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With the 26th pick: Waiting on an NBA Draft's fruition

July 3, 2015


The following was written just before the start of this summer's free agency signing period:

With the 26th pick in Thursday night’s NBA Draft, the San Antonio Spurs picked Nikola Milutinov. He is from Serbia, and chances are most basketball fans, me included, have never seen him play.


After his name was called, his profile fixed itself upon the screen, and so began an introduction amongst strangers. Milutinov is an inch shy of seven feet. He weighs over 200 pounds. He is twenty years old, meaning Tim Duncan has probably forgotten more about his NBA career than Milutinov can remember about his entire life. More importantly, however, Milutinov plays for Partizan Belgrade in Europe and may not cross the Atlantic for some time. This situation is not unusual. In fact, for the Spurs, this scenario is quite normal.

No one ever knows whom the Spurs will draft, but the expectation is that they will draft the best unknown players in the world. With the exception of when they traded with the Indiana Pacers on Draft Night for Kawhi Leonard, their success during Duncan’s tenure has left their team-building selections to the end of the first round and beyond, giving the impression that San Antonio’s front office is an anglerfish in the ocean’s midnight zones, drafting not the bodies of well-lit players but their silhouettes. And such was the case when they picked Nikola Milutinov.


After his selection, the common refrain from the ESPN panelists was the same as it is every year: in R.C. and Pop we trust. Players such as Milutinov are obviously as unfamiliar to the likes of Jalen Rose, Jay Williams, and Jay Bilas as New York’s choosing of Kristaps Porzingis with the 4th pick. Yet, because of each organization’s draft history, criticism of the Knicks is easy while criticism of the Spurs is not.

Admittedly, making a draft selection at number twenty-six in the order is not the same as making a selection at number four, but for the fans and even the experts on Draft Night, Porzingis and Milutinov appeared to be equal in their talents’ anonymities. Thus, the reactions to the picks were less about the certainties of individual talents and more about the historical certainty of the franchises doing the drafting.


Immediate doubt greeted New York’s selection, but references to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker greeted San Antonio’s, as if every draft pick by R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich has proven to be a future Hall of Famer. But Ginobili and Parker are as much the exception as the rule, which is not to suggest the Spurs do not draft well—they do—but that for every Tiago Splitter or George Hill there is also a Marcus Williams or Ian Mahinmi.  And then there are those players still in development, not yet certain of their career’s shape.

In 2013, San Antonio drafted French forward Livio Jean-Charles with the 28th pick. Jean-Charles has yet to play an NBA game, but according to a Pounding the Rock story from last September, the Spurs have placed an assistant by his side in Europe to monitor his development. PtR’s Jesus Gomez writes of the arrangement, “This is something I’ve never heard of being done . . . . I can’t imagine that this is standard operating procedure. It’s the first confirmed instance I’ve seen of an NBA team being so closely involved in the growth of a draft pick playing overseas.”

On the one hand, the close attention suggests the Spurs organization not only has a vested interest and belief in the development of Jean-Charles’ potential. On the other hand, a cynic might suggest that the Spurs are not quite sure what they drafted in a player who is not quite sure “whether he is a small forward or a power forward.” And, even if Jean-Charles solves the mystery of his true position, the details of his basketball future are still as shadowy as the ocean’s depths. Yet, unlike New York’s future investments in Porzingis, the fate of San Antonio appears, as of now, entirely unrelated to the maturation of Jean-Charles’ athletic prowess.

Success, especially recent success, will cause potential critics to look the other way.

Drafts call for predictions beforehand and grades afterwards. The predictions of draft order are obviously quicker to prove themselves. And, as the order becomes known, fans grade the choices on a spectrum of optimistic cheers and pessimistic boos. But these are reactions to the past as much as the present. These players and their futures intermingle with the League’s habits and its history. In this manner, players often appear to either transcend or succumb to their environments.


When the New York Knicks draft unknowns, we assume they know not what they do. When the San Antonio Spurs draft unknowns, we assume they do. But the Spurs Playoff roster from last season included only five players drafted by the organization. Many of those so-called hidden gems dug up by the team’s front office over the years had been shipped off to other cities and towns before they ever had a chance to wear a black and white uniform. As much as the Draft is about finding saviors, it is also about stockpiling commodities to barter.

The spectacle of the Draft encourages knowing the final result in the same manner as one might know the winner of a lottery, and such is the first round’s namesake. Everything and everyone appears to have found their places as suits are modeled and hats are crowned. But who is Nikola Milutinov? And who is Kristaps Porzingis? It may be years before their names become more than warbles in the deep.

 Bryan Harvey can be followed @LawnChairBoys.


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