Even though he didn’t make an impact, there were positive takeaways from San Antonio Spurs rookie Luka Samanic’s first year. Now, it’s time to put in work.
The period between a player’s first and second season in the NBA is crucial to their development. Entering the league knowing that it would take time to adapt, Croatian forward Luka Samanic took strides during his rookie year with the San Antonio Spurs. He exceeded expectations in the G-League despite streaky shooting and turnover problems by putting his instincts to use.
Though Samanic was a non-factor for the Spurs on the court, he’ll be in a featured role once he gets adapted to the league. Not only is it the fastest pace he’s ever been a part of, but the physicality is at an all-time high. Simply being tall and lanky isn’t enough to make this transition palpable, which the organization knew when they brought him in.
— Austin Spurs (@austin_spurs) December 15, 2019
In the final regular-season game, Samanic made his first career start for the Spurs. This was the culmination of all of his efforts in the G League and practices with the main squad. His jumper looked clean with a pretty shooting stroke and a good sense of when to launch them. Samanic ended the game with 16 points, six rebounds and three assists with a few triples and some solid defensive stances.
Granted, this was against some of Utah’s lesser-known commodities, but NBA players nonetheless. The fact that Samanic could hold his own was crucial to his long-term success with the team. His next step is to carry all that he learned into the offseason and push himself to reach the ceiling that San Antonio bought into with the 19th overall pick.
Next: Hitting the weight room
1. Samanic needs to hit the San Antonio Spurs’ weight room.
Since the day he was drafted, it was clear that adding muscle was the only path for Samanic to make it work in the NBA. This was the main point that many skeptics pointed to when the San Antonio Spurs drafted him higher than his anticipated draft range at No. 19 overall. The time between a player’s first and second year has historically been crucial for physical development.
When you’re a rookie, there are a lot of preliminary tasks to attend to before jumping into the league. There are media sessions, team meetings, clerical tasks and then the Summer League to hold one’s attention. Players get a brief amount of time before the start of training camp to gear up for this massive lifestyle change before their time becomes occupied.
During the rookie’s first offseason, there’s more of an opportunity to take care of business. Whereas Samanic didn’t have much time to add muscle before his first season began, the summer before his sophomore campaign is going to be huge for this aspect of his growth.
Samanic is a lanky forward who’s going to have trouble finishing near the rim if he doesn’t pack on some density. Rebounding is going to be an issue and he’ll get beat off the dribble when opposing forward shove him out of the way. Until he makes a name for himself, he shouldn’t expect to get many fouls calls in his favor either.
This summer, Luka needs to dedicate a chunk of his free time to put some muscle on his frame.
Next: Minor tweaks to the jumper
2. Fine-tuning Samanic’s jumper is a priority.
For all intents and purposes, Samanic’s jumper was just fine last season. He put a lot of time and effort into it, but it’ll take concentrated effort to make him a reliable and consistent jump shooter. His performance in the final game of the season was great —Especially from a jump-shooting perspective.
However, Samanic’s season-long performance in the G League left something to be desired. The 20-year-old shot only 30.7 percent from 3-point range on 153 attempts in Austin, leaving plenty of questions about his ability to extend that range in an 82-game NBA season. He entered the G League hot, hitting 35.3 percent of his threes in his first nine games.
The shot teetered off at an abysmal 27.1 percent in December. Since the new year, Samanic leveled out at roughly 31 percent from 3-point land despite his overall field-goal percentage rising to 46.6 percent. There’s certainly a lot to work with, especially with a 77.1 free throw percentage on the season.
Now, it’s a matter of getting back in the gym and putting up as many shots as possible. The San Antonio Spurs’ breakout player of the bubble, Derrick White took 500 threes every time he got in the gym last offseason. That’s the kind of energy that will take Luka from unsteady prospect to legitimate three-level scoring threat on the grandest stage in pro basketball.
Next: Become a student of the game
3. Watch plenty of game tape.
It doesn’t matter if Samanic is watching his film or highlights of other players. Now is the time to dedicate a segmented portion of his time to studying the history of the sport. So many of the greats who came before Luka got to the point they did by observing those who came before him. Now it’s his turn to learn about the sport.
There’s a reason why so many great coaches start as video coordinators — Studying the game makes for a better understanding of how it operates. Samanic’s basketball IQ is still a work in progress, so watching how other players approach the game should give him a better sense of how to do it himself.
Whether it be highlights from the San Antonio Spurs’ previous title runs, his tape from G League games in Austin, or random players he should draw inspiration from, Samanic needs to lock-in. Just because he didn’t go to college doesn’t mean he gets out of studying — Instead of reading up on world history, he needs to be schooled on basketball history both past and present.
We suggested a few players for Samanic to study during the hiatus including some whose playstyles can make an impact on his own. If he didn’t get a chance to watch them during the quarantine, now would be a great opportunity for the up-and-comer to develop good habits.
Next: Focus on conditioning
4. Samanic needs to prepare his body for extended stints of playing time.
Part of why Samanic was able to succeed in the Spurs’ final regular-season game was because head coach Gregg Popovich had a steady rotation in place. Most of the time, Samanic wasn’t playing more than 6-to-8 minutes at a time, switching in and out with the other young bigs on the squad. That’s a great way to maintain a player’s energy, but that won’t be good enough later on.
Samanic needs to be ready to run extended minutes for this Spurs squad if given the opportunity. There were times when he’d get winded playing up against physical NBA athletes. That’s normal for a guy in his position, but there are ways to combat that during the offseason.
By all means, he should take some time off to relax and enjoy his vacation. Perhaps a beach vacation and a string of cheat days are in line for the young player in his first extended time in the United States. There are plenty of amazing taquerias for the new San Antonian to explore in that span, but the time is going to come for him to focus on getting his body in peak physical form.
For the most part, Samanic seemed to have good physical conditioning. It’s part of his appeal for a player in the versatile four-spot that’s asked to do more than ever in today’s game. Still, it’ll only increase his chances of earning minutes in Pop’s rotation during the year.
Next: Grind live never before
5. Samanic needs to work like the San Antonio Spurs never picked him.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: The San Antonio Spurs don’t need to use Samanic next season. If he isn’t proving himself to be a hot commodity to overtake the minutes possessed by players like Trey Lyles and Rudy Gay, then he’s simply not going to play. Luka will spend his season riding the bench and getting reps in Austin just like last season.
You must be prepared to work always without applause
— Luka Šamanić (@SamanicLuka) August 6, 2020
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The template is in place, however, for Samanic to crack the rotation. An injury here or there is the first and most obvious way for him to get NBA minutes, but the other is what I’ll call the “Keldon Johnson model.” As Johnson got his first meaningful NBA minutes late in the season, he made it undeniable that he was worthy of playing every night.
Between his defensive tenacity, instinctual scoring, team-first mentality and coachability, Johnson made it obvious that he was ready to go. This forced the coaching staff’s hand to reduce some veteran minutes and plug Johnson into a role that didn’t even really fit his playstyle. And yet, Johnson made the most of it and by the end of the Orlando restart, his place in the rotation became undeniable. Even with certain players returning, Johnson should expect minutes early in the season next year.
This is Samanic’s best chance of playing legitimate NBA minutes next season. Barring trades, which cannot be counted on at this point, the San Antonio Spurs are rolling out a near-identical lineup from last year in 2020-21. Therefore, there’s still no space for Samanic to fit in unless he forces his way in.
Locking himself in the gym to hone his skills and reach his ceiling is the only way for Samanic to go from a shaky prospect to a budding star in this league.