Second-year forward Luka Samanic has the most to prove in year two with the San Antonio Spurs.
In the 2019 NBA draft, the San Antonio Spurs used their 19th overall pick to select Croatian forward Luka Samanic. The selection of Luka was one that didn’t initially go over well with the fan base, and even some NBA Draft experts questioned the pick value.
Samanic had a successful run in the developmental league. With plenty of G League tape backing up why the Spurs believed in him enough to take him, the question now isn’t whether or not he can produce for the Austin Spurs. It’s whether he can produce while under the AT&T Center’s lights.
The Spurs need a modern forward to tie this young group together. With the selection of Devin Vassell, a hybrid guard-forward, the Spurs are still missing that true modern stretch archetype that is desperately needed in the frontcourt.
This is a role Luka is believed to be able to fill, especially with the volume of threes he took in the G League. But there isn’t enough progressional game tape to buy into Luka being a long-term answer in the Alamo City.
If San Antonio wants to sustain success throughout the 2020s, Luka Samanic must be their long-term fit in the frontcourt. For this reason, he’s the man with the most to prove as the Spurs move through training camp.
Here are some things Luka must work on with more eyes on him in his sophomore season.
Next: Becoming a better shooter
The San Antonio Spurs need Luka Samanic to be a perimiter threat
The prototypical modern NBA forward must be able to shoot the ball from deep. When you look at the game’s mst prominent power forwards, the best ones are all able to space the floor.
Last season, San Antonio was mired by their inconsistent 3-point shooting from their power forwards. Both Rudy Gay and Trey Lyles struggled from deep for months out of the 2019-20 season, something that cannot happen again if the Spurs are truly committed to a “change of play” that Coach Popovich has insisted is coming.
Lyles caught a hot streak before the NBA’s stoppage, but before his 48 percent shooting from deep occurred over his last sixteen games in December and January, he shot 27.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Rudy Gay shot well below league average from three last season at 33.6 percent on nearly 3.5 attempts per game. The significance of inconsistent shooting from deep, especially for a Spurs team that shoots the third-fewest threes per game, is that the low volume gives them no room for error when they’re facing other teams who are willing to pour it on from behind the arc.
Samanic must provide consistent shooting ability and commit to a floor-spacing role. He must show that he can be a shooting threat in the frontcourt in training camp and throughout the season.
Bad shooting nights will occur, but he must provide a consistent shooting ability from deep, and he must improve his stroke from downtown if he’s going to be a long-term answer at the power forward spot.
As of right now, he’s most comfortable offensively either shooting off the catch from three or when he’s getting post touches from the left side. He’s comfortable using his spin move in the post, but he’s a much more polished shooter than off the bounce scorer.
There are signs of encouragement regarding his shooting ability despite the percentages not being what you would hope for. He shot a tick under 31 percent from deep for the Austin Spurs on nearly five attempts per game.
While the shooting percentage gives you a lot of room to work with, there’s an art to volume shooting from deep. During his time in Austin, we saw him playing the stretch four role more often than not. He shot the second-most 3-point attempts per game on the team, and in games played without Chimezie Metu or Keldon Johnson, the offense was run through Luka.
With Samanic committing to being a volume 3-point shooter in the G League, one who also shot 77 percent from the free throw line, the foundation for success as a shooter is evident. If he can fulfill that modern forward floor-spacing role that the Spurs need, they’ll finally get their long-term answer at the four.
Next: Improve on defense
Luka Samanic needs to improve on defense if he wants to play
Luka Samanic has only played in three NBA games. He is by no means the perfect player and is far from a finished product. That being said, if Samanic’s role is going to be expanded as expected this season, he must become a better all-around defender.
He’s struggled immensely as a defender in the NBA, both as a team defender in the halfcourt and on the perimeter. Overall, he’s a work in progress on the defensive end. This is fine but is something the Spurs will have to monitor as he plays his second year in the NBA.
There are two things most notably that he needs to work on as a defender: his ability to play passing lanes and his defensive awareness.
Overall, the modern NBA power forward won’t be asked to sit on an island and defend an opposing team’s best players, but they will be asked to play a major role as a team defender and weak-side rim protector.
Luka’s defensive weaknesses can be spotted from his one true game against the Utah Jazz inside the bubble. In this first clip, you can see both of his defensive flaws on full display. There’s both a lack of defensive IQ and an inability to play passing lanes accurately – both of which are issues stemming from inexperience.
Here you see Luka over-help and collapse into the paint, which isn’t necessary when you have 7’1 Jakob Poeltl in the restricted area to defend the rim and Keldon on the opposition’s hip.
He loses sight and sound of his man, who flares to the corner for the wide-open 3-pointer. The Spurs initially luck out because he misses the three.
What follows is an offensive rebound in which Luka gives a lazy contest of both a shot and a pass that leads to a wide-open dunk.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/08/13/0021901314/371/37f62f9f-14df-9dc1-8e14-35c64b850940_1280x720.mp4
In this next clip, there’s a communication issue between Luka and Keldon. Judging by Luka’s reaction, there was supposed to be a switch that didn’t take place, which forces Dejounte Murray to collapse and pick up the ball-handler. That’s fine, but Luka reacts way too late to close out on the open shooter. It ends with an easy 3-point shot.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/08/13/0021901314/377/ea9b0371-7958-acb2-6c3f-e756365b0e9c_1280x720.mp4
Lastly, his inability to play the passing lanes is in the spotlight. Earlier in this game, he misread a passing lane in transition to the point where the ball-handler just had to make a simple bounce pass to get to his teammate for an easy dunk.
Here, it’s a little bit of the same thing, but there’s a technical issue. Samanic plays with his hips wide open, to the point where all the ball-handler has to do is make a simple read pass because Luka isn’t playing the passing lane, instead he’s playing the man. He’s playing to not get beat off the bounce. This leads to an easy bounce pass to Jarrell Brantley for an up-and-under layup despite Jakob collapsing for help.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/08/13/0021901314/393/39b6aaf5-4fc4-84bd-0c85-cd1ddafc4c27_1280x720.mp4
All in all, he must get better as a defender, especially for a Spurs team that, for years, have relied on team defense to be their foundation. He must improve with added playing time in year two or else Pop will surely cut his minutes in half.
Next: Why Luka has the most to prove
Why Luka Samanic has the most to prove for the San Antonio Spurs
As mentioned above, Samanic has the most to prove in training camp and in totality this season because he’s proven the least on the floor out of every member on the roster. He plays a position of need for the Spurs, a position that has no clear answer past a year-to-year basis.
He’s seen the least amount of in-game action out of his draft class, even less than second-round pick Quinndary Weatherspoon. His ability to prove what he has will be on trial from the second the ball tips off for the 2020 season. What the Spurs need from their power forward fits Luka’s playstyle. The Spurs don’t need him to be a franchise player but to be a core piece for the long run.
It’ll mainly come from how he’s used. Offensively, he’s best used as a shooter off the catch from three. While he does enjoy his fair share of post touches, he’s most comfortable shooting beyond the arc and at a high rate of fire. His mechanics are pretty and he has a quick one-motion shot that can get off despite being in the face of a closeout.
In this clip, Samanic sets a simple screen for Lonnie Walker and then pops out for the wide-open three. That’s how I feel he’ll be best utilized for the Spurs this season, as a floor-spacing forward. That role works with every player on the Spurs roster no matter what lineup is out there.
The most intriguing lineup to have him out there with would be one that features him alongside LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt. Aldridge’s abilities as a rim protector could cover up some of Luka’s defensive shortcomings. With LaMarcus’s new commitment to the long ball, playing the two together could give the Spurs guards the most space they’ve had in years.
You can never have too much shooting in 2020, especially from a group that can play off well of floor-spacing.
Luka is a dream teammate for guys like DeMar DeRozan, Lonnie Walker, and Dejounte Murray who excel in drive and kick passing situations or run the pick and roll efficiently. He can come off of various screens, weak side exchanges, pick and roll lifts, among a plethora of other offensive sets to catch and shoot open looks from deep.
Defensively, he’ll be asked to improve as a team defender and everything that asks of that role. From hard closeouts to playing passing lanes, weak side rim protection, and being a stout help defender, Coach Pop will lay it out there for Luka to take and run with when it comes to his playing time.
Defensively is where Pop will make Luka earn his time on the floor. It’s what he’s done with Lonnie Walker, Dejounte Murray, and others in years past.
In reality, this entire San Antonio Spurs team has a lot to prove, and they’re incredibly motivated to do so.