As the draft approaches, recent rumors have emerged that suggest the Spurs are considering selecting a center with the ninth pick. Despite clearly having a hole at the big forward position, it seems like the front office might prioritize size in the interior over length on the perimeter.
For some members of the fan base, potentially passing up prospects that would fill a need like Jeremy Sochan or Ousmani Dieng, to name a few, would be a tough sell. However, a closer look at the Spurs’ center situation suggests that going for a talented big man might actually be a smart decision, for several reasons.
The Spurs’ center situation is filled with uncertainty
The biggest reason to object to picking a big man in the lottery is that the Spurs already have a good starter in place in Jakob Poeltl and found success with Zach Collins as a backup last season. They are both in the early stages of their primes, and with the league trending smaller, having two capable big men should be enough.
Unfortunately, both centers have some question marks around them going forward. With Collins, his health has been a huge concern for most of his career. He seemed to put those issues to rest last season, at least for a while, but it’s unclear if his body will endure the stress of a full NBA season at this point, since he hasn’t faced that challenge since 2019. Considering how awful the team fared when Poeltl rested before Collins was available, shoring up the depth at center in case of injury seems smart. If Collins does stay healthy, he could be a fantastic backup for next season and the one after for a great price, but at this stage of the rebuild, San Antonio has to look further into the future than the next couple of years.
If the uncertainty only involved the backup center, this conversation would be moot because using a lottery pick on a player that is expected to be on the court for 20 minutes per game tops would be foolish. But Poeltl’s future contract situation adds an element of volatility to the equation. The big man has said he wants to stay in San Antonio, but as he enters the last year of his contract, he could be a good trade chip that could interest a contender looking for a final piece of the puzzle. Even if he finishes the 2022/23 season with the Spurs, he’s not a lock to return. He’ll be 28 years old then and due for a raise. If San Antonio doesn’t make the playoffs, would it make sense to pay him and sign him long term when a significant part of the roster will be much younger? It’s a valid question.
The Spurs are not necessarily in desperate need of a center right now, but they could be soon. If someone worth taking is there at 9th, it could be smart to grab them. Which leads us to...
The Spurs might simply believe the best player available at 9th is a center
The argument for the Spurs to simply draft a center because they might need one in the future is as flawed as the one that advocates for them to select a big forward now only because they don’t currently have one. Both are based on picking primarily for need instead of upside, which is almost always a bad idea. The case for drafting Jalen Duren or Mark Williams, however, is not close to solely relying on positional fit.
The two traditional centers that are reportedly in the mix to be selected with the ninth pick are actually intriguing prospects worthy of consideration in the lottery. Duren is the youngest American player in the draft. While he looked a little lost in his sole year of college, especially when defending in space, his physical tools and upside as a versatile two-way force are obvious. At worst, he should become a lob threat who can offer rim protection, but some experts believe he could even develop a jumper. Williams doesn’t project to have as much range on either end, but he could become an elite interior presence who gets his offense on the pick and roll and dump-offs and shuts down the paint in drop coverage. There are no guarantees in the draft, but neither of them seem like big reaches late in the lottery.
There are other centers that could be available later in the first round, where the Spurs have two picks. They don’t have the same perceived upside as the other two, but it’s easy to buy into the reasoning that picking a forward at ninth and one of the other bigs later is smart asset management. Considering Poeltl will likely be around for at least one more year, going the draft-and-stash route with one of the international centers might also seem enticing.
Unfortunately, both options fall into the trap of making positional fit a huge factor when using a pick, which is not as inadvisable later in the draft but is arguably still not the best way to make a decision. If the Spurs think either Duren or Williams is the best player available at ninth, the fact that Walker Kessler might be there at 20 shouldn't really affect their thought process.
The days and weeks before the draft are filled with rumors that go nowhere, and the Spurs’ interest in traditional centers might be one of them. Newer reports suggest that Ousmane Dieng might be their guy, and it wouldn’t be surprising if someone else is mentioned as a target before San Antonio is on the clock. No one really knows what will happen.
However, if the Spurs do in fact go with a big man at ninth, it won’t mean that they made a mistake or were shortsighted. There are reasons to believe that it might actually be the correct decision, even if the depth chart doesn’t look all that balanced in the immediate aftermath of the pick.