The San Antonio Spurs need to be scouting these 2021 NBA Draft prospects
Before the season, there were predictions that the San Antonio Spurs would make another trip to the NBA Draft Lottery in 2021. But as the Spurs currently hold the fourth spot in the Western Conference, it’s time to put the dreams of drafting Evan Mobley will have to be put on hold.
Even outside of the top-ten, this draft class is still deep with talent. Regardless of where the Spurs end up drafting, they’re going to have options. And given their track record of identifying and developing talent over the past few years, you have to feel good about their chances of coming away from this class with a valuable player to build around.
While it is still too early to have narrowed in on exactly which player the Spurs should pick, we have a general idea of the type of player they should be looking for. With Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge approaching the end of their deals, it’s past time for San Antonio to invest in their frontcourt.
We recently identified some dark horse prospects that the Spurs should have their eyes on but they should be looking higher up the board as well. Here are a few more frontcourt prospects they should be doing their research on.
Next: A natural scorer
Jan 19, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Jalen Johnson (1) warms up before playing the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Petersen Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
San Antonio Spurs Draft: Jalen Johnson
To be entirely forthright, at this point I can’t help but feel conflicted about Jalen Johnson. Coming out of high school, Johnson was ranked 13th on ESPN’s top 100 recruits, and over the course of nine games in his senior year, he averaged 24.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game.
Coming into college he was seen as a big point-forward with impressive scoring and playmaking abilities despite not having much of a jump shot. He also has impressive handles for his size and can rebound at a high clip like other more traditional bigs.
Essentially, his skillset package came with a little bit of everything, and coming into the year, he seemed to be a consensus lottery or even top-10 pick.
Now, he’s played 20 minutes or more in only five games so far this season due to COVID-19 related game cancellations/postponements and a recent foot injury.
His first game of the season against Coppin State was record-breaking, posting 19 points, 19 rebounds, and 5 assists, shooting 100% from the field. However, some of his other performances up to this point have been uninspiring, to say the least.
One of those underwhelming performances came in one of Johnson’s most recent games against Louisville. He ended the game scoring 9 points on 4/8 shots from the field, he also recorded only 4 rebounds, no assists, 4 personal fouls, and 6 turnovers.
What is becoming increasingly clear as Johnson plays more games is that he is having to change how he was accustomed to playing in high school. He is playing much more as a traditional forward for Coach K at Duke, seeing fewer touches and his chances to make plays for others are becoming fewer and farther between.
In the times he has figured out how to remain effective, Johnson has done incredibly well. In the times he’s struggled with that, however, he’s struggled greatly. In that way, the key component in the way of me wholeheartedly suggesting that the Spurs go after him in the draft is consistency.
Outside of his two great games in which he had 15 and 19 rebounds, as well as his game against Virginia Tech in which he only played 4 minutes, he only averaged 4.5 rebounds per game in the four remaining games that he’s played.
With the Spurs rebounding struggles in and around the paint, at the very least, Johnson will have to become a more consistent rebounder for the Spurs to take a chance on him in the draft. More defensive rebounds in particular will give him many more chances to shine in transition with his guard skills.
When Johnson figures out how to be effective, he can totally command the floor and be a huge influence on the outcome of any given game. On offense, he’s very physical and knows how to score off dribble drives and on the occasional post-up, and he knows how to find open teammates when he isn’t the one scoring himself.
On defense, his size, timing, and basketball IQ have made him a great shot-blocker and he gets the occasional steal when sneaking into passing lanes. Although he isn’t the fastest player on this list, his size, skillset, and athleticism give him a ton of two-way potential, particularly on offense if he can develop a jump shot. If he can put it all together during his remaining time at Duke, he very well could be the best prospect on this list come draft night.
Next: A new point forward
Oct 5, 2018; Colorado Springs, CO, USA; USA Men’s Junior National Team participant Scottie Barnes (8) during minicamp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
San Antonio Spurs Draft: Scottie Barnes has unlimited potential
Much like Jalen Johnson, Scottie Barnes is another player that has me a bit conflicted. Ranked as ESPN’s 5th overall prospect out of Montverde Academy, Barnes is listed at 6’9″ with a 7’2″ wingspan, weighing in at 227 pounds, and played at the power forward position while in high school.
Under Leonard Hamilton at Florida State, however, he’s been playing his minutes at the point guard position and has been relatively successful. Through nine games, he’s averaged 10.6 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds per game. While those stats might not sound too impressive compared to some other players covered in this list, I don’t think they quite do his game justice.
By far the most impressive aspects of Barnes’ game are his defense, particularly when he’s defending the ball-handler, as well as his playmaking ability on offense. His quickness in combination with his very high motor and long arms have proven to be a deadly and versatile combination on the defensive end; he’s incredibly switchable and can guard multiple positions.
Given the state of the Spurs defense as of late, especially in the frontcourt, this quality in Barnes should be immediately drawing eyes from the Spurs front office. Defensively, he would be an immediate upgrade at the power forward position. He would also provide the Spurs with perimeter defense, which he often makes look almost too easy, even when having to periodically guard two players on the perimeter.
Barnes already has an NBA-ready body and has shown to be a capable finisher at the rim through contact, which is something else the Spurs are in need of on that end of the floor. What I think is the main drawing factor for Barnes on offense though is his playmaking ability.
His passing ability has already drawn comparisons to the likes of Draymond Green, Grant Hill, and even a young Boris Diaw. While I wouldn’t necessarily call him an elite passer at this stage, he passes very well for how much he targets his teammates in the paint.
He’s far from being a flashy passer but generally does it well, showing his ability to pass in traffic near the rim, make cross-court passes to the weak side, and occasionally make some nice downcourt passes in transition. He’s the current team leader in assists for the Seminoles at 4 assists per game, with about 30% fewer turnovers per game than the next highest assist leader on the team.
Barnes’ biggest area for improvement is in his shooting. His current shooting splits are 48/32/45 which, to put it lightly, is not great. While I would not necessarily expect Barnes’ role on the Spurs to be a primary scorer, what we’ve seen so far doesn’t bode well for his future as a scorer.
For the time being, he is relying heavily on dribble drives, transition buckets, and the occasional cut to the basket. At the next level, that simply won’t be enough to be a reliable scorer. At the very least, he would need to significantly improve his free throw shooting unless he wants to be the target of some hard fouls around the bucket.
While Barnes’ shooting has many people down on him, I’m not quite as worried… yet. Other than his poor free-throw shooting, his field goal and three-point percentages are, at this stage, actually pretty reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard coming into the league.
His jump shot appears to be most lacking right now in that it is relatively inconsistent and stiff. He is far from having a broken jumper and it’s nothing that Chip Engelland shouldn’t be able to handle.
For the time being, Barnes’ high motor, IQ, and versatility on defense should make him a good fit with the Spurs young core. It’s also worth noting that Devin Vassell also came from Florida State and was coached by Leonard Hamilton, which should only add to Barnes’ potential fit with the team.
He reportedly has a great attitude and is well-liked among both his coaches and teammates. Florida State assistant coach Charlton Young went on record saying that he thought Barnes was possible “the most unselfish McDonald’s All-American that [he’s] ever seen in [his] 26 years of basketball.” If that doesn’t sound like a player that would fit in with the Spurs organization, I don’t know what does.
Next: An overseas prospect
San Antonio Spurs Draft: Usman Garuba offers game-changing defense
If you think that “Big Body” is a good nickname for Keldon Johnson, just wait until you’re able to see Usman Garuba in the league. The 6’8,” 230-pound combo forward/center currently playing for Real Madrid is one of the best defensive players in the draft and has the motor to fit in with the Spurs existing young core.
Usman Garuba has now been with Real Madrid since the age of 11, and most recently, became more well-known after becoming the youngest starter for their primary team in the Liga ACB: a record previously held by a current NBA MVP candidate, Luka Doncic.
While Garuba and Doncic are two entirely different players with different skillsets, becoming a starting player for Real Madrid at any position at only 17 years old is impressive, to say the very least. He also caught some waves after leading Real Madrid’s U18 team to a first-place finish in the 2018-2019 Adidas Next Generation Tournament in Munich, completely obliterating a Deni Avdija-led Maccabi Tel Aviv team in the process. The sheer number of accolades he’s been able to compile during his time in Madrid even beyond the couple listed above is eye-widening.
On offense, Garuba has already proven himself to be quite effective as the roll man after setting picks as well as cutting toward the basket off-ball, often finishing above the rim with relative ease. That said, in the times that he or one of his teammates is not able to finish at the rim, he is a great offensive rebounder.
Several sources have described his second jump as like a “pogo stick,” and I can see why. In this way, I can see shades of Keldon Johnson in him, but what helps Garuba even more in this area is his lengthy 7’2″ wingspan.
Garuba has quite a bit of untapped potential in his passing as well as his outside shooting. Although quite stiff with his jumper at this point, his shot mechanics look decent. He’s currently shooting at a clip of about 28% from three from 45 combined attempts so far through 18 Liga ACB games and 21 EuroLeague games.
Where he really shines for the time being though is in transition. He is one of the fastest and most mobile big men in this year’s draft and he would surely be an immediate upgrade in that department for the Spurs. The idea of any combination of Murray, Walker, Johnson, and Garuba running the floor together in transition should be terrifying to other teams in the league.
Garuba’s offensive potential is clear but he may be even more exciting of a prospect on the defensive end. Like a few others on this list, he is quite versatile and provides switchability. More specific to the Spurs’ current needs, he will provide some much-needed perimeter defense as well as interior defense in pick-and-roll situations.
He will likely need to bulk up some more in order to reliably defend NBA big men but his feel for the game and overall defensive instincts should already give him an advantage coming into the league. He’s good on weak-side rotations and generally knows where he needs to be on the floor to best serve his team on defense, and as a result, is very disruptive for the opposing team.
Other than perhaps his very mediocre free throw shooting, I don’t have many bad things to say about Garuba. If the Spurs are looking to make another upgrade on the defensive end of the floor like this past draft, he would be a very safe bet.
He is sized like a modern big man and would fit in well with the Spurs’ young players. If I were forced to guess who the Spurs will draft right now, he would probably top my list for the time being based on a good balance of NBA readiness and two-way potential.
Next: Two options from up the road
Jan 5, 2021; Austin, TX, USA; Iowa State Cyclones forward Javan Johnson (13) tries to get the ball in play against Texas Longhorns forward Kai Jones (22) in the first alf at the Frank C. Erwin Jr Special Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman via USA TODAY NETWORK
San Antonio Spurs Draft: Talent from up the road in Austin
Texas power forward Greg Brown and combo forward/center Kai Jones have both impressed us this season. If they are able to continue their performance throughout the rest of the college basketball season, they will surely both see their names called in the first round of the draft.
The Austin native, Brown stands at 6’9″ and is ridiculously athletic, which is his main draw. While he had a bit of a slow start during the Longhorns’ participation in this year’s Maui Invitational, more recently he has begun to find his game and become much more productive.
On the offensive side of the ball, he is still very raw, but his athleticism and effort at the boards have allowed him to put up some poster-worthy putbacks; he’s also a constant lob threat. He has shown flashes of good shooting from beyond the arc (currently shooting 31 percent), and generally when he’s shot the ball well, the rest of his game on offense has opened up dramatically. He had a monster game recently in a win against a Cade Cunningham-led Oklahoma State Cowboys team, posting 24 points, 14 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 26 minutes.
He at times misses rotations or leaves his man wide open after over-helping a teammate. That said, his defense should not go unnoticed. He’s already a fantastic shot-blocker with good instincts, recording 4 blocks in his recent game against Texas Tech.
His speed additionally allows for him to be very switchable and can guard just about anybody. Overall, while not quite NBA-ready yet, Brown has a ton of potential that should only require some good coaching and film-watching to fine-tune.
On the other hand, Kai Jones is just as interesting of a prospect. Hailing from the Bahamas, Jones only began playing organized basketball at 15 years old (about four years ago), and is now playing off the bench for one of the top college basketball teams in the country, and playing well enough to be rising quickly in the NBA Draft conversation to boot.
He is currently listed at 6’11” and, like Brown, is very mobile and athletic for his size. He has already shown flashes of decent ball-handling ability in transition and in the halfcourt, being able to drive to the bucket and finish through contact despite being a bit underweight for his size.
He also already appears to be a much better shooter than Brown at this stage, shooting about 44 percent from three and 62 percent overall. In fact, to start the season he shot 100 percent from the floor through his first three games on 12 attempts, and only missed one shot out of five in his fourth game to win the Maui Invitational against the UNC Tarheels.
Still, Jones is still very much a work-in-progress on both sides of the floor. He, much like Brown, is still very raw and lacks playmaking ability. If the Spurs were to draft Jones or Brown for that matter, they will be drafted because of their ceilings, which are pretty astronomical.
They are both already long and very athletic for their size and will be coming into the league with quite the versatile, albeit raw, skillset that could be developed into something very special in a few years. Their feel for the game, decision-making, and overall IQ on the floor is what is most lacking for both of them, but the physical and athletic tools are there in excess for both of them as well.
Next: A big man with upside
San Antonio Spurs Draft: Ibou Dianko Badji brings tons of upside
Ibou Dianko Badji has definitely been the most exciting international prospect that I’ve watched so far this season. He is a physical monster, standing at 7’1″ with a reported wingspan approximately 7’8″ and weighing approximately 240 pounds. He will also be one of the youngest participants in the upcoming NBA Draft, only just turning 18 this past October.
He has spent the majority of his professional career so far playing for FC Barcelona’s B Team in the LEB Plata, but last month made his debut on Barcelona’s primary team. He has since been playing very limited minutes on that team, only averaging about two and a half minutes per game in three EuroLeague games and three Liga ACB games so far.
While his little playing time on Barcelona’s primary team may seem very underwhelming, I assure everyone that Badji is the real deal. In fact, at this point in time, he is personally my favorite international player that will be eligible for the draft from an upside perspective. In the 10 games he’s played on Barcelona’s B Team this season, in about 16.5 minutes per game, Badji has averaged just over 5 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game.
Out of all the players featured on this list, I believe that Badji is the best fit for the Spurs at the center position. He is a fantastic rebounder, has great defensive instincts and basketball IQ (particularly when it comes to shot-blocking), and has an impressive ability to finish at the rim for how inexperienced he is.
What should solidify his fit with the Spurs though is his extraordinary speed and mobility for his size. Despite the fact that he is over 7 feet tall, he is very capable of running the court in transition situations, and in halfcourt situations, his agility in combination with his strength and hops should help to spread the floor, given that otherwise he would be a total wrecking-ball in the paint on offense.
He will likely be a constant lob threat on offense and will provide some much needed interior defense on the other end of the floor. When defending on the perimeter, even if he isn’t the fastest player on the floor, his wingspan is so freakishly long that he could perceivably poke the ball away on attempted drives unless he’s having to defend much smaller, faster guards. On paper, this should prove to fulfill several of the Spurs needs on both sides of the ball.
Badji does come with some potential areas for improvement as well though. His offense still leaves quite a bit to be desired as, for the time being, some are concerned with his grasp of fundamentals.
For a big man, he doesn’t seem to post up on others too often, and even when he does, his shot will need some work. Even if he doesn’t develop a jumpshot though, he is just as mediocre of a free throw shooter, only shooting at about 42 percent from the line this season with Barcelona’s second team.
If they choose one of these players the San Antonio spurs will have gone a long way towards locking up their frontcourt of the future.