The San Antonio Spurs have long had a reputation for making “all the right moves”, but of course no team is perfect. There can always be a free agent or draft pick that seemed right at the time but didn’t work out. Today we will be looking at few such Spurs, from players we loved and wanted to work out but didn’t, to ones that needed to work for the team’s sake or reputation but failed.
When the Spurs first signed Pau Gasol in 2016, it was a comforting move. With Tim Duncan having just retired and the Spurs looking to add another center to pair with LaMarcus Aldridge (who at the time only saw himself as a power forward, plus they were working to talk him off the trade request ledge), they brought in Gasol, who was coming off two straight All Star appearances in Chicago. A selfless player from Spain and always active in the community, Gasol had always seemed like he’d make a great Spur.
It felt like a good signing at the time, and for half a season it seemingly was. Gasol proved to be capable three-point shooter as stretch-fives were just becoming in vogue, making the imperfect fit next to Aldridge good enough as the Spurs contended for another championship. Unfortunately, Gasol suffered a shoulder injury midway through the season, and he was never quite the same after that. He again started most of the 2017-18 season, but his three-point shooting dipped from over 53% the previous season to just 36% on the same number of attempts, and his age was showing in other areas (such as overall versatility).
Finally, by 2018-19, it was clear that without a three-point shot, the 38-year-old Gasol was no longer a useful asset, and the Spurs traded him to the Bucks midway through the season while moving forward with the much younger Jakob Poeltl as their main center. By then, fans were ready to move on too, but it was still sad that things didn’t go as planned with Gasol. He always one of the most likeable human beings in the NBA and would have been the perfect Spur earlier in his career, but unfortunately, his age and imperfect fit with Aldridge meant it just wasn’t meant to be.
If there was a silver lining to that rough 2017-18 season, when the Spurs finished as a 7th seed (in hindsight pretty impressive considering the circumstances), it was that they got their highest draft pick in 21 years, selecting Lonnie Walker IV out of Miami with the 18th overall pick. While raw, Walker was a high-flying wing who would seemingly infuse the Spurs with some athleticism and excitement that had been lacking. It only helped that he was extremely likeable from the outset and immediately embraced the San Antonio community.
He endeared himself to fans even further when he had his breakout game in a wild outing against the Rockets his rookie season, scoring 19 points in the fourth quarter to secure the dramatic victory. Unfortunately, that would end up being the highlight of his Spurs career. Despite having a steady role beginning his second season, he was an inconsistent presence, his shooting numbers slowly dipped each season, and Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell eventually surpassed him in the rotation.
By the end of Walker’s rookie contract, both sides were ready for change. At his request, the Spurs allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent, and he sign a one-year deal with the Lakers for the mini midlevel exception. He again was okay for them last season but fell out of their starting rotation (although he did give them one big game in the playoffs), and he’s now headed to the Nets on a minimum deal for the 2023-24 season. As an extremely likeable person with seemingly so much untapped potential, Spurs fans still wish Walker had made it with the team, but he just didn’t.
Luka Samanic and Josh Primo
Even though the reasons they didn’t work out are vastly different, these two are being clumped together because they both fall into the same category: confusing draft picks that tested Spurs fans’ trust, but we wanted them to succeed to keep PATFO’s sterling draft reputation intact. If the Spurs could make so many picks in the late in the first round exceed expectations, why not more talented ones further up the boards? The problem is the higher the pick, the less room for experimentation, and both Luka Samanic and Josh Primo were experimental picks based on potential that was unseen by most other franchises.
Samanic was at least a somewhat justifiable pick at the time. The 19th pick overall pick doesn’t carry the highest expectations, he fit a positional need, and rumor has it that other teams in the 20’s were also looking at him, hence why the Spurs chose him then and saved the 29th pick for Johnson. Unfortunately, Samanic’s motor and work ethic was low, he seemingly got discouraged too easily, and he was waived in the 2021 preseason. While it wasn’t exactly painful for fans when he was released (he hadn’t endeared himself in any way), he was a rare draft bust for the Spurs, and there would probably be a lot more criticism surrounding this draft it if weren’t for Johnson saving face.
On the other hand, Primo was a much less justifiable pick at 12th overall considering he wasn’t even on anyone else’s radar as a first round pick. Still, despite being the youngest player in the 2021 draft, he didn’t take long to win fans over with some flashes of potential in the preseason and sprinkled throughout his rookie year, but then we was shockingly waived early in the 2022-23 season for what would turn out to be inappropriate behavior towards women, including the team psychologist Dr. Hillary Cauthen. Fans had fallen in love with the baby-faced guard and his potential, so it was a heartbreaking situation and the second draft bust in three years for the Spurs.
What do you say, Pounders? Are there any other players the Spurs signed or drafted that you really liked and were hoping would succeed, but it just didn’t work out for whatever reason? Let us know in the comments below.