs pick who never reached the NBA

Nikola Milutinov is the only active draft-and-stash prospect selected in the first round to never make it to the NBA. Was his selection by the Spurs a mistake or just bad timing?

CSKA Moscow v Zalgiris Kaunas - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Mikhail Serbin/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

Leandro Bolmaro, the 23rd overall pick in the 2020 draft, has signed with the Timberwolves. This development, which seemingly has nothing to do with the Spurs, actually created a situation that is both curious and relevant to the Silver and Black.

Now that Bolmaro is in the NBA, the only first rounder draft-and-stash prospect that remains active and without having made the leap across the pond at any point* is Nikola Milutinov, who San Antonio picked with the 26th overall pick in 2015.

(*Petteri Koponen, the 33-year-old 30th pick in the 2007 draft, is still active and the Mavericks have his rights, but he made it to the court in Summer League whereas Milutinov has not participated in any NBA-related events.)

For an organization who has a well-earned reputation for finding talent both in the bottom of the first round and overseas, the fact that Milutinov, now 26 years old and playing in Russia, was essentially a completely wasted pick is a rare black mark. Mind you, the pick at the time made sense, since it was made when the Spurs were building around Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, not to mention they still had the Big Three and a good supporting cast in tow. Milutinov seemed like a smart stash option, too, and in fact ended up being a good selection in the sense that he developed into a very solid rotation big in Europe. But that only makes the fact that he never joined the franchise all the more strange.

According to Milutinov, the Spurs were the ones who didn’t want to make it happen. “They were never serious about taking me and I can’t go there by myself,” he said in a 2020 interview. That’s a very strong statement, but the question is what he meant by “serious.” It’s possible San Antonio wanted to bring him over on a small contract, but since he was not bound by the rookie scale after spending three years unsigned following his selection, the two parties could never come to an agreement. That scenario certainly makes more sense than the Spurs essentially forgetting about the pick or not being at all interested in an athletic shot-blocker, finisher and offensive rebounder, especially since the team needed big man depth in the years following his selection.

Maybe Milutinov is right and there was something the Spurs didn’t like about his game, and that’s all. It’s hard to tell exactly what, however, because Milutinov improved greatly as a player overseas over the years, eventually earning big minutes for powerhouse Olympiakos before joining another European giant in CSKA. He never developed a jump shot, but he was not supposed to, as he was clearly a traditional pick and roll center. Unless he refused to sign a rookie scale contract and asked for a lot of money for an untested player, he made sense as a depth addition at the very least, since his game fit the NBA well, at least on offense. If the Spurs didn’t want him, shopping his rights for a second rounder would have been wise. He was never going to be a star, but he could have made a good backup.

There is also a simpler possible explanation for the entire situation: Milutinov might have been a Sean Marks pick. Marks was the assistant GM when the big man was selected but left the Spurs in 2016. Brian Wright took over the spot when Marks left, inheriting a stashed first rounder he possibly was not a fan of. Without Marks advocating for Milutinov, General Manager R.C. Buford might have simply decided to not make the signing of the center a priority, as Milutinov claims. The fact that Marks, now the general manager for the Nets, recently asked for the rights to Milutinov to be included in the five-team trade that included the Spurs and sent Spencer Dinwiddie to the Wizards, lends validity to the theory. Had Marks stayed around, maybe Milutinov would have worn Silver and Black.

Regardless of why it happened, the fact remains that the Spurs turned a first round pick into no production whatsoever and only received a second round pick and the since-waived Chandler Hutchinson in return, despite the big man actually panning out as a prospect. It’s not a huge blunder, especially compared to a similar but more damning situation like the Magic selecting Fran Vazquez with the eleventh overall pick and never getting him to play in Orlando, but it still stands out as the rare occurrence of the Spurs essentially wasting resources.

Milutinov would not have changed the fate of the franchise, and he might never make it to the NBA now, since he recently signed a long term deal with one of the biggest clubs in Europe. He’s not “The One That Got Away”, like Luis Scola was for years, nor an international superstar that we missed out on seeing in the NBA. like Dejan Bodiroga. He’s just a good center who stayed in Europe.

But he’s also a symbol of the minor but uncharacteristic mistakes the franchise made during their front office revamp. Fortunately, the new administration seems to be on firmer footing now, so hopefully they’ll get so many hits in the near future that this curious miss becomes a complete afterthought soon — if it isn’t already.