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Ranking all Spurs first round draft picks from the Gregg Popovich era

The Spurs made a living in the back of the draft for years before drafting out a solid young core for the future.

Milwaukee Bucks v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

It’s Draft Night, and for only the third time in franchise history, the Spurs are picking first overall. It’s an absolute no brainer who they will be picking in French phenom Victor Wembanyama. In years past, with their picks ranging anywhere from the late lottery the end of the first round, it has always been a mystery who the Spurs will select right up until the announcement was made.

Regardless of where they picked, the Spurs have built a reputation for surprising with unconventional picks or snatching players others were skeptical of and turning them into great players. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to look at all the first round picks from the Gregg Popovich era and place them in tiers, from the rare bust to absolute steal.

But first, a quick shoutout to the picks we never saw in a Spurs uniform:

  • Felipe Lopez — 24th, 1998: Who, you may ask? While Lopez was traded to the Vancouver Grizzlies after he was drafted, that was the deal that brought Antonio Daniels to San Antonio, so he actually played a bigger role here than you think!
  • John Salmons — 26th, 2002: Most fans probably remember Salmons as a solid NBA player but forget the Spurs drafted him, as he was immediately traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in return for Speedy Claxton.
  • Leandro Barbosa — 28th, 2003: Coming off their second championship, the Spurs traded his rights to the Suns for a future protected pick. It was understandable at the time considering they thought they were set at SG, but in hindsight this is one the Spurs could have happily kept.
  • Nikola Milutinov — 26th, 2015: One of many draft-and-stashes, the Spurs didn’t need another big man in 2015, and rumor has it that when they did try to bring Milutinov over, they could never reach a contract agreement since the Euros were offering more.

Too early to tell

  • Jeremy Sochan — 9th, 2022: This is where all of last year’s rookies will fall for obvious reasons, but Sochan showed massive improvement during his rookie season and is expected to be a part of the main core going forward.
  • Malaki Branham — 20th, 2022: Branham also showed improvement during his first season as his role grew and he was free to take/create his own shots. Nothing stands out, but he is already a very solid role player.
  • Blake Wesley — 25th, 2022: A knee injury derailed the first half of his rookie season, and he struggled throughout the second half while looking extremely raw. The potential is there, but there’s still plenty of work to do.

Bust / did not meet expectations

  • Ian Mahinmi — 28th, 2005: A surprising pick considering he wasn’t among the 128 players listed in the league’s draft guide, he didn’t arrive until 2007, was immediately hampered by injuries and traded after just two years. While Mahinmi went on to have a solid NBA career elsewhere, he didn’t become the next center to pair with Tim Duncan like they’d hoped.
  • James Anderson — 20th, 2010: For six games, it looked like the Spurs had found their shooting guard of the future in the former Big 12 Player of the Year. Unfortunately, a stress fracture in his foot all but derailed his career, as he never looked the same after that.
  • Livio Jean-Charles — 28th, 2013: Another surprising pick, LJC never actually played in a regular season NBA game, but he’s here instead of above because he did in fact sign with the Spurs in 2016 before being waived after five preseason games. He appeared in Austin during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons but otherwise has remained overseas.
  • Luka Samanic — 19th, 2019: Everyone accepted that the Spurs went with potential and positional need with this pick, but it just didn’t pan out. They even brought Samanic in right away instead of stashing him overseas to work with him directly, but his work ethic reportedly held him back before he was waived after just two seasons.
  • Joshua Primo — 12th, 2021: No one knew what the Spurs were doing when they selected the youngest player in the draft who was barely considered a first round pick, and while he quickly won fans over with his potential, off-court scandal did him in, and he was out of the league early in his second season.

Good pick for the spot / met expectations

  • Beno Udrih — 28th, 2004: Udrih was a solid backup point guard to Tony Parker for three seasons but was nothing special, which is exactly what is expected at the end of the first round.
  • Tiago Splitter — 28th, 2007: This one is tough. Splitter’s contributions to the 2014 championship team (and it was a lot more than many give him credit for) makes me want to put him in the next category, and he was certainly better than a lot of 28th overall picks, but his playing time was often dictated by matchups as the NBA changed around him, plus his career was unfortunately cut short by injury.
  • Cory Joseph — 29th, 2011: Kawhi Leonard got all the attention in that draft, but CoJo ended up being a solid pick for the spot and was always ready when called upon, most notably in the 2014 championship run when Parker needed breathers, but his career as a solid NBA PG blossomed more once he left.
  • Lonnie Walker — 18th, 2018: Another hard one, it almost feels like the jury is still out on Walker if only because it seems he has yet to meet his true potential, but it has been five years. With the Spurs, he was simply a solid role player who showed brief flashes of greatness, which is generally what’s expected of a non-lottery pick, but there is still a level of disappointment that he hasn’t done more.
  • Devin Vassell — 11th, 2020: Vassell is well on his way to the next category, but with just three seasons under his belt (only one of which he played a primary role, all while dealing with injuries), it still feels a tad premature. He also has the added pressure of being the Spurs’ first lottery pick in decades, which shifts the expectations up a notch, but he is well on his way to being a keeper.

Exceeded Expectations

  • Tim Duncan — 1st, 1997: Even though he was selected first overall, where expectations are already high, and he was considered a premiere talent that everyone wanted when he arrived, probably no one expected Timmy to have the career he did. He literally changed the franchise.
  • Kyle Anderson — 30th, 2014: Expected to go closer to the lottery, Slow Mo fell all the way to the Spurs, likely due to teams being unsure of how to use him — he possessed super skills but seemed too slow for an NBA guard while lacking the agility of a wing. He proved everyone wrong and turned into a multitool who could play all five positions. Most 2014 redrafts now have him going in the top 10.
  • Keldon Johnson — 29th, 2019: KJ could very well move into the “steal” category when all is said and done, but we’ll refrain for now since he’s only entering his 5th NBA season. Still, he has far exceeded expectations of any 29th overall pick and is still improving as he enters his first big NBA contract.

Steal of the draft

  • Tony Parker — 28th, 2001: What more needs to be said? The Spurs set up shop at the end of the first round during the height of their dynasty where they could swing for the fences, and they hit a home run here. Parker turned into a Hall of Famer and was the first of many steals in this part of the draft for the Spurs.
  • George Hill — 26th, 2008: An unknown from tiny IUIPUI, Hill was probably the greatest backup point guard the Spurs have had (at least before Patty Mills) and at times even looked like a threat to Parker’s job. Even if trading him paid off since it brought in Leonard, it was one of the more heartbreaking moments for Spurs fans.
  • Dejounte Murray — 29th, 2016: Everyone knows his story. Another projected lottery pick who fell the Spurs, Murray overtook an aging Parker for starting PG and overcame a devastating knee injury to become an All-Star. No matter how it ended, he’s still one of the Spurs’ biggest draft-night steals.
  • Derrick White — 29th, 2017: Another one whose story everyone knows, White rose from not even receiving a division I scholarship offer to one of the best two-way role players in the NBA. As was the case with Hill, he’s another fan favorite, and tears were shed when he was traded.

Wow. It turns out the Spurs had a lot more first round picks in the last 26 years than I realized when I started writing this! Is there anything you would change, somewhere else you would put someone? (I know few were a struggle for me.) Feel free to discuss in the comments below, and get excited for the bug night tonight!