Entering a pivotal year for the franchise, the Pelicans are a fascinating study in the true power of stardom in the NBA. Their biggest names are some of the most recognizable in the league: They have likely the game’s starriest frontcourt in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, plus a near-max-level point guard in Jrue Holiday squarely in his prime.
At the same time, their depth after these three is almost startlingly weak, particularly on the wings. With Cousins able to walk for nothing at the end of the season and whispers about Davis’ future free agency starting to grow louder, GM Dell Demps needs the group he’s put together this season to gel and put forth a product that encourages the big stars about the future – and if not, the Pelicans may have to contemplate life without at least one.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
What we saw of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis a year ago wasn’t awesome, and it’s not like the Pelicans had the money to add a whole lot to their roster over the summer to make massive improvements. Still, arguably the two best big men in the league are on the same team, and it’s hard not to see some measure of promise in that. That’s not going to stop the Anthony Davis trade rumors, unfortunately, but the better they play the less likely it is they’ll have to deal with that particular drama this year. Bottom line: New Orleans needs to make the playoffs. It’s time for them to make that happen, and that means finishing at least third in Southwest to sneak into the bottom of the Western Conference’s postseason picture. Anything less and Davis’ time in the Big Easy really could be running out.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Joel Brigham
While the rest of the NBA is zigging towards playing smaller and faster, the New Orleans Pelicans are zagging the opposite direction with a huge frontline featuring Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. These two talented big men form arguably the most interesting and unique frontcourt duo in the NBA, but last year’s results didn’t give us reason to believe it’s a match made in heaven. Finding out how to maximize the considerable skill sets of Davis and Cousins is an imperative task for Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry. If Gentry can find a way to maximize his talented frontcourt tandem, the Pelicans could exceed all reasonable expectations this upcoming season. However, wing depth and perimeter shooting are going to be issues that will likely plague this team unless they pull off some serious deals to bring in more talent on the wing.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
As far as top-end talent goes, the Pelicans can compete with just about anyone. They have the most talented frontcourt in the league with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, plus a guy in Jrue Holiday whose talents complement the two big men very well. That trifecta can hold up to nearly any in the league outside Golden State and a couple other markets – but the question marks start immediately after that. With Solomon Hill’s recent injury that could keep him out for much of the year, the Pelicans are now dangerously thin on the wing – guys like Jordan Crawford and Ian Clark may have to play important roles there. The acquisition of Rajon Rondo after Holiday had already re-signed seemed curious, and still does. Depth in the frontcourt behind Davis and Cousins is a question mark. With some decent injury luck for their big three and some solid cohesion, this could absolutely be a playoff team. But the floor is also very low, especially if any of the three has to miss any time or Cousins becomes volatile like he has in the past. We’ll pencil them in for third in the Southwest for now, but they could easily be fourth or even fifth if things go badly.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
When you look at Anthony Davis’ numbers, one would figure it would only be a matter of time until the Pelicans take flight and find themselves out of the doldrums in the Western Conference—especially with a talent like DeMarcus Cousins added to the fold.
As he entered the final year of his contract, Cousins is the player to watch this season in New Orleans. It’s amazing to think that a player of his talent has yet to play in a single playoff game. If things break right in the Big Easy this season, though, a postseason berth may be possible. With Zach Randolph headed to Sacramento and Tony Allen not having re-signed with the Grizzlies, the door does seem to be a bit ajar for the Pelicans. That, however, will depend upon their ability to stay healthy, and Solomon Hill’s torn hamstring isn’t a positive omen.
Still, with Ian Clark and Rajon Rondo added to the fold, the Pelicans have brought in a few winners. A re-signed Jrue Holiday should also contribute positively to what these guys have going on this season, as well. They’ll be pulling up the rear out West, but if they manage to leapfrog the Grizzlies in the Southwest, they’ll be in the fight for the playoffs. I just wouldn’t bet on it at this point.
4th Place — Southwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
After trading for DeMarcus Cousins halfway through last season, the New Orleans Pelicans are hoping a full offseason and training camp together can mesh arguably the top two bigs in the game enough to warrant their first trip to the playoffs in three years.
With a healthy Jrue Holiday and some chemistry between Cousins and Anthony Davis, the Pelicans could be in a position to make some noise this season. However, if the two former Kentucky big men don’t produce what New Orleans is hoping they will on the court this season, it will be interesting to see how Cousins handles his free agency next summer.
3rd place – Southwest Division
– Dennis Chambers
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: DeMarcus Cousins
This one is a dead heat between Cousins and Davis, but since the Brow gets the nod in our next section, Boogie gets his time in the spotlight now. Cousins was a pretty similar player last year after being traded to New Orleans, posting similar shooting numbers while seeing some of his midrange game move over to Davis, replaced by a few more looks near the hoop.
Logic would suggest some staggering of minutes between the two to leave at least one on the court as often as possible, but this might be tough – the Pellies were destroyed last year in the minutes Cousins played without Davis, and Boogie’s own numbers showed a huge gap. He was lethal from three with Davis out there, and was able to draw more fouls and average higher rates in nearly everything across the board. These two will look to improve their on-court partnership even more with a full offseason (they trained together at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas over the summer), but how they play separately, and particularly while Cousins is the lone star on the floor, is also cause for concern.
Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis
There was a time when Davis’ defensive potential widely eclipsed his actual value there, but the last couple years have mostly put that to rest. Davis was one of the league’s 10 most valuable defensive players last season, per ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, and he’s become far more than a freak athlete who blocks a lot of shots. His timing has really improved along with his ability to be that anchor a defense needs. A full season of Cousins in town should ostensibly remove just enough of his offensive burden for him to perhaps chase some defensive honors if things go well.
Top Playmaker: Jrue Holiday
There’s a temptation to say newcomer Rajon Rondo here, and Rondo is likely still the better passer in a vacuum. But “playmaker” and “passer” aren’t the same thing, and especially for a team that looks likely to have spacing concerns all over the place, Rondo might not have the kind of success some expect while he’s on the floor. It will be very hard for him to generate consistently good looks for himself, and defenses know they can play his passing lanes and dare him to shoot the ball.
Holiday, on the other hand, has the chops as a scorer from multiple areas of the court to keep the defense honest. As nearly a 37 percent career three-point shooter, teams can’t simply sag away from him and clog things up when someone like Davis or Cousins has the ball. He’s posted solid passing figures for several years in a row, and seems to have put some of his worst health concerns behind him (fingers crossed). He’s also a far more consistent defender than Rondo at this point, which matters for his ability to stay on the floor.
Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis
Especially for a big man, Davis’ 42 percent from the field in clutch time last year actually represents a very solid number, and one of the best on the team. He’s able to play both one-on-one and as part of the two-man game, and with another brute in Cousins around to soak up help defenders and provide a solid secondary option, look for much of the crunch-time offense to flow through the frontcourt (just like the rest of the offense).
The Unheralded Player: E’Twaun Moore
Moore is a limited player in certain areas, but as one of just a few guys on the roster who can credibly play at least one wing spot, he also fills an important role that the Pelicans badly need: Spacing. Moore has shot 37 percent and 45 percent from three over the last two years respectively, and he’ll be one of the few guys New Orleans can rely on to keep the defense honest while their primary cogs work.
Best New Addition: Tony Allen
On the flip side of that coin is Allen, whose signing for one year was reported Monday. Allen is nothing close to a spacing threat, but he’ll step in immediately as the team’s top wing stopper. He may not quite have the legs left in him to make the overall impact Davis does defensively, but his addition all but guarantees that the Pelicans will have an above-average defense, and likely a top-10 unit.
WHO WE LIKE
1. The Frontcourt
As we noted above, there are definitely some concerns when only Cousins is on the floor without Davis. When they play together, though, no team in the league truly has the personnel to effectively guard them. Cousins sees his three-point rate and efficiency skyrocket with another post behemoth sharing the court with him, and the Pelicans were a solid playoff team based on per-possession figures when they played together last year. The first month or two of this year will be huge for building their chemistry.
2. Healthy Jrue Holiday
After years of struggling with his health, Holiday finally was able to stay on the court last season. He missed a chunk to start the year, but that wasn’t an injury – he was caring for his wife. After that, Jrue would play in all but three games for the Pelicans, shooting a career-high from the field and showing off the kind of high-level defense that makes him such an attractive player. He’s the perfect complement to a Davis-Cousins frontcourt, and the Pelicans need another healthy year from him after signing him to a big contract this summer.
3. Darren Erman
After coming aboard as an assistant with head coach Alvin Gentry to start the 2015-16 season, it took Erman – a defensive whiz who is well-respected around the league – a full season to leave his mark. The Pelicans were bad defensively in his first year, but took a giant leap into the league’s top 10 last year after a year to digest his concepts. They did so with arguably only a few true plus defenders on the roster, and mostly through a solid scheme with smart tenets. Some have labeled Erman the next big thing as an NBA head coach, but while he’s in this role, expect the Pelicans to play smart, disciplined defense.
4. Tony Allen
He doesn’t necessarily solve some of their spacing issues, but Allen was the best of a relatively limited bunch late in free agency. He fills a need for bodies on the wing and should still check in as an elite-level perimeter defender, the kind of guy who will take the toughest matchups every night. He’ll also provide a bit of additional veteran know-how as a former member of the Grit n Grind Grizzlies.
SALARY CAP 101
The Pelicans invested heavily in Jrue Holiday this summer. Their other primary free agent acquisitions include Rajon Rondo, Darius Miller and Ian Clark, triggering a hard cap of $125.3 million in the process. Prior to trading Quincy Pondexter to the Chicago Bulls, the Pelicans were very close to that cap (including unlikely incentives the team may or may not owe to Holiday). The team still has a little bit of wiggle room to fill out a roster but they may not be able to use much of their remaining spending tools that include $2.2 million of their Room Exception, their full $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception and three trade exceptions ($3.9 million, $3.5 million and $2.1 million) at their disposal.
Next summer, the Pelicans will not be under the projected salary cap of $102 million, even if DeMarcus Cousins leaves as a free agent. That’s a loss the team won’t be able to replenish with a Mid-Level Exception. New Orleans may have to find a way to improve via trade, although they don’t have much to offer on that front outside of their star players in Anthony Davis, Cousins and Holiday. The franchise needs the Cousins/Davis pairing to work, enough to entice Cousins to re-sign long-term.
– Eric Pincus
The frontcourt is a relatively obvious strength for this team, with Davis and Cousins backed up by Alexis Ajinca, a solid third big. Guard also at least has several capable bodies present – Holiday first, with guys like Rondo, Clark and Moore also in tow. The Pelicans will have some expected continuity on their side with Cousins able to spend the summer working with his teammates, and this could be valuable. There are also basically zero fit or role questions present in New Orleans: Everyone knows what’s expected of them, and there shouldn’t be any kind of an adjustment period in that respect.
Beyond their top three players, this is a dangerously thin team depth-wise. They’ve got bodies in the guard rotation, as we noted above, but Holiday is the only truly reliable name on that list at this point – if the injury bug struck him again at any point, the Pelicans would be in huge trouble there. They’re even thinner on the wings, where guys like Moore and Allen will be asked to play major roles. Hill’s injury really hurt here. The Pelicans have the top-end talent to hang with just about anyone, but even a single significant injury to one of their primaries will make depth a major problem right away.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is what the Pelicans have done over the last few years, and particularly this year, enough to keep their star-studded frontcourt interested in staying?
Cousins can go elsewhere after this season, and the Brow Free Agency Watch has already begun in earnest despite three years still left on his contract (plus a player option for a fourth, though he’s likely to decline this). Behind these two and Holiday, the Pelicans have very little going for them in a team-building sense. They didn’t send a huge amount to Sacramento for Cousins, but their only semi-blue chip youngster, Buddy Hield, was part of the package. Losing one of the two would be a big problem, and eventually losing both would be devastating for the franchise.
So while the results for this season obviously matter and clearly tie in with the overall theme, there’s an eye to the future as well. If the team underperforms to start the year and isn’t in the realistic playoff picture, they’ll have to consider what they might get in return for Cousins if he looks unlikely to re-sign. In a broader sense, the ticking clock will only get louder on Davis if the team isn’t able to take significant steps forward this season after giving up assets for Cousins at the deadline last year. It’s a huge year in New Orleans.
NBA Daily: The Evolution of Championship Teams
Win or lose, reaching the NBA Finals is a monumental achievement for any team. Getting to the top of the mountain is great, but staying there is the real challenge. Chad Smith looks into why the championship window has gotten even tighter for these organizations.
The 2019-20 season is rounding into form as the final two months of the regular season begin to pan out. While the natural reaction is to pay attention to the contending teams at the top of the standings, it is important to recognize the teams at the very bottom of each conference. Those teams are the Cleveland Cavaliers (16-41) in the East and the Golden State Warriors (12-46) in the West.
It is no secret what has been going on with the Warriors this year. Injuries have decimated this group, as all three of their superstars from their championship runs have gone down or went elsewhere. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson both had devastating injuries in back-to-back games in the NBA Finals. Durant ultimately left the Bay Area and traveled east to Brooklyn.
The Splash Brothers remain, but Stephen Curry hasn’t played since October and the team has stated that Thompson will not play at all this season as he continues his rehab. Curry is aiming to return to the floor after this weekend, but there isn’t anything to play for this late into the season.
Similar to the Warriors losing Durant, the Cavs were dealt a major blow when LeBron James left for the second time. His move to the Los Angeles Lakers was justified after he delivered on a championship for his home city. That trophy came with a cost though, as Cleveland has been in purgatory ever since his departure.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel is one thing, but the Cavs have truly hit rock bottom. It may have been doomed from the start, as they made a surprising move in hiring John Beilein. The 67-year old coach was given a five-year contract, though he had never coached a single game in the NBA. Naturally, the fit was less than ideal and after some serious bumps in the road, the two parted ways after just 54 games.
In the four years that LeBron spent during his second stint in Cleveland, they went to The Finals every single year. In their first season without him last year, they finished 19-63, which was the second-worst record in the league just ahead of the circus in New York.
The Warriors and Cavs met in the Finals in four consecutive years from 2015-18. The Warriors made a fifth consecutive trip last year, where they fell apart against the Toronto Raptors.
Toronto had been the punch line of playoff jokes for a number of years, and for good reason. They always came out of the gate stumbling, losing their first game of a series almost like clockwork. That ended last year when Masai Ujiri made the bold move to acquire Kawhi Leonard. They understood the risk of moving one of their most beloved and loyal players in DeMar DeRozan for what would ultimately be a one-year rental.
That one year is all the Raptors needed though, as they pushed all of their chips towards the middle of the table. These types of bold and risky moves are almost a necessity in today’s game, where you need top-tier talent more than ever. Player empowerment and the “business” of the league can coexist — in the right environment.
We saw a prime example of this even before the Golden State era. Pat Riley has always held this stance and proved it in Miami. After getting LeBron and Chris Bosh to team up with Dwyane Wade, the Miami HEAT were instantly labeled a super team. The players invoked their power, but they also understood the business side of things and made it work.
Riley has swung more deals since that dynasty ended, with Jimmy Butler as his primary focus for the immediate future. Their core looks promising, but Miami will not be patient and wait for everyone to develop. Even as one of the top teams in the East, they are not afraid of cashing in these resources in order to win now, because that is ultimately what this is all about. Winning. Not in a year or two, but now.
No one needs to tell Daryl Morey that, as he has drastically re-shaped his Rockets team seemingly every year. Forget about the future, he is dealing superstars left and right, making any move necessary to prepare his team to win this season.
That approach may be something that has held the Boston Celtics back in recent years. Danny Ainge has been hell-bent on trading away their future draft picks. While incredibly enticing at the time, those picks have now flattened as the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings have improved. The hesitation to deal those future picks for win-now players in their prime may come back to haunt him.
Boston still has an exceptional team loaded with talent, but it just feels as though they are missing something. Obviously, the move for Kyrie Irving didn’t pan out, nor did the acquisition of Al Horford, but their core five players are sensational, and Brad Stevens has shown that he is capable of leading a team to the top of the mountain.
Looking at the team with the best record in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks appear to be doing things right. They have arguably the best player in the game in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is likely to have back-to-back MVP seasons in Milwaukee. They are clearly not a large-market team, but they have been operating like one. They understand the importance of all of the factors surrounding this team.
The number one item at the top of the list is to make Giannis feel like it is a place where he can win. As he enters free agency, the last thing they want him to think is that the grass might be greener someplace else. Mike Budenholzer is considered one of the five best coaches in the league. He has figured out how to use the Greek Freak to his maximum value. Jon Horst and the front office have done a marvelous job of surrounding him with the tools he needs.
The willingness to move on from such a promising young talent like Malcolm Brogdon is evidence that they understand the value of winning right now. If they can use the draft pick they acquired to land another top-level player on this roster, it will pay off in a big way. If anything else, it will show Giannis that they are committed to making any moves necessary to keep him there.
The main storyline heading into this season was the depth and the balance of the league. There were not one or two teams that would reign supreme for the entire season. The Western Conference is absolutely loaded, and things are just as competitive with the top six teams in the Eastern Conference. The area of separation is very slim. The trade deadline has come and gone, but buyout candidates and deals in the summer will be critical to the success of teams this season and next.
The win-now mentality has trickled down from front offices to the players. They each now have the power to drastically alter the landscape of the league.
No one is a safe bet anymore, not even the San Antonio Spurs and their 22-year playoff streak.
NBA Daily: 76ers Should Look To Shake Milton For Point Guard Duties
With Ben Simmons out for an extended period, the Philadelphia 76ers will need to rely on a committee of potential ball-handlers to fill those minutes. Quinn Davis looks at one of those candidates and why he should get the bulk of that responsibility.
During the Philadelphia 76ers’ first practice following the All-Star break, Ben Simmons felt some discomfort in his back. The team initially listed him as questionable for their game against the Brooklyn Nets before ruling him out after a pre-game warmup.
The official designation at the time was back tightness, a seemingly short-term nuisance. Concerns were further alleviated when Simmons was listed as probable for a showdown against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday before starting that game.
Sixers fans’ halcyon lasted no more than five minutes, as Simmons was sent to the locker room early in the Bucks game. He was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game and reports followed saying that Simmons would be given an MRI on Sunday.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Simmons had suffered a nerve impingement and would be re-evaluated in two weeks. The actual timeframe for his return to action will likely not be decided on until that re-evaluation.
With Simmons out for an extended period, the team will need contributions from an ensemble cast of ball-handlers. Brown was asked before the game about his decision on who will take the lion’s share of those duties. He answered that it will be “by committee,” citing Josh Richardson, Alec Burks, Shake Milton and Raul Neto as possible candidates.
Out of those four, Milton may be the best option. His combination of point guard skills and three-point shooting make him a good candidate to play with the starters as he did Monday against the Hawks.
Milton’s start was not the only surprise, as Al Horford was also moved back in the starting lineup after being relegated to the bench just before the All-Star break. The decision was prudent as that group got off to a hot start and powered the Sixers to a 41 point first quarter.
Milton was asked after the game about the conversation that preceded his starting nod.
“There was no conversation,” Milton said. “He just came in and slapped my name on the board, that’s how I found out.”
Milton was then asked whether there was any specific preparation for the role.
“No, but it’s my job to be ready for whatever the team needs me to do, I feel comfortable on the ball, I feel comfortable off the ball. When someone goes down, and you don’t want to see injuries, but it’s next man up.”
Milton looked prepared enough, albeit against one of the league’s worst defenses. In 26 minutes, he tallied 7 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists while tying for a team-high plus-21.
While Milton is a riskier play than veterans Burks and Neto, he has a clear advantage in upside. He has shown an improved ability to get to the rim this season and has flashed nice passing ability in tight spaces.
One of the keys to running the offense while Simmons is out will be the ability to get the ball to Joel Embiid on time and on target. Here, the Sixers run one of their more frequently used plays with Richardson setting the screen for Embiid to roll to the rim. The Hawks get caught up on the screen, Milton recognizes that Embiid has sprung free and makes the pass. It’s a tad high, but Embiid hauls it in and gets the layup.
The Sixers also like to run dribble handoffs with their star center. None have perfected it as JJ Redick did in the previous two seasons, but Milton could be useful in this action. This was not on display Monday night, but they have run it with Milton earlier in this season. Here is an example from an earlier contest against the Hawks last month.
Damian Jones jumps out to contest the shot, so Milton finds the rolling Embiid for the dunk.
The obvious caveat here is that both of the above clips were from games against one of the league’s worst defenses. Milton will face more resistance against other teams who will not allow Embiid to get a wide-open role to the rim, leaving Milton with the task of either driving or hitting the pull-up jumper.
His proficiency in those plays will certainly be a factor in his playing time. His passing overall is solid and maybe the best out the Sixers’ backup guard contingent. He can read defenses well thanks to his experience as a point guard through college and in his time in the G League. If he begins to flash close to the pull-up scoring ability of Burks, he will quickly rise to the top of this group.
On the other side of the ball, Milton has held his own. He came into the season with defense being one of his most apparent weaknesses, but he has worked to improve on that end and was tested on Monday against some solid offensive players. While Milton isn’t close to the defender that Simmons and Richardson are, his length and effort level can make him serviceable on that end.
Milton was even tasked with guarding Trae Young for brief periods. Young can make any defender look silly, but Milton managed to play him tight. In this play, he does a good job of sticking with Young around the screen and recovering to block the floater.
Of course, things are a little easier when a player of Embiid’s caliber is patrolling the paint. The perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate has been upping his defensive intensity the last few games, and on the above play makes Trae Young think twice about going all the way to the basket or attempt the lob.
Basketball Insiders asked Brown after the Hawks game about the confidence he has in Milton’s defense.
“He comes in and plays as if he belongs,” Brown said. “He can guard better than I originally thought. He’s got some legit point guard thinking in his psyche and I think he can guard multiple positions.”
And, further, on his defensive improvement:
“Just having a year being around players who are as good as they are,” Milton stated. “When you’re going up against guys like these every day, it forces you to get better and it forces you to work harder.”
Given the success in Philadelphia’s first game, Milton will likely stay as the starter. With Simmons out for an extended period, Brown should stick with him in that spot to foster some chemistry between the young guard and Embiid.
If Milton continues to play well, he could carve out a role for when Simmons returns to the lineup. It’s certainly possible that a tightened playoff rotation leads to Richardson being the only guard on the floor when Simmons sits. If Brown feels more ball-handling is needed, though, it will likely come down to Milton and Burks for that spot.
Burks has the edge in experience, which is usually one of the biggest factors in rotation decisions come April. Burks also is a proven scorer out of the pick-and-roll, an area where the Sixers lack. With that said, Milton’s all-around play could be more valuable for a team with two stars that he will likely be sharing the court with.
There is time for those decisions, though. For now, the Sixers will need to find a way to go on a run and secure home-court without their star point guard.
Taking a chance on Milton’s upside may be their best shot.
NBA Daily: Samanic, Johnson Impressing With Austin Spurs
David Yapkowitz speaks with two young San Antonio Spurs standouts, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, about their time in Austin with the G League.
For rookies starting their NBA careers in today’s league, their journey is a little bit different than in the past.
In prior years, rookies who weren’t in the rotation immediately were often buried on the bench and relegated to garbage time minutes. It could be a frustrating and difficult situation for players used to being team focal points in college or high school.
What’s changed within the past decade is the way NBA teams have used the G League. The G League has grown tremendously to the point where almost every NBA team has its own affiliate. The New Orleans Pelicans became the 28th team to have an affiliate this season with the Erie Bayhawks, leaving only the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers without a G League team.
More and more NBA teams have begun using their G League affiliates to get their young players playing time and development that they wouldn’t receive by staying the entire season with their NBA parent club.
One team that has taken full advantage in recent years of having a G League affiliate is the San Antonio Spurs. When the Columbus Dragons of the then NBA D League relocated to Austin, Texas, they were purchased by the Spurs and renamed the Austin Toros. They’ve since changed their name to the Austin Spurs.
Throughout their team history, Austin has had several call-ups to the NBA, and San Antonio has used its affiliate to get young players seasoning and development. Within the past five years, Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker, all Spurs first-round draft picks, saw extensive time in the G League as rookies.
Coming into this season, San Antonio had two first-round picks, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, who didn’t figure to be in the rotation right away. To this point, Samanic has yet to suit up for San Antonio and Johnson has played in only four games. Both have spent the majority of their time in Austin.
Samanic was an intriguing prospect with a bit of a versatile skill set when the Spurs made him the 19th overall pick in last summer’s draft. He can score in the paint, handle the ball a bit and has improving range on his jump shot.
A native of Croatia, Samanic played professionally in Slovenia and Spain before declaring for the 2019 NBA draft. As a youth, he participated in the Adidas EuroCamp, an NBA pre-draft camp, and he had a few Division 1 schools monitoring him. He opted to play professionally while preparing for the NBA.
He’s spent the entirety of his rookie year thus far in Austin, where he’s been adjusting to the American pro game.
“It’s much different. I go from game-to-game and we practice a lot so that’s made it easier,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “Being with this group has helped me a lot, too. Just being more physical, coming here and adjusting to the physicality.”
In 31 games with Austin, Samanic is putting up 15.3 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting from the field to go with 7.6 rebounds. He’s had several double-doubles and after struggling a little bit early in the season, seems to have found a bit of a rhythm. He’s shooting only 31.9 percent from three-point range on the year, but in January, he was at 34 percent.
He credits the staff in Austin with helping his game and getting him adjusted to NBA style play. He knows that this season is mostly about development in Austin, but he does have the goal of making a difference for San Antonio by next year.
“I can bring the same things I bring to Austin. Whatever [Gregg Popovich] needs me to do, I’ll do,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “I just want to adjust as much and as quick as possible. Get experience and then next year, I’m trying to be in the rotation in San Antonio.”
In Johnson’s case, he’s been brought up to San Antonio for a few games here and there, but has also spent the majority of his rookie season with Austin. He was a highly-touted prospect at Oak Hill Academy and played only one season at Kentucky before declaring for the NBA draft.
Once projected to be a lottery pick, Johnson has the ability to be an impact player on the wing. He can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. He has a strong inside game too and has the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. He’s shown flashes in the G League of why he was considered to be a steal when the San Antonio grabbed him with the 29th pick.
He, too, credits the G League with helping him adjust to the NBA level and is confident he can contribute to San Antonio’s rotation if needed.
“I think the main things are pace and just staying in shape. Getting up down, getting my body right and eating right,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Just playing hard and playing defense. Everything else will come in time. As long as I can be myself and do what I know I can do, I’ll be fine.”
Johnson has been one of the top standouts for Austin this season. He’s started in 29 of the 30 games he’s played in the G League and put up 20 points per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists. The one area he stands to improve upon is his outside shooting, as he’s only converting on 23.3 percent of his long-range attempts.
He was recently named to the Western Conference mid-season All-G-League team and if his performances are any indication, the Spurs could have another diamond in the rough on their hands. So far, he’s been impressed with the level of competition he’s faced up against in the G League. He knows that since he has an NBA contract, he’s getting everyone’s best shot night in and night out.
“I think it’s everything you can ask for. You’re playing against great players, night in and night out,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “You don’t get to take days off. Everybody is grinding, they’re hungry, we come in and they’re ready to play. You’ve got to be ready every night.”
The G League regular season ends next month, but Austin is one of the top teams in the league and could be playing into mid-April in the G League Finals. Johnson will likely be assigned to Austin for the duration of their playoff run, making next season his opportunity to get minutes in San Antonio.
For now, he’s continuing to work on his game and be ready for whenever his name should be called upon.
“I just want to get better and be the best Keldon Johnson I can be,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Throughout my rookie season, just staying consistent is the main thing. Just get better honestly, that’s my main goal.”