During the San Antonio Spurs’ season finale against the Utah Jazz, rookie forward Luka Samanic finally showed why he was picked No. 19 in the draft.
It took until the very last moments of the 2019-20 NBA season, but the San Antonio Spurs finally got to see what their prized rookie looks like. Croatian forward Luka Samanic flew up draft boards in 2020 for his versatility at the four spot — A hot commodity in the modern NBA. Samanic is a graceful ball-handler with legitimate two-way potential who didn’t get much of a chance to show it in his first season.
That final regular-season game against the Utah Jazz was a revelation for Samanic and Spurs fans alike. Two excellent draft selections in Matisse Thybulle and Brandon Clarke were selected just after Samanic, putting the pressure on the 19-year-old to meet the bar they set. Luka’s 16-point outing was full of surprises that put that draft choice into perspective for critics.
Even though Luka’s offensive prowess is what made him such an enticing prospect, there is a lot of potential for him as a defender as well. His lengthy frame and quick footwork allow him to switch onto guards without it being a total mismatch. That, combined with his shot creation from the four-spot and improving jumper make him a candidate to jump into the rotation as soon as next year.
While Samanic doesn’t project to be a great sharpshooter as this player is, former Spurs forward Davis Bertans is a decent physical comparison for Samanic. They’re each light on their feet for players of their size with good length and underrated hustle. For Samanic, it’s the guard skills that truly set him apart from the pack.
He was especially impressive in terms of his scoring and passing in those 31 minutes against the Jazz. Here’s what stood out the most from his career-night.
Next: The Spurs don't have a guy like Samanic
Samanic adds a layer of intrigue to the San Antonio Spurs’ scoring profile
Let’s not get it twisted — The San Antonio Spurs did a good job of filling out that power forward rotation despite the circumstances. Starter Trey Lyles didn’t get a chance to compete in Orlando, but provided a pivotal spark on both sides of the floor for a suffering team all year long. However, the Spurs’ frontcourt lacks the modern versatility that players in 2020 can provide.
Samanic displayed a full range of skills, shooting 5-of-10 for 16 points against the Jazz. He drained three of his five triples and three of four shots from the charity stripe with the best +/- on the team. A large part of that came from the unlikely offensive approach that he brings to the table.
The Spurs didn’t have a true power forward who could run a 4/5 pick-and-roll until Samanic came along. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands, forcing opposing frontcourts out of the paint and into open space. That will open up the lane for cuts and spot-up jumpers as Samanic and the rotation adapt to each other.
Samanic confidently comes off of the screen by Drew Eubanks and steps into a 3-pointer with confidence and ease. The Eubanks screen gives Samanic just enough time to pull-up before his defender can close out on the shooter. So long as the Spurs extend center Jakob Poeltl this offseason, dribble handoffs (DHO) will be a deadly addition to San Antonio’s scoring profile. That’s going to be transformative for a Spurs team that largely relies on catch-and-shoot triples outside of White and the occasional pull-up from Walker.
Adding more muscle is a must for Samanic, whose lanky frame leaves some to be desired as a screener. Still, he flashed his ability to make smart decisions as a screener with Walker as the team’s primary ball-handler in this set. When the defender goes under the pick to step up to Walker, Samanic slips to the elbow, freeing himself up for a great look on the jumper. Whether he’s on or off the ball, there are going to be many ways to get Samanic loose for 3-pointers.
However, there will be times when a perimeter jumper isn’t the right look for Luka. Driving to the basket and playing near the paint is essential for any player at his position, which is why his ability to attack the basket will be so crucial. If Samanic can put his speed to use and start finishing at the rim, he’s going to be one of the more deadly three-level scorers in recent Spurs history.
Even though Samanic doesn’t convert here, it’s an encouraging sign of things to come. After corralling the pass from Belinelli at the 3-point line, Samanic makes a quick move to the basket and tries to draw contact on his way to the rim. In spite of the contact, Samanic still nearly converts the basket, which is a sign of things to come. Once he packs on more muscle and makes a bit of a name for himself, Samanic is going to convert buckets like that and get the foul call that he probably should’ve on this play.
It’s going to take a lot of work for him to earn the respect, and in turn, the whistle from those referees.
Next: Serious playmaking potential
The San Antonio Spurs may have another playmaker in Samanic
Passing the ball succinctly in team sets is such a pivotal aspect of the Spurs’ offensive style. Unselfish play and smart decision-making are what made the 22-year playoff streak possible and in part, it’s what kept them alive until the very last day of the regular season. Having Samanic adapt to that playstyle is going to make this team a greater offensive threat, even if he starts off by playing limited minutes.
Samanic had three assists and only one turnover, an offensive foul on his way to the basket, in the loss to Utah. He seems comfortable moving the ball on the perimeter and using the threat of his own shot to open up the game for others. Those in San Antonio shouldn’t expect Samanic to be this generational passer of which they can run the offense through, but he’s going to make the right read on many of these plays over time.
Here, Samanic calls for a pass with the defense failing to get set on his side of the court. When Murray spots the forward, he immediately sends a pass his way. At the time that Samanic catches the ball, two defenders are rotating in his direction as another gets pinned behind Eubanks’ post-up. This leaves Belinelli wide open in the corner, which Samanic immediately recognized, swinging the ball as quickly as he received it.
This was great instinctual playmaking from Samanic, who hadn’t even looked in Belinelli’s direction ahead of the pass. Luka recognized that this corner belonged to Marco from earlier possessions and noticed the poor positioning by Utah’s defenders. There was a lot to like about Luka’s game, but this simple pass may be the most encouraging sign of the season. The ability to make smart reads like this one bode well for his basketball IQ and his fit with the Spurs’ offense.
Earlier in the game, Luka made a similar pass as defenders recovered to contest his shot. Samanic hesitated at first, which may have disrupted the play in a different scenario. Next time, he needs to make that pass without hesitation. Regardless, Luka made the right play to get his team a wide-open triple from a reliable scorer.
There’s some veteran savvy in the Croatian rookie’s game that could earn him some playing time as soon as next season.
Next: Areas for improvement
Samanic is far from a finished product for the San Antonio Spurs
One of the easiest ways to get on head coach Gregg Popovich’s bad side is by making unnecessary fouls and Samanic racked up four of them. He deserves some benefit of the doubt — An unknown commodity going up against physical athletes is likely to get called for some fouls, but there were moments in which Luka’s blunders were completely avoidable.
Jazz forward Royce O’Neale is a nice player who doesn’t create many jumpers for himself, which makes this decision by Samanic a bit quizzical. O’Neal is coming up the court with a full head of steam and Samanic turns to defend him somewhere between five to 10 feet from the 3-point line. O’Neal isn’t a threat from that deep as a low-volume shooter who doesn’t create for himself often.
Instead of blocking off O’Neale’s lane to the basket, Luka opts to pick up early and reach for an unnecessary foul just moments into the game. It’s that kind of decision that will get a young player pulled from the lineup before really having a chance to get settled into game-pace. Plays like these aren’t going to fly once Samanic gets his chance in meaningful games.
In terms of shot selection, Samanic got a bit overzealous at times. As you can see above, his recognition of the defense when going into his own shot can be shaky. On one play, Samanic runs into a wall of defenders and decides to take an 11-foot floater instead of moving the ball. If he had been just a bit more patient, the play would’ve developed and he could’ve hit Belinelli for an open corner three. That’s something that should come with time and repetition, but his size and length allow him to make passes over most defenders. Samanic must learn to capitalize on that to hit his ceiling.
More from Air Alamo
- Rockets suffer another devasting injury before facing San Antonio Spurs
- San Antonio Spurs: 4 Players who led thrilling comeback over Wolves
- San Antonio Spurs: Devin Vassell’s drastic drop in minutes is inexcusable
- San Antonio Spurs News: Mills tapped to lead medal-favorite Australia
- Kyle Anderson schools Spurs fans in a Twitter debate about defense
Timing and NBA game pace aren’t natural for Samanic just yet and when they are, he’ll adjust these parts of his game. At the end of the first half, Samanic had a chance to beat the buzzer with this good look at a 3-point shot. Considering his height and high release point, Samanic has a chance to drain some triples that guards wouldn’t be able to by shooting over the top of players.
Hesitation isn’t going to work at this level. If Samanic doesn’t immediately fire this one, there’s very little chance of it going in. Part of what makes San Antonio’s offense work is that their slashers draw a lot of defensive attention, pulling gravity away from shooters on the opposite side of the floor.
If he pulled this shot immediately, it would’ve had a great chance of dropping in. However, his pump fake gave time for the defender to close out and get a hand in his face, causing the jumper to clank off of the front iron. Samanic has a chance to be a very nice contested shot maker and in different scenarios, that pump fake could prove useful, but not at the end of a shot clock.
There’s a lot of positive notes to take away from Samanic’s only notable NBA minutes this season.
San Antonio has a place for Samanic in the rotation so long as he keeps working at his game.
*All stats and clips courtesy of Stats.NBA.com, h/t 3Ball*