The San Antonio Spurs front office is no stranger to drafting foreign-born prospects—could they potentially dip back into the international talent pool in 2019 NBA Draft?
Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker,. Beno Udrih, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, Aron Baynes. The aforementioned are just a handful of international players the San Antonio Spurs front office has been able to identify in the draft process over the years. If the championship banners hanging in the AT&T Center are any indication, several of those selections have paid their dividends, and then some.
Similar to the introduction of sabermetrics by Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane in Major League Baseball, which ushered in a new era of analytics that would forever change the landscape of scouting in the sport, the Spurs were among the first pioneers to delve into the international talent pool and popularize the idea of utilizing foreign-born prospects to serve as the cornerstones of their franchise.
Along with the 20-plus years of consistent, championship-level basketball, the various iterations of the Spurs rosters over the years have always been an amalgam of international flavors that Gregg Popovich has skillfully been able to extract the most out of.
With three draft picks and a slew of international prospects available in this year’s upcoming draft, don’t be surprised if the Spurs end up selecting a player that wasn’t necessarily a household name in college basketball this past year.
This article is dedicated to examining some of the top international players in this draft and how they could potentially fit on the San Antonio Spurs roster.
Next: Sekou Doumbouya
French forward Sekou Doumbouya has been stealing many of the headlines in the EuroLeague this past year. While he doesn’t have the acclaim or accolades that presumptive Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic did a season ago coming from the EuroLeague, Doumbouya has all of the makings of an elite prospect.
In mid-April Doumbouya announced that he would declare for the 2019 NBA Draft, making him the youngest eligible prospect in this year’s upcoming draft. Doumbouya won’t turn 19 until December 23rd, forecasting him to be the youngest player to make his rookie debut since the league instituted the age limit in 2005 since Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013 (turned 19 on Dec. 6).
Doumbouya’s youthfulness has not stopped him from being one of the more intriguing players in Europe as well as a key member for Limoges in the French Pro A League. Although Doumbouya hasn’t posted eye-popping numbers (6.6 points and 3 rebounds in about 17 minutes per game through 30 contests), he’s shown plenty on both ends of the floor that will force an NBA team to potentially spend a lottery pick to acquire him.
The first thing teams will notice about Doumbouya is his athleticism. I wouldn’t characterize him as being explosive, but the 6’9″ forward can glide through the lane with his leaping steps and has the hops to throw down some nasty lobs.
Offensively, Doumbouya is a jack-of-all trades. He’s not an elite shooter, knocking down only 31.7 percent of his three-pointers, but he can be effective with time and space. Doumbouya is active in the transition game, quickly streaking up the court after a defensive rebound, allowing him to be the beneficiary of several easy buckets.
In the half court, Doumbouya has the strength to bully smaller defenders and get to the basket, but he’s also shifty enough to attack bigger and stronger players and finish through contact around the rim.
Further, scouts will love Doumbouya’s basketball IQ. While he’s still learning the game, Doumbouya has a great feel for positioning and is a smart cutter. And although he’s an average shot creator, he’s an unselfish player who can make plays for his teammates.
Most of my reservations about Doumbouya stem from his youth. While it’s admirable that he’s spent the last few years banging against grown men in the post as a teenager, he’s still relatively new to the game and that comes with natural growing pains as he continues to mature and gain confidence.
As mentioned, Doumbouya isn’t a spot-up shooter. If anything, the best way to describe him would be as a streaky shooter at this point in his young career. His shooting mechanics could use a bit of a tune-up as he currently has a very high-arching, rainbow-esque shot. If he ended up in San Antonio, shooting guru Chip Engelland could help Doumbouya create a more fluid shooting motion with a tighter rotation.
Doumbouya is a solid defender. His length and athleticism allow him to switch multiple positions, and he has the ability to guard smaller defenders. But Doumbouya needs to develop better footwork and a lower defensive stance to prevent getting blown by.
Even if he is beaten off the initial dribble drive, Doumbouya is athletic enough to recover and challenge the shot or get a chase-down block. Less reliance on his recovery skills and better defensive principles will come with time as Doumbouya gets experience playing in the league.
Doumbouya has already shown teams enough to take a shot and bet on him being a home run. Some like to compare his raw skillset to that of Giannis Antetokounmpo when he first came to the NBA. While I’m not ruling out that type of exponential growth trajectory for Doumbouya, I would say a more realistic player comp would be Pascal Siakam, another long and athletic player that can do a little bit of everything.
The addition of Doumbouya to the Spurs’ roster would be ideal for a team that’s was lacking consistent wing play last season. Even if the Spurs do add a wing in free agency, Doumbouya could still carve out a role on this team, especially at the defensive end.
With the return of Dejounte Murray, an NBA All-Defensive player, the emergence of Derrick White as a legitimate two-way guard and the potential selection of Doumbouya, the Spurs could be fielding a young nucleus of defensively stout players.
With San Antonio picking twice in the second half of the first round of the draft, Doumbouya might be just out of their range with plenty of teams probably eyeing him late in the lottery. However, the Spurs did not expect Lonnie Walker IV, another lottery-level talent, to drop all the way to the 18th pick in last year’s draft so perhaps the Spurs can get lucky again.
Next: Goga Bitadze
Georgian native Goga Bitadze has made an impressive leap over the past season, splitting time playing with Buducnost and KK Mega Bemax in the Adriatic League. This leap will most likely vault the 19-year-old into the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft.
Bitadze has been a consistent force in the paint, padding the stat sheet with a myriad of offensive and defensive stats, which led him to follow in the footsteps of Nikola Jokic and Dario Saric as former MVPs of the Adriatic League now playing in the NBA.
With a number of highly-touted big men in this year’s draft class, ranging from Bol Bol, Jaxson Hayes, Brandon Clarke, PJ Washington and more, Bitadze, the 6’11” center, will also firmly be in the mix for teams searching for a big in the first round.
Although Bitadze posted solid numbers with Buducnost, 12.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game, he significantly boosted all of his stats when he joined KK Mega Bemax averaging 20.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks over the last 11 games.
Bitadze’s impressive 2018-19 campaign would indicate to many teams that he’s ready to contribute right away at the next level. While I would contend he’s not a draft-and-stash player like Dario Saric, I believe he’ll be best suited coming off the bench or even spending a good portion of the year in the G-League before he gets a shot at cracking the starting lineup for most squads.
With an already fundamentally sound array of skills, Bitadze can impact the game on both ends of the floor, which will be very appealing to teams seeking a versatile two-way player.
Offensively Bitadze fits the mold of your traditional center, equipped with several post moves and above-average footwork that allow him to get to the basket with ease. However, he’s also an efficient shooter, connecting on 41.7 percent of his three-point attempts while playing for KK Mega Bemax.
Therefore, Bitadze’s game falls in nicely line with the current trend of bigs who can step away from the basket and knock down the long ball. His offensive versatility and ability to space the floor as a stretch-five will check off a lot of boxes for teams like the Spurs who have players such as LaMarcus Aldridge, who are more comfortable operating within the mid-range.
Further, Bitadze is a heady player with a great natural feel for the game. He’s very effective working in the pick-and-roll, but, as mentioned, his game is fluid enough to allow him to pop back behind the three-point line depending on the matchup. If he’s able to get in the lane, Bitadze has the ability to finish around the rim effectively with either hand, an underrated skill for a big at his age.
Bitadze is also very active in the transition game for a player with his size. He’s usually one of the first players down the court setting up advantages in fast breaks that result in easy looks for Bitadze or other teammates. In addition, his handles are solid enough that he feels confident initiating the offense after a missed shot or a turnover.
Bitadze is also a load on the defensive side, handing out chase-down blocks to any interested parties and erasing over-exuberant poster attempts out of existence. Although he’s not crazy athletic, Bitadze’s length and size has allowed him to be a defensive menace in the Adriatic League and I expect his defensive prowess to translate to the next level even if his offensive game lags behind at the start of his NBA career.
Even though his breakout MVP season in the Adriatic League put him in the same rarified air as Nikola Jokic, Bitadze’s game is a long way from mirroring that of the Joker’s, who should be in the conversation for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the season he’s put together. While he’s a willing distributor, I don’t think Bitadze’s passing will ever reach the level Jokic has attained over the last few years.
However, I believe a more apt comparison would be Kristaps Porzingis, the Latvian star who also built up a considerable resume playing abroad before being drafted. Both players have very similar makeups: long centers who can stretch the floor with the three-ball and excellent shot-blockers.
Bitadze actually produced better numbers during his 2018-19 season than Porzingis did during his time playing with Real Betis prior to making the jump to the NBA. Porgzingis’ unicorn mystique opened the door for general managers and scouts to find the next version of him and Bitadze might just fit that prototype.
The Spurs would greatly benefit from an injection of Bitadze into their lineup. As a rookie he would probable to play behind Jakob Poeltl at the center position, but his versatility and ability to space the floor would allow him to congeal effectively with Aldridge.
Bitadze also plays with a feistiness and flair that could provide the Spurs with a boost in personality and energy as they enter a new era in this storied franchise.
Next: Luka Samanic
Last but not least, we have Luka Samanic, the shifty 6’10” power forward who spent the 2018-19 season playing for Petrol Ljubljana of the Slovenian League and ABA League. Spurs general manager R.C. Buford has already been in Europe scouting Samanic.
Perhaps Samanic was able to curry some favor with Buford, who watched the 19-year-old Croatian record 17 points and 11 rebounds to help propel his team to victory. Over the course of the season, Samanic has been averaging 8.2 points and 5 rebounds while shooting 44.3 percent from the floor and 36.8 percent from downtown.
Obviously Samanic’s game is intriguing enough that Buford felt compelled to see him in action less than a week after the Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs.
The lanky 6’10” forward has a twitchy feel to his offense. He loves to take defenders off the dribble and has an assortment of spin moves, jump stops and around-the-back maneuvers he can utilize to get to the basket effectively.
Although he’s not an elite athlete, Samanic has a quick first step for his size that allows him keep defenders slightly off balance when he attacks. Further, his ability to drain the three-pointer efficiently adds another dimension to his offense by getting opponents to bite on shot-fakes before hitting them with that quick first step, which sets up a drive to the rim or a kick out to a teammate.
Samanic is an intelligent player who has an instinctive feel for the game. Putting him in an unselfish environment like the Spurs that emphasizes the passing to the open man would help him to continue to grow as a passer and playmaker.
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One of Samanic’s most identifiable weaknesses is his lack of strength, which is expected of many 19-year-old prospects. Weighing in at roughly 215-lbs, Samanic can struggle on both sides of the ball due to his slight build.
Offensively, Samanic has trouble posting up bigger players and that lack of power can often lead him to commit turnovers or take poor shots. On the other end, Samanic is not strong enough to hold up against more stout big men, which results in him getting bullied in the paint, and he’s not quick enough to contain smaller and quicker guards.
Samanic’s lack of defensive versatility will be one of the red flags teams uncover when they look at the tape. Another knock against Samanic has been his internal motor; some believe he can become passive throughout the course of the game.
Overall, Samanic is an interesting prospect with several bright spots, but he also has several characteristics that make you scratch your head if you’re a scout or front office executive. Whichever franchise drafts him will hope that some of those concerns can be resolved through the natural course of physical and mental maturity attained from playing in the league.
Ironically, I would compare Samanic’s game to a player who’s already a member of the Spurs: Davis Bertans. Both forwards are deceptively athletic despite their slender frames and are proficient at knocking down the trifecta. However, neither of them are keeping opponents up at night worrying about their efficacy as a lock-down defender.
Of the three prospects analyzed in this piece, Samanic is the only one that I project falling out of the first round. Although he has potential and upside, he’s not particularly close to having an NBA body yet and he’s not skilled enough at this point in his career to warrant a first round selection.
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I like the idea of potentially looking at Samanic in the second round, but the overlap of his and Bertans’ skillsets might push the Spurs to make another selection to address a different need.