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.”
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