A revisionist look at the Spurs’ first round draft picks from the last five years

The 29 Club is wholly not like the 27 Club (R.I.P. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Curt Cobain, etc.). For the San Antonio Spurs, Club 29 includes players drafted in the first round at the 29th spot brimming with potential (realized and perhaps not yet) like Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Keldon Johnson.

With the benefit of hindsight, if every NBA draft since 2016 were re-drafted, where would those young players go? And who from that draft class would the Spurs and other teams objectively draft ahead of them? (For the record, you could do a lot worse than a starting five of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and Cobain. Just throw in Wilt Chamberlain at the 5, and the rest will take care of itself even if Morrison is such a ball stopper.)

For this thought exercise, we’ll keep the criteria simple and only compare the Spurs’ players with other players drafted ahead of them that have a significant body of work. (In other words, draft-and-stashes don’t apply.)

Dejounte Murray

  • Drafted 2016
  • Round 1/Pick 29

Notable players drafted ahead of Murray:

Ben Simmons (1)
Brandon Ingram (2)
Jaylen Brown (3)
Buddy Hield (6)
Jamal Murray (7)
Jakob Poeltl (9)
Domantas Sabonis (11)
Caris LeVert (20)
Pascal Siakam (27).

2016 was a good draft year. Five players ahead of Murray have made at least one All-Star Game (Simmons, Ingram, Brown, Sabonis, and Siakam).

Would you rather have Dejounte Murray or: Given the choice, I think in a re-draft Dejounte Murray would go 10th after Simmons, Ingram, Brown, Hield, Murray, Sabonis, LeVert, Siakam, and Malcolm Brogdon (selected in the second round at 36th overall!) given that their overall career stats are better. (Of note, Dejounte did sit out an entire season due to an ACL injury.) Jamal Murray and Caris LeVert are better offensive players, but because the Spurs emphasize defense more than offense, I would think Dejounte would still be valued above LeVert in that regard, but it might be tougher for the Spurs to choose betweenthe two Murrays. Strangely enough though, I feel as though we’ve seen the ceiling of Jamal’s potential (an All-Star here or there) whereas Dejounte’s potential could be higher (already has an All-Defensive honor on his resume).

Accordingly, Jakob Poeltl would be the Schrödinger’s Cat of this thought experiment in that he both counts and doesn’t count for a “Who Would You Rather Draft” because the Spurs ended up trading for him, and Poeltl and Dejounte are teammates. But if they had to choose one or the other in this draft class, I think the Spurs would rather have Murray than Poeltl.

Derrick White

  • Drafted 2017
  • Round 1/Pick 29

Notable players drafted ahead of White:

Markelle Fultz (1)
Lonzo Ball (2)
Jayson Tatum (3)
Josh Jackson (4)
De’Aaron Fox (5)
Jonathan Isaac (6)
Lauri Markkanen (7)
Donovan Mitchell (13)
Bam Adebayo (14)
John Collins (19)
Jarrett Allen (22)
OG Anunoby (23)
Kyle Kuzma (27)

The 2017 draft mirrors Derrick White in some ways: no generational superstardom but good-to-great talent with a threat of stardom in Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum. Only three players ahead of White have made at least one All-Star Game (Tatum, Mitchell, and Adebayo).

Would you rather have Derrick White or: In a re-draft, White would most likely go 10th at best in this class and at worst 15th. His re-draft value varies the most out of the Spurs’ young core discussed in this article because of this year’s injury that has marred what might have been a breakout year for White (from a very biased perspective). Realistically, in a healthy year with the projected season he was supposed to have, I think White would still go 10th overall simply because of the other talented players already having a great season and career ahead of him. It really does come down to luck (no injuries) and making the most of your opportunities.

Lonnie Walker IV

  • Drafted 2018
  • Round 1/Pick 18

Notable players drafted ahead of Walker:

Deandre Ayton (1)
Marvin Bagley III (2)
Luka Doncic (3)
Jaren Jackson Jr. (4)
Trae Young (5)
Wendell Carter Jr. (7)
Collin Sexton (8)
Mikal Bridges (10)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (11)
Miles Bridges (12)
Michael Porter Jr. (14)
Troy Brown Jr. (15)
Donte DiVencenzo (17)

Would you rather have Lonnie Walker IV or: This one might be the most fun just because of the salivating knowns and the tantalizing unknowns of the entire class including, Lonnie Walker. Two players stand out above the others, and it comes as no surprise that both Luka Doncic and Trae Young have starred in an All-Star Game. After those two, there are still players who have played in bursts at an All-Star level but seem just about to be knocking on All-Star status and stardom: Deandre Ayton, Collin Sexton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and a bit of Michael Porter Jr. I think Walker, in a re-draft, belongs behind every one of those players — maybe 10th at best.

Interestingly, Walker, Marvin Bagley III, and Donte DiVencenzo could be in their own group of talented players who flash occasionally, but we’ll never know unless they become more consistent, get more minutes, or when they aren’t playing behind another player on their team. Even in this specific group, I would rather bet on Walker’s talent (and dream of it coming to fruition) to eventually win out — if ever given the extended opportunity. Heck, Walker, Bagley, and DiVencenzo alone could have their own reality show on MTV where they live on the shores of Jersey and ask each other “What if we are as good as our most diehard fans think we are?” Throw in Pauly D to DJ the social-distanced beach party, and I’d watch that.

Luka Samanic

  • Drafted 2019
  • Round 1/Pick 19

Notable players drafted ahead of Samanic:

Zion Williamson (1)
Ja Morant (2)
RJ Barrett (3)
De-Andre Hunter (4)
Darius Garland (5)
Coby White (7)
Rui Hachimura (9)
Cam Reddish (10)
P.J. Washington (12)
Tyler Herro (13)

Keldon Johnson

  • Drafted 2019
  • Round 1/Pick 29

Notable players drafted ahead of Johnson:

Zion Williamson (1)
Ja Morant (2)
RJ Barrett (3)
De-Andre Hunter (4)
Darius Garland (5)
Coby White (7)
Rui Hachimura (9)
Cam Reddish (10)
P.J. Washington (12)
Tyler Herro (13)
Luka Samanic (19)
Matisse Tybulle (20)
Brandon Clarke (21)

Would you rather have Luke Samanic or/Would you rather have Keldon Johnson or: The Spurs had two first round draft picks in 2019, and if Tall Luka really pans out like Spurs fans so passionately want him to, then it just seems unfair to get two exciting players in Samanic and Johnson to carry the good guys to the promised land. Am I getting too excited on the heels of a 1-5 stretch? Yes.

That being said, we are really diving into some young players as this is only their second season, and so far only Zion Williamson has made an All-Star Game. Even so, between the two of Keldon Johnson and Luka Samanic, only Keldon Johnson is the more known quantity so far. In a re-draft, Johnson would go as high as 5th but probably no later than 7th.

Despite fervent fans’ pleas to see more of Samanic, there’s just not enough played minutes to properly gauge his re-draft value. Realistically, Tall Luka would probably still be drafted at 19th given how little of him the Spurs have seen on the NBA level and that there are a few other players in the same boat as him where until they have more minutes, we cannot know how good they can be (e.g., Matisse Tybulle).

The key to remember here is that through Fiesta-tinted glasses, young Spurs like Johnson and Samanic can seem crazy talented with unlimited potential, but much of that assessment can also be credited to a superb developmental team and stints in the G league. Do the Spurs have an otherworldly ability to squeeze every potential out of any player drafted to their team or does it also depend on savvy drafting and developmental coaching? It’s obvious that as a small market team that never makes a splash in free agency or the trade market, the Spurs would not be as competitive without some luck, savvy drafting, and an elite coaching staff. The players have to buy in too, and I think that is why Spurs fans have fallen in love with this group because these guys hustle, play hard, do the right things (sometimes), and say the right things. They just might be a year away from transcendental greatness, but again that could just be those darn Fiesta-tinted glasses clouding our judgment.

Devin Vassell

  • Drafted 2020
  • Round 1/Pick 11

Notable players drafted ahead of Vassell:

Anthony Edwards (1)
James Wiseman (2)
LaMelo Ball (3)
Patrick Williams (4)

Would you rather have Devin Vassell or: LaMelo Ball is going to get Rookie of the Year despite his season-ending injury, and it’s too early to come up with a career verdict for the rest of these rookies. But arguably, in a re-draft, Devin Vassell could go as high as 8th but still behind the likes of the ROY, Goose, and Wiseman. Additionally, rookies Tyrese Haliburton, Immanuel Quickley, Cole Anthony, and Saddiq Bey are all flashing potential their first season, and they were all drafted behind Devin Vassell. Realistically and strangely enough, Vassell would probably go 11th again in a re-draft. Sometimes, history doesn’t need revisions.

He hasn’t finished his rookie season yet, but Vassell can be my three and D wingman anytime. But if he ends up being a rich man’s Danny Green . . . well I might be able to live with that.

Conclusion: It speaks volume that even before Kawhi Leonard left the Spurs, they were already re-tooling with Dejounte Murray and Derrick White. The Great Rebuild post Big 3 era has been rocky and chaotic. But if through all of that, the Spurs look back and see that they have 6 good players drafted late in the first round (that could have been drafted much higher), then it’s no small feat they have been continuously competitive, albeit inconsistent. Ideally, the Spurs want all if not most of these good players to become great. I think there’s a good chance at least 4 of this young core can be truly great sooner rather than later.

Alas, when your team is mired in a losing streak and facing a brutal (physically and competitively) second half of the season, your imagination tends to take over and wonder, “What if Derek Fisher’s shot never went through with 0.4 seconds left?” Oh, there goes my imagination again.

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