Profiling the shocking rise of Spurs' longshot

Twenty-year-old Dominick Barlow was expecting to either play in Austin or ride the bench in San Antonio, biding his time until a bigger role opened up for him. At the start of the season, it seemed the former would be the case, but not anymore.

Dominick Barlow, Ben Sheppard
Dominick Barlow, Ben Sheppard / Dylan Buell/GettyImages

A newly-minted 20-year-old Dominick Barlow sits in the second bowl of seats at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on the fifth day of the NBA Summer League.

He's in the arena watching a few of the newest members of the association—Toronto's Gradey Dick and Detroit's Ausar Thompson—take each other on in front of a half-full crowd, wearing a gray hoodie and sitting alone.

It wasn't the first time he'd done it, however.

Barlow often sat, watching, while he took in the same atmosphere he got to play in when it was his turn. Normally, the crowd would be about as sparse as the one he was sitting among, but with Victor Wembanyama either wearing the same threads he did or sitting on his team's bench, that wasn't ever the case.

The arena was filled with adoring fans and ample media looking to document the rookie's first exposure to America's professional league, and it made sense why. They had never seen him before, nor he them. Wembanyama had never been on an NBA court in that kind of capacity.

But Barlow had. And he knew more than anyone how much it meant.

"He’s trying to create an NBA career for himself," San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of the center at the end of last season. "He just absorbs things."

Barlow was the first of his kind to make it to the NBA—that is, coming from the Atlanta-based Overtime Elite basketball league—so having to "absorb" and adapt was nothing new to him. Being given a shot to try out at the NBA combine was good grace in its own right, but from there, it was up to the then-teenager to prove himself. And that he did.

From the get-go, Barlow's talent was evident. He had the size, awareness, and athleticism to compete with some of the best prospects around, but going from that to a bona fide role player on an NBA roster is a different story.

One that the 20-year-old is currently writing.

Dominick Barlow, Jimmy Baron
Spurs power forward Dominick Barlow works with San Antonio's shooting-performance coach Jimmy Baron prior to facing the Los Angeles Lakers at Frost Bank Center. / Ronald Cortes/GettyImages

The makings of a starter

Dominick Barlow wasn't going to be the likely savior of San Antonio basketball.

He went undrafted in 2022 and signed with San Antonio on a two-way deal that kept him in the Silver & Black through the entirety of the regular season, and while he didn't stack the stat sheet many times, he made a good enough impression on Popovich to keep him around for the ensuing year.

The only question was whether or not it'd be in the same capacity.

Entering the Summer League, Barlow knew that his performance would likely make or break his ability to earn a full-time roster spot instead of just sticking around on a two-way contract. Luckily for him, he'd been in a similar position, and he also knew of his own capabilities.

"Once you start to get a professional basketball player going, they get going," Barlow said, tearing down the divider between the players in the Summer League and those in the NBA. "There's always a reason to play."

"You've got to be ready... no matter who you're playing," the 20-year-old added. "Everybody at this level can get above you, [especially] on defense. You never want to underestimate people."

For Barlow, being ready came in the form of guarding No. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller, as well as putting up consistent numbers around Spurs forward Julian Champagnie—also in his second season. But while only Champagnie earned a full-time spot, Barlow's second year under a two-way clause didn't stop him from putting forth effort.

In fact, it only fueled him more.

This season, Barlow has averaged 4.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 0.9 stocks on near-50 percent shooting. He hasn't stuffed the stat sheet, but also wasn't given the chance to do so — stuck behind a low minutes ceiling until recently.

That was because of Zach Collins, and more specifically, his right ankle injury, which kept him sidelined for weeks, leaving room for Barlow to earn his way into Popovich's rotation.

“He was very active, and we like to reward things like that, so he earned the minutes; he deserved them, so we gave it to him,” Popovich said.

Boban Marjanovic, Dominick Barlow
Spurs forward Dominick Barlow contests a shot on Houston Rockets center Boban Marjanović. / Ronald Cortes/GettyImages

Since being given a larger role, Barlow has made the most of it. He's notched more points and anchored San Antonio's defense strongly, especially as a secondary big option to Wembanyama.

“It’s really cool,” the forward told San Antonio Express-News' Tom Orsborn. “I put in a lot of work, but I still have a ways to go.”

Barlow's play isn't surprising—though like he said, he does have more work to do—especially watching the way he played in Summer League, but it does serve as a testament to both the Spurs' ability to develop players and Barlow's place on the roster.

Dom getting more minutes is certainly a positive. He's proven himself as a key piece in San Antonio—development season or not—and is likely to continue to do so as his role becomes more consistent.

San Antonio might have the league's youngest players, but they're not without talent. Even a player who's spent half of his season in the G League is able to make noise on the big stage, which bodes well for the young Spurs moving forward.

Whether their players come from France as top-rated prospects or sit alone in Las Vegas watching other rookies get their chance to shine, they're there.

Barlow is proof of that. And he's not close to being done.