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What we learned from the Spurs’ 2022 draft day decisions

The Spurs added three rookies who will be on the roster next season, which was a little surprising and could inform what they do in free agency.

NBA: Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs had a busy draft night, using all three of their first round picks and trading their second rounder for a future one. They will roster three rookies in 2022/23, who will be joining a very young group that was already in place.

Free agency is only days away, and a lot could change once it hits, but now that a few days have passed since the draft, it’s time to look at where the roster stands and what the draft taught us about the direction the Spurs seem to be following.

The Spurs seem to be moving away from the draft-and-stash route

Before talking about the players the Spurs actually selected and how they fit, it might be interesting to look at what they didn’t do: stash a prospect in Europe. Despite having four picks in the top 40, San Antonio selected three rookies that will join immediately and traded the remaining pick.

It shouldn’t be too surprising, since the Spurs haven’t gone the draft-and-stash route since 2015, and Brian Wright has never drafted a FIBA prospect since becoming general manager, but San Antonio’s history and the amount of picks they had available makes it notable.

It’s understandable for the Spurs to move away from a strategy that helped them in the past now that every team heavily scouts for international talent, negating the advantage San Antonio used to have. The team’s recent lack of success with draft-and-stash first round picks probably didn’t help, either. Livio Jean-Charles was a disappointment, partially because of injuries, while Nikola Milutinov blossomed into a very productive player but never made the leap to the NBA. Luka Samanic joined the team immediately, but just like the other recent European first round picks, he didn’t pan out in San Antonio. In contrast, most of the recent college basketball selections have done well, so it would not be unfair to say that the Silver and Black are currently better at finding talent in the NCAA than they are in Europe and prefer to go with domestic prospects.

Of course it’s also possible the Spurs simply didn’t like any of the international prospects that were available as draft-and-stash options in the two drafts in which Wright has been calling the shots, especially in the first round. Gabriele Procida, who they had shown some interest in, was gone when they picked in the second round in 2022, and there were only five international prospects selected after Joe Wieskamp in 2021. But it might be time to put to rest the meme about the Spurs always salivating over obscure European prospects, because it currently doesn’t match reality.

The draft made parting ways with Lonnie Walker IV more likely

The Spurs picked two guards in the bottom third of the first round that have a few things in common. Both are extremely young at just 19 years of age, both are about the same size, with Blake Wesley standing at 6’4 and Malaki Branham standing at 6’5”, and both should be good with the ball in their hands.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize who those two selections make expendable, at least when thinking about the future. Lonnie Walker IV is about to become a free agent, and there might not be room for him in San Antonio if the idea is for the rookies and Josh Primo to get minutes and eventually grow into rotation players.

Assuming the front office guarantees Tre Jones’ very affordable contract, the Spurs will have eight players who have measured as 6’5” or shorter on their roster, not counting Walker. Not everyone will get playing time in the backcourt, especially with Dejounte Murray likely to get at least 30 minutes at point guard. Some of those players have the length to slide up to small forward easily, but with Jeremy Sochan likely playing power forward and Doug McDermott and Keldon Johnson still around, there shouldn’t be a ton of minutes at the forward spots available either. The Spurs could move someone or simply let both rookie guards develop in Austin to clear the logjam, but even then, it might simply not be smart to make a long-term commitment to Walker with three similar but younger, cheaper players on the roster.

It’s possible the Spurs agree but don’t want to let Walker leave and get nothing back for him. In that case, they could sign Walker with the intention to trade him later, like the Nuggets did with Nene years ago, but doing so could create an awkward situation in which both player and team have to stay together for three months — the earliest they would be allowed to trade Walker after re-signing him — despite clearly knowing that there’s no future there. A sign-and-trade might be a better option, if the Spurs are ready to move on but want something in return, since it would allow both parties to move on before the season.

What happens to Walker might just come down to how real the front office thinks his stellar stretch after the trade deadline really was. If they think he can consistently reach those levels, it would be completely justifiable to give him minutes at the expense of the younger guards they recently selected. If they don’t, it might be best to focus on developing Lonnie’s potential replacements sooner rather than later.