Is 2021 a Make-or-Break Year for Luka Samanic?

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There’s a lot of click-bait out there with titles like this, but I promise this isn’t one of those stories. What this is, is an audit of the San Antonio Spurs’ history of drafting international players 20 years into this millennium, flagged by the recent glimpses we’ve received into the organization’s latest international selection, Luka Samanic.

Look – I’ve been a Luka supporter since the Spurs selected him 19th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. With all of the guards on the team, San Antonio really needed someone in the post that could also space the floor. Luka’s combination of athleticism and perimeter potential with his 6’10” frame fits that bill. I even wrote this summer that I believe Luka is one of the three center-pieces of the puzzle for the franchise moving forward, largely on potential and position alone.

The brain trust of Brian Wright, R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich knew they were selecting a project with their first pick in the draft, but like R.C. later said,“You watch him play, and there are things that he does well, there are things that you wish he did better. If he did them that much better, he probably wouldn’t be there when we were picking. He’s a really skilled player at a position that now is requiring great skill in our league, and he’s got to tighten up his game, he’s got to get better physically.”

Former Austin Head Coach Blake Ahearn said of Luka, “You can see it on the floor for sure. He’s 6’10”, he’s super talented. There’s definitely spurts where you look and it’s exciting and fun to watch. And then there’s, like any 19 or 20-year-old, if I didn’t have three daughters and no hair, I’d pull my hair out with some of the mistakes that they make. He’s such a good guy, a good guy to be around. He’s very coachable.”

With realistic expectations set by Buford and Ahearn, I’ve been patient after seeing Luka struggle to adjust early in the G-League last season, then come into his own a bit more, only to be set back again when adjusting to the NBA level. Things looked to be clicking in the final game of the NBA bubble for Luka as he posted 16 points, six rebounds, and three assists while hitting 3-5 from 3-point range in 31 minutes against the Jazz’s bench. His behavior, however, is causing me to reconsider if he’s got it in him to be what the Spurs need – maybe.

No, Luka isn’t getting in trouble with the authorities or dating a Kardashian, but his social media before and after the NBA bubble have given us glimpses into his days, which haven’t consisted of much time in the gym, or working on his shot. Hanging out on boats, mirror pics with a young woman who may be his significant other, and updates on his new tattoo sleeves developing on both forearms dominate his almost daily Instagram stories. Now I get it, he’s young and wealthy. If I was 20 again and in his position – an NBA player and first-round pick at that – with all the perks and money that come with it, I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t be doing similar things.

I’ve never been a basketball player worth millions of dollars and the pressure that comes with it, but growing up in the digital age, we’ve been taught that we’re judged for everything we put on social media. The verdict doesn’t look like Luka’s taking his craft seriously. When the player drafted after Luka, Keldon Johnson, is spending his offseason working with sponsors and working out in the gym at 4am, Luka living his best life is harder to swallow, especially when Keldon has possibly earned his way to a starting role in San Antonio next season already. Does Luka have the right mindset to make the leap?

Sure, social media can look bad, especially since he may be working out intensely, but only sharing the fun stuff, but it goes a little deeper than that. Many believed he was mentally checked out on the bench during the NBA bubble, and his social media over the summer could hint that he’s not feeling like he’s getting the opportunities he may think he deserves. Last month I wrote that I believe he is currently in the proverbial “pit” of the development process that former Austin Spurs GM, Landry Fields, presented this summer called the Development Square.

Now, Luka Samanic is just a year into his career, and with the effect of COVID-19 on the league pausing and restarting, it was far from a typical first year at that, and he still developed well on the court. What is alarming, however, is that the behavior of Luka as I have documented so far could lead to him joining a rather long list of misses for the San Antonio Spurs on international prospects.

Since 2000, the Spurs have turned in 35 selection slips at the NBA Draft – that is picks that gave the Spurs the rights to the player, not selections that were traded during the draft. Of the 35 picks, 13 of them have been international players, and seven were first-round selections. There is a ton of talent around the globe, and the NBA is better for having international players, so don’t think that I don’t support the Spurs diving heavily into non-domestic waters. I do, however, believe that the organization isn’t scouting internationally effectively.

When compared with the other international selections by the Spurs in the last twenty years, Tony Parker is definitely the diamond in the rough. For the success that he was though, six of the other selections in this time frame never played a minute during the regular season for the organization: Robertas Javtokas, Luis Scola, Sergei Karaulov, Ryan Richards, Adam Hanga, and Nikola Milutinov. Scola did spend time in the NBA, but not with the Spurs, and Livio Jean-Charles did play for the organization, though with the Austin Spurs.

The Spurs have definitely found role players internationally; Tiago Splitter, Ian Mahinmi, Nando De Colo, and Beno Udrih all contributed to the Spurs as well as other organizations, with only Splitter finding space as a semi-regular starter in San Antonio. As we come back to the present, I believe it would be a disappointment for Luka Samanic to find his name among this group, especially since the team arguably needs him to be more than the aforementioned. Unlike them, he doesn’t have the benefit of the Big 3 to carry the team, let alone any long-term options really ahead of him on the roster.

The NBA Finals are done, and the draft is right around the corner. The Spurs have the 11th pick in the draft, and with it, so many possibilities. Given the “United Nations of Ball Movement” reputation, there is a chance that the Spurs could go international again with a selection like Killian Hayes or Deni Avdija. For no other reason than their success at drafting internationally, I would be hesitant, until we find out if Luka can break the trend at least, and we kinda need to know in 2021.

What do you think? Is 2021 make it or break it for Luka? Am I overreacting? Does the team’s lack of success drafting internationally have anything to even do with Luka? I’d love to hear from you. Let me know in the comments below or @JarkClonas on Twitter, and be sure to tag @ProjectSpurs.

5 COMMENTS

    • Hey Dan, thanks for coming to the site and reading my article. Manu, Aron and Fabricio weren’t included in this piece because they didn’t fit the criteria set for the scope of the article which only looks at international players drafted since 2000. “Since 2000, the Spurs have turned in 35 selection slips at the NBA Draft – that is picks that gave the Spurs the rights to the player, not selections that were traded during the draft.” Manu was drafted in the second round in 1999, Fabricio and Aron were both undrafted signings.

      Thanks again for the support!

  1. Well, the draft has passed but the question of Luka remains. Maybe bigger deal since they didn’t take a forward. I’d say it’s unlikely he will pan out. I feel like he would have spent more time in San Antonio going back and forth by now (remember SloMo’s rookie season?). Hope I’m wrong though!

    • Thank you for taking the time to read my piece! I do hope you’re wrong too. While the Spurs didn’t have a lot of size and talent in San Antonio last season, they did have money and guys they needed to test out. There’s no way they bench LaMarcus with his contract, Lyles was a new piece, and Poeltl, Metu and Eubanks all had question marks next to their fits. I believe this is the year Luka gets more run, but we won’t see his true potential for a couple more years, but progress this year would be huge.

  2. Overreacting. I think his personality is just different. He needs to time to play in the nba over the g-league now. He’s young and his whole life he was probably the main event on a basketball team and now his ego is crushed a little, which is a good thing. Now he has a chance to build it back up the right way. Also, the spurs process is probably very unusual for players and that is why a lot players joining the spurs struggle from other teams. Since he played professionally prior to joining the spurs he fits in that boat. I know the argument about Manu joining the spurs and he excelled but Manu was at a different level so he doesn’t count. Luka has a world of potential but he is also young and he is from another country, so there are probably a lot of cultural differences he is experiencing as well. I would give him this year and maybe next year before I consider cutting him loose if he doesn’t perform.

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