The last time the San Antonio Spurs had a lottery pick, no thought had to go into it. There was zero scouting that had to be done for the first pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. All they had to do was pick Tim Duncan, the Wake Forest senior who would have also gone first in 1996 or even 1995.
Fast-forward 23 years and now this lottery pick isn’t nearly as obvious for San Antonio. The Spurs are to select 11th overall and they will be busy pondering their choice until at least November 18th, the current estimated date of the draft.
Who will San Antonio pick? In this Spurs Big Board version 1.0, I’ll rank the top 21 prospects the franchise should consider drafting.
1. LaMelo Ball
After watching all of LaMelo Ball‘s tape, there’s just no denying how good this kid can be if he lives up to his potential. His natural feel for the game, his preternatural court vision, his ability to make impossible passes and his inventiveness on the fly are all characteristics that are off the charts. There are areas where Ball really needs to improve — his shooting mechanics need work, he must get a lot stronger, and his shot-selection needs to be torn down and rebuilt — but the skills are there for the 19-year-old to potentially become a foundational piece to a franchise. In a draft that is void of true superstar talent, that’s enough for Ball to earn the top spot.
While there’s talk of the baggage that comes with the Ball brand, I don’t think that should be a big deal for the Spurs. His dad enjoys talking and being controversial but San Antonio’s stability and reputation would mean all his bluster would just be noise. His brother struggled in the Los Angeles fishbowl but was a lot better after being traded to a small market. The fact that LaMelo has been a star since he was 13 years old, has had to confront potential off-court pitfalls, took a circuitous route to the draft and is still an elite prospect is impressive. In fact, you can take all these negatives, turn them around and say that LaMelo is from a caring family and he has already proven he can deal with the bright lights of being a professional athlete.
The bottom line with Ball is he was born with abilities that could make him really, really good and those abilities easily outweigh any risks, especially for the Spurs.
For a team like the Spurs that needs bulk scorers, Anthony Edwards is just what the doctor ordered. He has the body, the athleticism, the touch and the fearlessness of someone who could become an elite scorer in the NBA. He also shows glimpses of defensive and playmaking potential. All told, he’s a ball of clay the Spurs’ developmental staff could turn into a monster.
Compared to Ball, Edwards is a better scoring prospect but his lack of feel is glaring and his decision-making is much worse. If he’s not willing to put in the work and he’s not willing to listen to coaching, there’s a chance he could become a dime a dozen empty-stats type. But, again, that scoring upside is enough to keep him in the top two.
3. Obi Toppin
Obi Toppin is a bit of a strange case. Generally speaking, I’m not too high on him. There’s a pretty good chance that he’s a really bad defender in the NBA. The instincts and the fluidity just aren’t there on the defensive end and it’d take a minor miracle for him to be even a league average defender. I also have concern about his age (22) and his competition level at Dayton.
That said, if the Spurs could get Toppin, he’s the one player in the draft that allows you to start imagining scenarios where San Antonio instantly becomes a playoff team again and is then able to transition to a bright future without much downtime. For as bad of a defender as he’ll probably be in the NBA, Toppin is an amazing offensive prospect. His athleticism and ability to finish at the rim are spectacular. He has really good touch to beyond the three-point line, he’s a quality passer and makes smart decisions.
In San Antonio, the scenario everyone will be hoping for is Toppin slides into the starting role at power forward and proves to be capable of being a high-volume scorer early on. The threat of his athleticism when in the paint and out of pick-and-rolls would, in theory, make life easier for the other youngsters on the roster.
And while Toppin’s defense isn’t good, for a team that started DeMar DeRozan at power forward in the bubble, it’s passable and the coaches are able to devise schemes that hide him next to LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl — with extra help from the team’s lanky guards. Then, once DeRozan and Aldridge are out of the picture, Toppin and the other young players sop up the extra scoring opportunities to seamlessly continue on.
Sure, this is all a long shot — but Toppin’s unique fit would allow the Spurs to dream. It’s unlikely that he drops to 11 but if the Spurs have the same visions, it’d probably only take moving up five or so spots to get a really good shot at drafting him.
The only certified shot creator on the Spurs right now is DeRozan. Derrick White may grow into that but it’s unlikely he’ll ever be a full-time creator. In a league that is all about shot creation and playmaking right now, San Antonio needs a lot of help and will be downright desperate the moment DeRozan departs.
In this draft, only three players look like they could be the offensive engine the Spurs will need at some point in the future: Ball, Edwards and Killian Hayes. Hayes is a 6-foot-5 point guard who is masterful at creating for himself and his teammates. The 19-year-old is extremely advanced when it comes to reading and manipulating a defense.
It’s sacrilegious to even type out this sentence but the best way for a Spurs fan to think of this Frenchman is as a potential blend of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili but less athletic and without the uncompromising toughness and courage that made Parker and Ginobili both Hall of Famers. Hayes probably doesn’t have All-Star upside but he’ll be able to create — and the Spurs need that.
The value of non-shooting, non-passing centers is plummeting. In these playoffs, such centers are finding it difficult to find their way onto the court — and that’s a pattern that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. In his one season at USC, Onyeka Okongwu was a non-shooting, non-passing center. So, why is he in the top five of my Big Board? Okonguw is just too good to ignore.
At 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, the 19-year-old already has the bulk and the length to play center. At the rim, Okongwu’s explosive leaping ability makes him a very good shot blocker and a stout rebounder. But it’s out on the perimeter where he’s really special. Okongwu has the rare combination of quickness, anticipation and basketball IQ as a center that will make him very effective against pick-and-rolls from early on in his rookie year. All told, his defensive potential is through the roof.
Offensively, there are also a few paths to success for Okongwu. He’s already a great finisher at the rim. He has very good hands and his physicality is very impressive for his age. His touch in the lane and his 72% free throw shooting gives him hope that a jumper could be in his future. And while he didn’t show much passing ability as a freshman, he’s a smart enough basketball player that he’s very likely to at least become adequate in that department — with a chance of becoming really good.
If the Spurs draft Okongwu, they could confidently pencil him in as their starting center for the next decade. He’s the type of player you can build a defense around. He may or may not become an above average starter depending on how he develops, but given his high floor and San Antonio’s long-term need at that position, it would be very difficult for the Spurs to pass on him in the draft.
Tyrese Haliburton is similar to Toppin in that I’m not super high on him in general. But with my silver- and black-tinted glasses on, I can’t help but love the fit in South Texas.
My issue with Haliburton is I don’t truly believe he can be a full-time lead point guard. His ball-handling isn’t great, it’s difficult for him to create off the dribble and his on-ball defense against other point guards would likely be iffy. If a team drafts him thinking he’s their franchise starting point guard, they have a very real chance of being disappointed.
But in San Antonio, Haliburton would be a seamless fit. He can share playmaking duties next to Derrick White or Dejounte Murray. With the pressure off of him to create play in and play out, Haliburton’s genius level instincts would shine. He’s a great passer on the move and is special on the fast break. He also is a knockdown three-point shooter with deep range. On offense, Haliburton’s smart, versatile presence would just make everything flow better. Defensively, Haliburton is brilliant off the ball so pairing him with White or Murray would allow him to avoid tough matchups his 175-pound frame isn’t ready to take on quite yet. Instead, he can stay busy swiping steals and blocking shots — two things he does at a high rate for his size.
Considering Devin Vassell is most likely going to be a shooting guard in the NBA and considering the Spurs have about a dozen players on the roster already capable of playing shooting guard, he’s admittedly not the cleanest of fits in the draft. However, Vassell brings enough to the table to easily justify picking him if he’s still on the board.
Defensively, I think he’s the best perimeter player in the draft. He’s quick enough to do damage on the ball but it’s off the ball where he really shines. Vassell is an outstanding help defender who reads defenses at warp speed, rotates quickly and can even defend the rim. He’s a good athlete who is destined to be a playmaker on the defensive end. For a defensively challenged team like the Spurs, adding Vassell to the mix could solve a lot of problems.
On offense, it’s difficult to figure out what he’s going to be down the line. Florida State shares the ball a lot so it’s not clear if he has shot-creation ability or if he’s viable in pick-and-rolls. As it stands, we know he can hit jumpers off the dribble — even though his shot-selection left much to be desired. But at the very least, Vassell should be able to space the court as a stand-still three-point shooter, as he hit better than 41% of his threes in each of his two seasons in college.
Patrick Williams has been moving all over my Big Board in recent weeks. When I first started viewing his tape, I had hope that this 6-foot-8, 225-pounder would be a combo forward who could play as a wing or a big man depending on the matchup. But the more tape I watched, the more it became clear that Williams is strictly a power forward. There’s a tiny chance he could become a small forward if his perimeter agility takes a giant leap forward — but that’s not even likely enough to be worth factoring in when evaluating him in the draft.
After coming to that realization that Williams is basically a power forward, his poor rebounding numbers made my interest in him plummet. But the more I watch him, the more I’m intrigued. On defense, he’s a mobile big who will be able to handle switching well enough while also being a very good rim protector. Offensively, Williams is another Florida State question mark but it looks like he can shoot (83.8% at the line), he’s a really good passer for a big and he has shown glimpses of being a perimeter playmaker.
Add together Williams youth (he’s the youngest college player in the draft), his imposing build, the natural talents he already possesses, his shooting upside and his untapped potential and no one could blame the Spurs for gambling on him.
James Wiseman is an uber athletic 7-foot-1 center who is super long and is blessed with a sky-high ceiling. Unfortunately, though, the more tape I watch of him, the more doubtful I am that he’ll ever come close to reaching his season. Going back to his high school tape, the fight and the will to dominate is often lacking. Wiseman seems to think he’s a jump shooting big who can survive on his perimeter skills, when he’s really an athletic freak of nature who should concentrate on using his physical attributes to his advantage.
Without a total shift in how he goes about playing the game, Wiseman is basically a JaVale McGee or Nerlens Noel type who would likely be overpaid for his entire career. Centers who rely on athleticism and activity are a dime a dozen these days. With that floor, Wiseman is definitely a risk.
Then again, if Wiseman reaches anywhere close to his ceiling, he’s a really good player who’d be a fantastic pick at 11. It comes down to whether you believe he will reach it — and I’m far from convinced. But if the above players are off the board and he’s there, it’d be a risk worth taking.
10. RJ Hampton
Another option if the Spurs want to swing for a home run would be to draft RJ Hampton. After a very successful high school career in Texas, he signed a pro deal in the Australian basketball league. He showed flashes but his statistics were underwhelming and the teenager struggled more often than he had success.
Despite his uneven stay on the other end of the globe, if you focus on Hampton’s tools, he’s still an exciting prospect. He’s a sure bet to be the fastest player in the draft — both in terms of halfcourt acceleration and running the length of the court. And at 6-foot-5, he projects as a player who can get to the rim with ease. If his body continues to fill out, he could make a living getting into the lane. And while his shooting percentages have always left a lot to be desired, his stroke is smooth enough that a shot doctor (paging Chip Engelland) could do wonders.
Hampton is raw on defense. Right now, he’s a combo guard without many point guard skills. But his size, speed, projectile penetration ability and correctable shooting mechanics combine to make Hampton a prime target to pick with an eye on slowly trying to develop a star perimeter playmaker.
If the Spurs want to take the ultimate gamble, they should pick Aleksej Pokusevski. This 7-foot stringbean is the youngest player in the draft. While his body is shockingly underdeveloped and he was inefficient on offense even though he played in Greece’s second division, the Serbian-born prospect is oozing with talent.
Pokusevski has a quick three-point shooting stroke. His ball-handling and passing potential is jaw-dropping for his size. He’s mobile, coordinated and his natural feel is really good.
Pokusevski’s obstacles are obvious. Can he improve his body enough to play in the NBA? If he does, is there even a position for him to play? He’s basically a guard on offense and an anorexic center on defense — so it will take a coach willing to accommodate that strange dichotomy.
I give Pokusevski only about a 30% chance of making it in the NBA. But I also give him a 5% chance of being really, really good and making any team who passed on him live to regret it. Do the Spurs like those odds? We’ll find out.
12. Aaron Nesmith
The Spurs need shooting. Aaron Nesmith has a chance to be the best shooter in the draft. He really reminds me of former Spurs sniper Dale Ellis. It’s very possible for Nesmith to be a double-digit scorer on Day 1 and make it easy for the Spurs to move on from Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli. But he also comes with Ellis’ downsides of being a poor passer, a non-playmaker and a below average defender and doesn’t have the upside of having the world’s greatest surname.
13. Kira Lewis Jr.
Kira Lewis Jr. is a super fast point guard who can also shoot it. He’s a good on-ball defender and, at 6-foot-3, he’s tall enough to eventually have some versatility on D. Lewis has useful attributes that would make him a valuable cog early on. He has room to grow in terms of learning how to play the game and making the right decisions — but the tools are there.
14. Isaac Okoro
Isaac Okoro is a prospect I like in general but don’t really see the fit in San Antonio. Right now, he’s a defensive wing who plays really hard, hustles constantly, and isn’t afraid to scratch and claw. Even though he’s about 6-foot-5, he has the strength that could allow him to buy minutes as a big. Offensively, he may be a plus passer down the line but in the short-term he may struggle to knock down open shots. The Spurs could use his defense, obviously, but Okoro’s limited offensive tools and somewhat limited ceiling would make him a questionable fit.
15. Deni Avdija
Like Okoro, I can see why teams would be tempted to pick Deni Avdija in the top ten. However, I just don’t see what value he’d give the Spurs. Avdija would be best used as a second or third option on a team with great shooting that could use a combo forward who can make plays in the midrange area. He’s pretty athletic, he has a chance to be a competent defender and he will likely be best in transition. But considering that Avdija is a 55% free throw shooter, it’s unlikely that he will become a three-point threat in the NBA. Interesting talent; not the best fit in S.A.
16. Jalen Smith
Jalen Smith can hit three-pointers, block shots and rebound. If he proves to be strong enough to defend centers and can improve his mobility, a ten-year NBA career is awaiting him. As a plug-and-play big man in this draft, he’s probably only behind Okongwu in terms of being ready to play right away. But compared to Okongwu, Smith’s ceiling is a whole lot lower.
17. Precious Achiuwa
Originally thought of as a small forward prospect, Precious Achiuwa looked really limited out on the perimeter during his one year at Memphis. He was moved to the interior — and that looks like it could be his long-term position. As a high-energy, mobile, hard-charging center, he could prove to be pretty valuable if he buys into that role.
18. Saddiq Bey
A 6-foot-8 perimeter defender who plays smart, plays hard and hits three-pointers at a high clip? In theory, Saddiq Bey sounds like just what the Spurs would want. Unfortunately, his tape paints an underwhelming picture of him. I don’t see much room for improvement and I’m not convinced he’s quick enough to guard NBA perimeter players. He got away with using his guile to outwit most perimeter players in college but that’s not enough on the next level. Bey would be okay as a super safe pick to hopefully cover a glaring hole in the roster — but it’d be a yawn-inducing selection.
19. Tyrese Maxey
Tyrese Maxey is a good prospect who could sneak into the lottery. But with the Spurs in mind, he doesn’t shoot it well enough and he doesn’t help enough in areas where San Antonio is weak. He’s the opposite of Haliburton in that he’s not a good fit next to White or Murray. The Spurs may look past the fit and just go for his talent — but they’d probably have to make other roster moves in order to open an opportunity for him.
20. Theo Maledon
I think Theo Maledon is an NBA player. It looks like he could be the same type of player as George Hill. But where would the real George Hill fit on these Spurs — and is that enough upside to select him with the 11th pick?
21. Cole Anthony
Like Maxey, Cole Anthony has his positives that could push him into the lottery. But also like Maxey, he’s not a good fit on the Spurs. Questionable shot-selection, questionable range, too reliant on long two-pointers, not an notable athlete, undersized as a combo guard … there’s a long list of why Anthony would be a highly questionable selection.