Two San Antonio Spurs rookies made their debuts in a recent blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets and we got a nice glimpse at their potential.
In the second game of a three-game road trip, the San Antonio Spurs took a 19-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets. It was an ugly game from the jump—so ugly that we’re not even going to talk about the middle of the game itself.
Instead, we’ll focus on the glimmer of light in the midst of a rough night, which was the rookie debut of Luka Samanic and the second game of guard Quinndary Weatherspoon in the fourth quarter of the contest. Furthermore, rookie wing Keldon Johnson logged a career-high 21 minutes and showed off his dazzling skill set in the process.
Samanic and Weatherspoon shot a combined 0-for-6 from the field for a whopping zero points. As alarming as this may seem, it makes perfect sense for a two-way player and a 20-year-old rookie who wasn’t supposed to be in the league this year anyway. It was stated from the jump that Samanic would likely be a draft-and-stash, but San Antonio decided to bring him along and develop him in the United States instead.
Despite the loss and disappointing shooting, there were some interesting tidbits to consider with the young guns on the floor. This confirmed my suspicion that Johnson is by far the most NBA-ready rookie of the bunch and that Samanic has a skill set that will translate beautifully to the league once he’s truly ready to unleash it.
Before taking a look at what didn’t work for the rookies, let’s focus on what they did right and why you should be excited to see these players blossom.
Next: Always look on the bright side of life
The Bright Side
Even though none of their shots dropped, Samanic and Weatherspoon had very telling shot selection. Samanic, in particular, was taking the exact kinds of shots that San Antonio wants him to once he’s ready to work his way into the rotation. The 20-year-old took four shots including two uncontested three-pointers and two layups.
There are enough Spurs taking mid-range shots that it’s just not necessary for him to emphasize that part of his game right now. His three-point stroke looked nice and his shots connected with the rim, but neither of them fell, whether it be due to nerves or shot mechanics.
Either way, his performance tonight is not an inditement against what he’ll look like when the Spurs are ready to give him meaningful minutes.
Samanic also finished with an encouraging three assists. In the modern game, much of a team’s offense can run through skilled big men who can pass. Having a power forward who can connect with his teammates on offense without being the recipient every time is a valuable skill that I hope to see develop him as time goes on.
Four Spurs finished with positive plus/minus differentials. The top-four were Johnson, Weatherspoon, Samanic and two-way center Drew Eubanks. In the garbage time, the young players put on a show and outscored their opponents to close the Spurs’ gap. This is especially telling of Johnson, who logged minutes throughout the game and even played prior to garbage time.
Johnson was extremely encouraging, hitting four of his six attempts while getting to the line for six free-throw attempts. He attacked the basket with ferocity, drawing opposition into the paint and finishing through contact on two separate occasions.
He even hit one of his two three-point attempts in stride, catching a pass from combo guard Derrick White in the corner and draining it in one flawless motion. He missed his other attempt, which was even more wide open than the first, but he’ll learn to keep a cool head and hit these shots in the future.
Weatherspoon was relatively quiet, but he looked comfortable running some of the team’s offense and didn’t unnecessarily force anything. He’s a level-headed player who lets the game come to him, and just because he didn’t make much happen in this one doesn’t mean he won’t show off some of his wide-ranged skill set in the future.
Next: An honest assessment of the rooks
The rookies are rough around the edges
As you would expect for players in their first and second NBA games, Samanic and Weatherspoon looked far from polished. For everyone who called for them to make a splash in legitimate NBA minutes instead of working their way up in the G-League, there’s a reason why the Spurs don’t start their rookies off in the NBA.
Playing in Austin helps the young Spurs figure out how to adjust to a higher level of competition, and creates a sense of urgency. Players in the G-League are vying for roster spots and grinding to become NBA-caliber athletes. Having these young Spurs in that environment helps them discover who they are, what they need to work on and how to get to that point.
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Johnson committed three fouls, missed two free throws and had one clumsy turnover out of the bounds in the fourth quarter. Head coach Gregg Popovich is going to point these moments out to him and help him learn from them going forward because that’s what this time is for.
Maybe the types of shots that Samanic and Weatherspoon took were smart, but the fact that none of them went in is telling. The pressure of playing in the NBA is a lot to bear, especially under the bright lights of New York City. Even so, it’s completely necessary for these moments to take place in order for the rooks to get better.
This was a rough loss for the Spurs, who put together a horrid defensive performance. Recovering from these kinds of losses is going to be extremely difficult, especially down the home stretch of the season. If, or when San Antonio is eliminated from playoff contention, there’s a good chance that we see more of Johnson, Samanic and Weatherspoon.
These learning moments will prove pivotal for the longterm growth of the Spurs’ rookies.
*All stats and clips courtesy of NBA.com, h/t 3Ball*