The San Antonio Spurs are surely still celebrating their convincing five-game victory over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Ditto the city itself, which now boasts more banners than all but three NBA franchises.
But that doesn’t mean San Antonio’s front office—led by general manager R.C. Buford and head coach Gregg Popovich—hasn’t been busy burning some extra midnight oil in the service of next season’s first true test: the NBA draft.
As things stand, the Spurs will have three picks Thursday night: No. 30, No. 58 and No. 60.
Think the defending champs are destined to walk away with little more than doomed training-camp flotsam? You certainly wouldn’t be alone.
Then again, you don’t have to go back very far—the No. 57 pick in 1999, in fact—to appreciate how second-round savvy these Spurs can be.
That was Manu Ginobili, in case you were wondering.
In a 2013 interview with the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald, Ginobili admitted even he was taken aback a bit when he heard who’d drafted him:
Someone woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me. I said, ‘They’re the defending NBA champions? Are you sure?’ I had no idea they were even looking at me. ... I was excited, for sure. But then again, at 57th, I knew the chances of playing were not that good.
Counterintuitive though it may sound, San Antonio’s status as a bona fide league elite actually gives it tremendous draft-day flexibility: Either it can play it safe and take players with the best chance of thriving in its famously pass-happy system, or it can swing for the fences on long-term upside.
Should San Antonio whiff, there’s scant chance Thursday’s decisions comes back to haunt it. But with one of the deepest drafts in recent memory at their feet, the Spurs stand as good a chance as anyone of finding that basketball diamond in the rough.
So who, exactly, should be on San Antonio’s radar?
While the No. 30 slot hasn’t exactly yielded a murderers’ row of talent in recent years, there have been some notable exceptions, including Jimmy Butler (2011), David Lee (2005) and Gilbert Arenas (2001).
Of course, any Spurs fan worth her salt knows what happened when San Antonio had the No. 28 pick back in 2001. We’ll give you a hint: He’s French and plays point guard.
There’s bound to be a handful of steals late in the first round. The question is whether it’s San Antonio’s dice roll that comes up seven.
1. Nikola Jokic, PF, Serbia
San Antonio’s fondness for European players is no secret. Not only do they often arrive stateside with NBA-ready games; even if they’re rough and raw, stashing them away for a few years—just like the Spurs did with Ginobili—can sometimes yield big dividends.
Jokic is a Spur in spirit through and through: a good shooter with excellent basketball smarts and a guard’s passing vision. At just 19 years old, Jokic may not be NBA ready...and that’s just fine by San Antonio.
2. Cleanthony Early, SF, Wichita State
Let’s be clear about one thing: This is going to be Kawhi Leonard’s team before long. As such, nobody this side of the next Larry Bird or LeBron James will be uprooting him from his small forward post.
But Early doesn’t need to be the heir apparent. If anything, his most notable NBA skill—scoring—is something any team can use, even if it’s off the bench.
There’s a decent chance Early falls this far in the first round, if for no other reason than there remains plenty who believe his stats at Wichita State were somehow inflated by virtue of the school's mid-major status. What better team on which to prove the doubters wrong than San Antonio?
3. Walter Tavares, C, Spain
Here’s what ESPN’s Chad Ford wrote about Tavares for his most recent mock draft (subscription required):
Tavares is getting a lot of buzz right now. He’s huge. He has amazing hands and is a defensive force as both a shot-blocker and rebounder. The Mavs need that sort of help on the front line right now, though Tavares might be more useful as a draft-and-stash pick.
That last line is the most important. With Tim Duncan having officially opted into the final year of his current deal, per Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, the Spurs don’t necessarily need another big for at least a year.
Playing another year (or two) abroad would give Tavares some much-needed development time to assure he has the best chance of his skills catching up with his no-doubt imposing physical presence—something Tiago Splitter knows a little something about.
Because San Antonio’s picks are (a) so far down the docket and (b) so close together, we’re lumping the top three prospects for each in one six-point list. When it’s this late in the draft, no mock draft in the world is good enough to predict how the dominoes will fall.
1. Damian Inglis, SF, France
We’ve already named two possible pick-and-stash candidates the Spurs could target in the first round. Get ready for a few more, starting with hyper-athletic Frenchman Damian Inglis.
He’s just 19 years old, but with a few more years of big-time ball overseas, Inglis could emerge as the next great second-round steal.
While it’s unlikely that Inglis falls this far, Round 2 often sees mock-draft darlings plummet unexpectedly. If he’s there this late—or if some team might be willing to take San Antonio’s two later picks in exchange for moving up—the Spurs absolutely have to pounce.
2. Bryce Cotton, PG, Providence
Sooner or later, the Spurs are going to need to think about a long-term replacement for Tony Parker, who, let’s not forget, has been logging Association miles since he was 19 years old.
That’s not to say Cotton is that guy, of course—hardly. But his scoring prowess and ability to penetrate warrant him a good hard look late in the second round. Besides, what better way to improve your skills as a playmaker than spending a few seasons backing up one of the NBA’s absolute best?
3. Artem Klimenko, C, Russia
"You'll notice there are a lot of foreign bigs available this year. Perhaps as much as any year we've ever seen. Klimenko is maybe the best value of all, given where he's projected as of now."
That’s what CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander had to say about Klimenko, a 7’1” Russian center and prime pick-and-stash candidate.
At just 20 years old, Klimenko probably won’t be called to NBA duty any time soon. But with a few more years playing against Europe’s top competition, he could be well worth a roster-spot flier whenever Tim Duncan decides to hang them up.
4. Semaj Christon, PG, Xavier
On paper, you’d be hard-pressed to find a starker Tony Parker photo negative than the hyper-athletic Christon. Both point guards top out at around 6’3”; that’s where the similarities end.
Like Cotton, Christon could stand to benefit from a few years under Parker’s wings—to learn the nuances of ball control and how to run a professional offense. With the return of Patty Mills still uncertain, it’s worth a second-rounder for Popovich to have some semblance of point guard insurance and depth.
5. Nemanja Dangubic, SF, Serbia
Unlike other possible stash prospects the Spurs could be targeting, Dangubic’s skill set lies less in savvy and intelligence than it does sheer athleticism and fearlessness. In this way, the Serbian small forward is a bit akin to Kawhi Leonard, although not quite the physical specimen.
We can almost guarantee that one of the Spurs’ picks—be it their first-rounder or one of their seconds—winds up getting stashed. As far as long-term upside goes, they don’t get much better than Dangubic.
6. Sean Kilpatrick, SG, Cincinnati
If you're the Spurs, what's your draft strategy?
Outside of Parker and Leonard, San Antonio has a history of emphasizing experience and maturity over youth and upside. Which is why Kilpatrick, the 24-year-old, high-usage scoring machine out of Cincinnati, could play well as the last pick in the draft.
Kilpatrick’s defense could use some work, but if there’s any environment where bad habits can be weeded out and new ones can sprout in their place, it’s San Antonio.