San Antonio Spurs rookies showed out in last year’s March Madness tournament
By Dylan Carter
Even though we won’t get to see a March Madness tournament this year, we can look back and remember the San Antonio Spurs rookies who dominated last year.
For the first time in a long time, the San Antonio Spurs drafted three players in last year’s NBA Draft. While the 19th overall pick, Luka Samanic, was picked from overseas, both Keldon Johnson and Quinndary Weatherspoon showed out when given the chance during March Madness last year.
The NCAA Tournament is not going to take place this season because of the coronavirus outbreak and national emergency, but there’s plenty of tape to look back at and enjoy. Many Spurs fans don’t pay a lot of attention to college basketball with their focus locked on their team in San Antonio and missed out on some spectacular performances by players who’re now in the league.
Johnson, who was a one-and-done freshman at Kentucky, put together a spectacular game in the first of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats won three games and lost in the Elite Eight against Auburn and Johnson was a pivotal key to their success.
Meanwhile, Weatherspoon and the Mississipi State Bulldogs were bounced in a first-round upset to the 12th seeded Liberty. Weatherspoon did everything in his power to stop this from happening, but his team couldn’t overcome the Flames’ three-point onslaught.
These rookies both put on defining performances in the NCAA Tournament that helped improve their draft stock and caught the Spurs’ attention. While Johnson had been on many team’s radars beforehand, Weatherspoon likely wouldn’t have been selected had the Spurs not brought him along in the second-round. It was a make-or-break performance for a player who’s proving himself worthy of an NBA roster spot as a rookie on a two-way contract.
First, we’ll look at our resident Wildcat and his incredible game for a national college basketball powerhouse.
Next: Keldon shows out on the big stage
Dominating the pride of the Southland Conference
Anything can happen when the NCAA Tournament comes around, which is why the phrase “March Madness” has been ingrained in American culture. Even though Kentucky was the clear favorite in its first-round meeting with the Abilene Christian Wildcats, no matchup can be taken lightly—Especially in the 5 vs. 12 section of the bracket.
Johnson wore his heart on his sleeve and dominated in the Wildcats’ 79-44 victory over Abilene Christian, finishing with 25 points and six boards in 31 minutes of play. The freshman made 10-of-16 shots including three of his five shots from beyond the arc and two of three free throws.
As Spurs fans have become accustomed to, Johnson attacked the basket head-on with 70 percent of his made field goals coming on two-point shots. Kentucky got out to a sizeable lead early in the game surged by multiple baskets in the paint from Johnson. His ability to position himself for under the rim for physical layups was a skill that likely caught the Spurs’ attention in the scouting process.
We’ve become accustomed to Johnson favoring a slashing playstyle before stepping into deep jumpers, which was the case in this game as well. Keldon didn’t hit his first triple until 28 seconds before halftime off a feed from Ashton Hagans for a triple at the top of the key. Games like this assured NBA scouts that he’s capable of shooting with some volume, as long as he’s comfortable within the flow of his team’s offense.
The Wildcats went on to play three more games and Johnson teetered off but remained an effective two-way athlete. He turned his focus toward playing intense defense and limiting the volume of his shots, but he was still an impactful player. Johnson averaged 13.8 points, 6.8 boards and 1.8 assists for the rest of the tournament and helped the Wildcats overcome a very capable Houston team in the Sweet Sixteen.
Johnson’s March Madness journey came to an end in the next round despite his double-double. Just a few, short months later, he found himself in San Antonio on the next step of his career.
Next: Quinndary weathers one last storm
Quinndary was a one-man army against Liberty
On another side of the bracket from Keldon was Quinndary Weatherspoon and the Mississippi State Bulldogs as a fifth seed themselves. Squaring off against the Liberty Flames, a twelfth seed from the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Bulldogs entered the game cool, calm and collected. Their sense of urgency, or lack thereof, ended up being their undoing.
Weatherspoon, however, entered the game prepared to give it his all. The senior guard scored seven of his team’s first 11 points including a thunderous fastbreak dunk off a feed from his running mate, guard Lamar Peters, who currently plays for the Westchester Knicks. His third bucket was a contested three-point shot to separate from the Flames, who brought the game within one point.
As Peters got hot midway through the first half, Weatherspoon took a backseat and played a more conservative game. That didn’t last, as Weatherspoon’s red-hot pursuit of buckets in the paint led him to 13 makes on 16 free throw attempts.
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This was one of the senior guard’s single best performances of his career, scoring 27 points on 6-of-12 shooting including two triples. He smothered his opposition on defense, racking up two steals and a block in the process. Even with Weatherspoon and Peters combining for 48 points, Liberty mounted a comeback in the second half that sent them past the fifth-seeded Bulldogs.
Peters didn’t end up getting drafted, but he’s making a name for himself by playing hard in the minor leagues. The same can be said for Quinndary, but he was able to hear his name get called on draft night, earning a spot on the Spurs’ roster as a two-way player.
Losing in such embarrassing fashion definitely hurt, but this wasn’t Weatherspoon’s fault. He put the team on his back and played a great game on both sides of the floor. Only one player besides Weatherspoon and Peters scored more than five total points for Mississippi State and the duo had roughly 73 percent of the team’s assists as well.
Now that he’s a Spur, Weatherspoon doesn’t have to worry about teammates who fall short in big moments. After being the leader as a senior, he’s back to being at the bottom of the totem pole with a world of opportunity in front of him.