Well, that was definitely a surprise. With the 12th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, the San Antonio Spurs decided to select Joshua Primo, a 6-foot-5 guard out of Alabama. He wasn’t one of the ten players I thought the Spurs were most likely to pick in the first round. In fact, most draft pundits predicted Primo to be drafted late in the first round or early in the second round. For him to go in the lottery was the most shocking moment of the entire draft.
1) After the shock wore off and I went back through all my notes I had on Primo, I tried to rationalize the selection … but I just couldn’t. He’s not a terrible player — I had him as the 25th prospect on my Big Board — but I simply don’t see lottery talent. My biggest issue with him is his athleticism. At this point in time, he’s slow for a guard and not explosive in any way. He’s coordinated for his size but that lack of athletic pop or burst to get by his man will, I fear, limit his upside.
If the Spurs had taken someone raw with a sky-high hypothetical ceiling, that would have been different. But with Primo, it appears that he’s a low-floor/medium-ceiling pick — and that’s not the type of player you want to be taking in the lottery. If you can’t get a top talent in the lottery, you want someone who has a clear path to contributing soon or a player that can become a star if the planets align.
2) The sliver of silver lining you can point to with Primo regarding his upside is the fact that he was the youngest player in college basketball last season and the youngest player in this draft. He’s 18 years old and won’t turn 19 until Christmas Eve. Given his youth, it’d obviously be unwise to put him in a box and say what he will and won’t be down the line.
Yes, it’s possible that he can grow. He has a 6-foot-9.25 wingspan to go with his 6-foot-5 height, so it wouldn’t take much more growth for him to be able to play the 1, 2 or 3. Just looking at him, it’s obvious he’s going to fill out in the next few years. He was only 189 pounds at the combine but he should naturally gain at least 15 to 20 pounds by the time his body matures.
That said, Primo getting bigger and stronger was already baked into his projections. Simply put, he wasn’t a good basketball player as a freshman. He exhibited flashes — but he was clearly not one of the best three players on his team.
Primo averaged 8.1 points in 22.5 minutes while sporting a 25-to-41 assist-to-turnover ratio. He hit only half of his two-point attempts and rarely got to the free throw line. He also posted anemic rates for steals and blocks, even for a guard. So, yeah, his youth will act like wind at his back helping him along during his development … but he has a long way to go to even be a halfway decent player.
3) Primo’s best attribute right now is his three-point shooting. He moves well, he has strong footwork, he has repeatable mechanics, and everything is buttery smooth from his shot prep to the point he releases the ball. He shot 38.1% on threes last season — and that provided the vast majority of his value. He attempted more threes (113) than two (82) and appears to be comfortable shooting threes whether he’s stationary or in motion.
For him to become an NBA player, that three-point shooting will need to remain a key element to his game. If he doesn’t grow or improve athletically, he’ll undoubtedly need to be a high volume three-point shooter who hits at least at his college percentage.
4) Beyond his shooting, Primo’s flashes were mostly of the playmaking variety. You wouldn’t know it from his low assist rate and his high turnover-to-assist ratio but he has some potential as a passer. He’s creative and can find teammates on the move. His cutting with and without the ball was also timely and it helped free up opportunities for himself and others at Alabama.
Defensively, Primo wasn’t great but he wasn’t terrible, either. He played hard on that end and wasn’t bashful about throwing around his body. His feet look quick enough to defend at least at a decent level in the NBA.
5) After the draft, Spurs GM Brian Wright said they were impressed when they saw Primo play point guard at the combine. I think it’s unlikely that Primo can play point guard in the NBA — but he’s more well-rounded than what he showed at Alabama. In college, he was basically a designated shooter who was rarely allowed to run the offense. During the combine, Primo handled the ball and made heady decisions.
By proving to be more than a one-dimensional shooting, it was thought that Primo raised his draft stock from the middle of the second round to possibly the end of the first round. But, as it turned out, he improved his stock from the middle of the second round to the lottery — at least in San Antonio’s eyes.
6) To be fair to Wright, he said that Primo first caught their eye a couple months prior to the combine. That’s probably true. The aforementioned flashes that Primo showed during his freshman campaign had scouts circling his name as a possible lottery pick in 2022. The thinking was that Alabama had a lot of seniors departing the team so Primo would step into a bigger next season. If he played well and proved those flashes were sustainable, the 2022 lottery was certainly in the cards.
But the 2021 lottery? Yeah, no, I don’t know anyone who thought that was a possibility.
7) So, what do the Spurs do with this three-point shooter with possible playmaking upside? I’m confident in saying Primo will spend a lot of time with the Austin Spurs. And I think that’s absolutely the right move. Give him the ball in Austin as much as possible and see how he can grow. Hell, make him the point guard and try to expand his game as much as possible.
In the NBA, his ultimate role is most likely a secondary creator who can space the court with his shooting. But in the G League, playing the point won’t do anything but help.
I think he needs to spend the entire 2021-22 season in the G League. Next summer, it should be clear whether he needs a second full season in the G League — but it’s certainly possible he’s a two-year project like Luka Samanic.
8) There were a lot of Spurs fans complaining about the Spurs drafting another guard and worrying about Primo’s fit on the roster … but I don’t think that’s a big deal. He’s a project and a lot can happen between now and when he’s ready to produce on the NBA level. Sure, it looks like the Spurs are guard-heavy now — but that could easily change.
You can criticize the front office for reaching in the draft for someone who was expected to go 15 or 20 spots later but I disagree with any positional criticism. This is a Spurs team with no foundational pieces. Long-term fit and long-term rotations aren’t a concern. All of that is fluid.
9) Perhaps the most worrisome part of this pick was the fact that the front office went about it like they historically went about drafting late in the first round. The Spurs have had great success late in drafts by focusing on pre-draft combines, camps and scrimmages. But when you pick in the lottery, the top players don’t participate in those pre-draft settings. You have to rely on other means to separate the players.
But instead of picking one of the lottery talents, the Spurs used their usual method of finding a combine standout. That strategy won’t be a sustainable one if the Spurs remain in the lottery in the forthcoming years. In this draft, the next player to be picked after Primo who played at the combine was Quentin Grimes — and he went 25th overall.
Two years ago, the Spurs picked another combine standout in Luka Samanic at 19th overall. I hope it’s not true but it’s starting to look like the Spurs haven’t adjusted their draft strategy since the end of the franchise’s golden age.
10) I can’t continue this write-up about Primo without talking about this kid’s character. It’s actually one of his main selling points. As I wrote on the Big Board:
“Today, neither Joshua Primo nor Jaden Springer are much to write home about. But both players show enough promise that they could be worth a gamble. Primo, 18, is the youngest player in the draft. The 6-foot-5 guard is a high-character kid who has shown flashes as a shooter and playmaker.”
By all accounts, Primo is an outstanding human being. The Toronto native is as smart as a whip, his teammates love him and he has outstanding leadership traits for his age. At the combine, many scouts said he was the best communicator of any of the players.
The Spurs value character more than any team in the NBA so, in that sense, it’s not a surprise they went with Primo. He’s an A+ in that category. Everyone believes he’ll come in and work as hard as he can and will be a natural fit in an NBA locker room.
11) Should the Spurs have traded down to pick up an asset and still get Primo? In a perfect work, yes. But that’s easier said than done. If Primo was the guy they wanted, it would have been difficult to figure out exactly where they needed to be in the draft to land him. That was especially true in this draft because so many picks in the teens were for sale. If the Spurs heard about interest in Primo by other teams, I can understand why they’d be too paranoid to trade back.
12) How big of a disaster is picking Primo in the lottery? It’s suboptimal, for sure. I can’t sugarcoat it — it doesn’t appear to be a smart use of a lottery pick.
It’s clear what happened. They fell in love with Primo’s character, his shooting and the glimpses of playmaking potential. They thought about moving back but didn’t want to take the risk of losing him. The Spurs see Primo as a safe project who will keep his head down, work hard and blossom into some kind of NBA talent in a couple years — if only due to his shooting ability.
In the big picture, I don’t think this pick is anything to get too excited or too upset about. Late lottery picks are gambles. Some make it and some don’t. Primo wasn’t a good selection in terms of maximizing the value of their lottery pick but, hey, they were enamored and decided to pull the trigger. We’ll see how it works out for them.
Big picture-wise, what will be much more important is how they navigate the rest of the summer. The Spurs have a ton of cap space and they’ll be forced to make big, franchise-altering decisions over the next week that will make the Primo pick look like small potatoes in comparison.