NBA Draft 2011 Instant Analysis: San Antonio Spurs Make Defining Gamble

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJune 24, 2011

NEWARK, NJ - JUNE 23:  Kawhi Leonard from San Diego State greets NBA Commissioner David Stern after he was selected #15 overall by the Indiana Pacers in the first round during the 2011 NBA Draft at the Prudential Center on June 23, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Tony Parker will remain with the franchise sure to someday retire his jersey number.

The backup combo guard hailed as the epicenter of the team's post-Tim Duncan future was not so lucky Thursday night. The Spurs flipped George Hill for defensive-minded project Kawhi Leonard and two other intriguing prospects. Davis Bertrans and Erazem Lorabek may contribute at the NBA level in a few years, but the rights to Leonard, a San Diego State product, matter most.

Hill rose from 2008 draft night anonymity to a prominent role in an organization still trying to send Duncan off with a fifth ring. The question that begged for an answer—would the Spurs embrace risk after a stunning first-round flameout?—was, well, answered.

R.C. Buford just unzipped his pants and flashed his testicles for everyone in San Antonio to see. He revealed his guts as much as his vulnerability. Two years after swapping three bit, aging veterans for Richard Jefferson, he dumped a major contributor and blossoming fan favorite to chase another roster need.

Say this for a heralded, respected front office: safe is no longer an applicable adjective. Buford bet a lot on a hand that may yield a warm pie in the face more than a jackpot.

Leonard projects as a sedulous defender, but he gambles to the point that such recklessness and lack of discipline may send Gregg Popovich to a nut house. He possesses above average athleticism, but he cannot score with a pencil.

Can he succeed as a player who hangs around the perimeter? Can he function as a 6'7" three with no jumpshot in an offense that produces gobs of wide-open triples for its small forwards? Jefferson took flight in San Antonio's system, albeit for a limited regular-season period, when he began knocking down the shots Bruce Bowen did for eight years.

The questions will come, and Leonard must respond as Hill did. The boos and jeers will come too, if this becomes a colossal mistake.

A player who averaged 11 points and 2.2 assists meant much more than his modest totals suggested. Hill was a tweener guard and a sixth man, but his two-way proficiency cast him as a key cog in the Spurs' AD-AG (after Duncan and Manu Ginobili) era.

Can Leonard establish himself as a rotation fixture? The Spurs do not want to get worse before they get better after those two cornerstones retire. Hill, along with Tiago Splitter, James Anderson and others, gave them that chance.

His toughness was born from the relentless deluge of would-be embarrassments he shrugged off. A high school kid with average talent outplayed him in a private workout. He shot eight percent in his first Las Vegas Summer League showing. Popovich even admitted he once thought drafting Hill was a paramount lapse in judgment.

When he said he considered handing Peter Holt a document with his signature of resignation, it sounded like a typical Pop wisecrack. There is reason, though, to believe he wasn't kidding.

Hill morphed from deplorable summer shooter to his coach's "favorite player" in the span of a year. He won over many of the fans who said "huh" or "who" when David Stern announced the Spurs had selected him with the 26th pick. He won over teammates as he shed a deferential label to become a fearless scorer.

Popovich's "favorite player" is going home to Indiana. Hill played his collegiate ball at IUPUI. San Antonio used its 29th selection to nab a potential replacement in UT guard Cory Joseph.

If Buford hits with that late pick, he may have landed two impact defenders to bolster a squad whose coach demands an emphasis on yielding low-percentage shots. Joseph and his other UT teammates, Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton, would have benefited from another year in school.

The Texas coaches were not just spewing absurdities when they told Thomson they could groom him as a sure-fire No. 1 pick. Joseph would not have experienced a similar rise, but there are reasons to wonder if he can step on the NBA hardwood this fall or next spring and log significant minutes.

With Hill gone and labor uncertainty threatening to sabotage and delay free agency, Joseph will have to play.

A freshmen guard and a sophomore forward will miss the showcase opportunity Vegas provides. The league cancelled its annual Sin City exhibition because the player's union and owners could not agree on a Collective Bargaining Agreement before the deadline to book the necessary hotel rooms and facilities.

Hill was a known commodity and a youthful bridge to San Antonio's next epoch. Even if he struggled against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs, he did enough in three years to suggest he would rebound from another abasement.

He endeared himself to silver and black supporters in many ways. One of them: He tweeted an apology after a sub-par performance in a loss this spring. He was accountable and likable; qualities that fit a prototypical Popovich player.

The Spurs also owe their lone postseason series victory in three years to his 29-point outburst in Game 4 against a Dallas Mavericks team that recuperated to win the franchise's first title nearly two weeks ago.

Leonard and Joseph, both 19 years old, must grow up fast alongside Duncan and Ginobili. If Hill was not an All-Star in the making, he was solid enough at both ends to prevent the Spurs from slip-sliding to the Cleveland Cavaliers or Washington Wizards woeful levels when a pair of future Hall of Famers exit. That mattered. It still does.

It says a lot that no analyst has given San Antonio's flurry of activity a ringing endorsement. Many pundits are puzzled and some fans seem more perturbed than piqued.

David Aldridge, delivering a critique on NBA TV, said "I'm surprised."

It will take more than deft salesmanship to turn a ballsy deal into a successful haul. Buford gauged offers for Parker when rival GMs dialed his cell, but dealing the former Finals MVP away was a long shot.

That made Hill, cheap labor with roaring talent and confidence, a prime trade prospect. He was inconsolable, according to the Express-News, after learning he needed to pack his bags. He goes now from June thievery to a June egress that feels like an undeserved punishment.

An eventful draft night also gave the Spurs more reason to fear the Mavs, as if a redemptive trophy was not enough. Dallas flipped two picks for Spanish dynamo Rudy Fernandez. If he can repair his attitude cracks and commit more on the defensive end, he will be much more than a spot up shooter.

Fernandez can fill it up and throw it down. If Rodrigue Beaubois gets healthy and contributes and GM Donnie Nelson can re-sign Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and Caron Butler, the NBA's latest champion improves its chances of a repeat performance.

Add to that a host of Western Conference lottery teams jockeying for playoff runs, and letting go of Hill seems even riskier.

Safe? That word no longer applies in San Antonio.


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