The 2020 NBA Draft will be a pivotal one for the San Antonio Spurs. Even though their playoff chances haven’t yet been extinguished, the Spurs will likely select in the lottery for the first time since they selected Tim Duncan with the first overall pick in 1997. With their knack for evaluating talent, there’s hope that they will find another steal.
That said, their draft strategy appears to have changed over the years, specifically the practice of draft and stash. They’ve all but abandoned the practice in recent seasons, despite helping to popularize it. Instead, they’ve relied on using the G League as the preferred way of developing talent.
San Antonio’s Draft and Stash History
The Spurs famously drafted Manu Ginobili with the 59th pick in 1999. He didn’t actually sign with San Antonio until 2002. His success helped popularize the practice around the league. However, the Spurs have had mixed results with draft and stash overall. Buyouts, injuries and negotiating contracts have all been issues that San Antonio has encountered.
Tiago Splitter, San Antonio’s 2007 first round pick, didn’t join the team until 2010. The delay was a result of him signing a far more lucrative contract in Europe than he would’ve been able to sign in the NBA due to the rookie scale.
Splitter later signed a three-year, $11 million dollar deal with the Spurs after no longer being bound by the rookie scale. The Brazilian proved to be worth the wait and was a key member the 2014 championship team.
The Spurs weren’t as lucky with Luis Scola and, later, Nikola Milutinov. Scola was drafted by the Spurs in 2002 but continued playing overseas for years. Buyout negotiations fell through and the relationship with Scola took a hit. Eventually, Scola’s draft rights were traded to the Houston Rockets.
Milutinov, the Spurs 2015 first round pick, has yet to sign with the Spurs. At this point, it’s not clear if he’ll ever play in the NBA. The center is highly paid in Europe and the Spurs aren’t likely to offer him significantly more money than he’s currently making overseas.
San Antonio did benefit from the free development that drafting and stashing players provided. However, they’ve also seen the realization of the risk of injury.
San Antonio drafted Livio Jean-Charles in 2013 after he showed promise as a long and athletic combo forward. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL a month later. The injury cost him a crucial season of development and derailed his career. He ultimately never played a regular season game for the Spurs.
Davis Bertans is another example of a draft and stash prospect getting injured. The second round pick tore his ACL twice before joining San Antonio, which delayed his transition to the NBA. Obviously, his story had a much happier ending than that of Jean-Charles.
The G League as a Draft and Stash Replacement
In 2007, San Antonio became just the second NBA team to purchase a G League affiliate. Since 2010, eight of San Antonio’s first round picks have played college basketball. It’s unlikely to be a coincidence, as the G-League has become a more viable option for developing players.
For San Antonio, the G League provides their prospects time to develop — but in their system. The Austin Spurs run the same offense as the San Antonio Spurs, allowing for prospects to the learn the ins and outs.
The time spent there also allows for the Spurs rookies to work on incorporating new skills into their game. Keldon Johnson, for example, primarily played off the ball in college. This season, however, he spent more time creating with the ball in his hands while playing in the G League.
After the roster limit expanded from 12 to 15 players in 2006, the Spurs began to incorporate more youth onto their roster. The addition of the pair of two-way roster spots pushed the roster limit to 17 players. With the drastic increase in roster size, draft and stash has become even less necessary to the team.
Entering this season, San Antonio’s roster featured eight players with fewer than three years of experience. Notably, each of those players has spent time developing in the G-League — and appear to be better for it.
Going forward, expect for the Spurs to continue to rely even more on the G League. While it may be a frustrating approach for fans, their track record with using the G League proves that its the best way for them to develop players.