I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the four seasons and how my favorite ones have shifted in order over the years. This week we’re officially crossing over into a season that’s gone from cellar to ceiling on my list- spring. Also this week begins one of the hallmark experiences of spring that makes it such an excellent section of the calendar- March Madness.
The NCAA Tournament is a short time in the year where even the most dedicated NBA fans tend to shift their focus over to college hoops for a brief moment. The buzzer-beaters and upsets that come from the signature do-or-die brand of the NCAA Tournament are palpably exciting, even for people who don’t typically follow basketball at all. The fact that people across our country will be filling out brackets for pools at their offices and schools is a phenomenon unlike anything else in sports. The event captures an incredible audience and shows the power of basketball to bring people together.
That being said, since you’re surfing through iSportsWeb, I assume you might be more the dedicated type of sports fan. Possibly one who follows the Spurs closely like I do, and might like to do a little window shopping while you’re eating pizza and marking up your bracket with X’s during the NCAA Tournament. With the level of intensity and competition ratcheted up to an NBA Playoffs-esque level during the tournament, it’s a perfect time to check out the next crop of NBA talent and see who has the mettle to perform on the biggest stage, even at a young age. Since the Spurs are known for going with diamonds in the rough and foreign players in the draft, I admit that it makes the idea of scouring the tournament for future Spurs a little less appealing. However, despite that tendency, the Spurs have in fact had success with many accomplished college players over the years including NCAA champion Danny Green and current Spurs shooting guard Bryn Forbes, who made a run to the Final Four with Michigan State in 2015, among others.
Additionally, the Spurs are one of the teams who stand to benefit most from the upcoming NBA draft, as they’ll have their own pick and the Toronto Raptors pick in the first round. While both of those picks look like they’ll be outside the lottery, the Spurs have done a remarkable job drafting late in the first round over the years, and will have the possibility of packaging those two picks together to move up into the lottery if the right opportunity presents itself. All this comes at a time when the Spurs are trying to capture a window of opportunity, with Gregg Popovich presumably in his final stretch as head coach, and LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay still playing at a very high level. A young core, comprised of Forbes, Derrick White, Davis Bertans, Jakob Poeltl and DeJounte Murray, who will return from a torn ACL suffered before the season, looks poised to make something of the opportunity.
The question is, which players in the NCAA Tournament might have what it takes to push the Spurs further into the title race? Although this Spurs team has played well, particularly lately, there are still some areas of improvement to address for Popovich and R.C. Buford this offseason. The 2019 edition of the Spurs has proven to be one of the toughest jobs for Pop on the defensive end, and they could certainly use some extra athleticism in the front court on both ends. What I enjoy about evaluating possible future Spurs is that the Spurs have one of the most distinct identities in the league. It doesn’t make it any easier to predict because I certainly don’t know the players as well as Pop and the staff will, but I do know the type of player they want. Someone who will contribute to a winning culture. Someone who shares the basketball, defends well, accepts coaching and embraces a role. From my armchair I can spot some of those qualities in college players. Here are five of them who catch my eye as having Spurs-like DNA.
5. Tre Jones, Duke
ESPN Prospect Rank: 27
I’ve heard Jones described by more than one basketball analyst as Duke’s most important player this season. While I don’t agree, that is an absolutely remarkable statement coming from any knowledgeable basketball person considering who else Duke has (and yes…I’d love to put Zion on this list…but something tells me whoever gets the #1 pick this year won’t be too keen on giving it up).
The only reason Jones is fifth on this list is that the Spurs aren’t necessarily aching for a point guard, considering that they already have the aforementioned Murray and White along with Patty Mills- otherwise he’d be higher. It would certainly be a crowded back court if the Spurs took Jones, but I just can’t resist thinking about what a perfect match he’d be. Jones’ defensive instincts and ability as a guard are unmatched in the NCAA, and the fact that he’s being coached by Coach K means he’ll come away with a professional mindset and set of tools on the court. He reminds me a lot of Cory Joseph, just a bit more polished offensively. In the end, although the Spurs loved Cory, the back court was too crowded for him to get the playing time he deserved. I fear the same would become the case with Jones, but I expect him to become a winning ingredient in the NBA just the same.
4. Nassir Little, North Carolina
ESPN Prospect Rank: 16
The 2019 season has been a perplexing one for Little. He came in touted as a possible top five draft choice, being discussed alongside the likes of Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. But from the start, Little hasn’t made nearly the impact he was expected to, and fell out of that conversation. That’s not to say he hasn’t shown flashes of the talent that made him jump off the page to begin with, but it just hasn’t been the consistent level of performance many expected to see. Little has predominantly come off the bench for a very good North Carolina team and has had few games where his presence was really felt in the scoring column.
There’s a lot to unpack here for sure, and I think Little will be one of the most interesting prospects to track as far as what happens to his draft stock between now and July. In general, I don’t quite know what to make of his relatively quiet season. Is there a lack of motivation there, or a character issue of some sort? I truly have no idea. But I know if there is, the Spurs will weed that out. And in the case that there isn’t one of those issues with Little, here’s my other question- is there a burgeoning superstar in there? Because if there is, the Spurs will find it and harvest it.
Either way, it’ll be interesting to watch Little in the NCAA Tournament and see how he performs on the biggest stage. That might serve to give us some insight into what comes next for the young Tar Heel.
3. P.J. Washington, Kentucky
ESPN Prospect Rank: 13
The way P.J. Washington returned for his sophomore campaign this season under John Calipari was reminiscent of Terrence Jones, who did the same thing and won a championship as a “veteran” alongside Anthony Davis. Washington reminds me of Jones because he’s not a player who underachieved in his freshman season at Kentucky. He could’ve turned pro like so many Kentucky freshmen do, but he chose to stay another year and try to get better. And it worked.
Washington’s role has increased for the Wildcats this season and his scoring capability has noticeably improved. The thing is, the Spurs don’t even need him to score. They need him to do exactly what he’s shown a great ability to do all along- the dirty work. Washington is a good athlete, a gritty defender, and a great rebounder for his size. He won’t be overly lengthy at the next level but he’ll be more than capable of guarding the wing spot. I’ve seen Washington’s stock fall anywhere between the late lottery and early second round depending on the outlet and time of the year. If his stock continues to rise, he’s someone I could see the Spurs packaging their two late first round picks to move up and get. If Washington’s scoring knack continues to develop, we could be talking about someone who does more than just the dirty work in the NBA.
2. Matisse Thybulle, Washington
ESPN Prospect Rank: 29
My roommate Curtis is a Washington fan, so I’ve had the great pleasure of watching a lot of Huskies basketball over the last few years. The unfortunate thing is that there was very little basketball being played in the Pac 12 this season that was worth watching, but the silver lining is that Washington may have been the one truly decent team out there. To be honest, it really didn’t dawn on me until this season that Thybulle might be the type of player that could go the league. He’s solid but not overly impressive offensively at the college level, but here’s the thing about the NBA- all you need is a niche. You need one skill that gets you on the court, and Thybulle has that skill. Defense.
The two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac 12 is one of the most instinctive defenders I’ve ever seen at the college level. He’s a good athlete with good size for a wing, but his defensive instincts are what sets him apart. This season he averaged 3.4 steals (#1 in the nation), 2.2 blocks (#20 in the nation), and broke the Pac 12 record for career steals…which was held by Gary Payton. A lot of the comparisons I see for Thybulle are to Andre Roberson, and Roberson is a fine NBA defender but I think Thybulle is on another level. And I love nothing more than when the Spurs have a lockdown Bruce Bowen-type defender on the perimeter. They’re lacking that right now and Thybulle could be the answer.
You’re welcome, Curtis.
1. Cam Johnson, North Carolina
ESPN Prospect Rank: 21
To me, Cam Johnson’s game fits the modern NBA like a glove. He’s a 6’8″ stretch four who shoots the three-ball at a very high level and guards multiple positions. Johnson has played a lot of basketball at high level, being a senior at North Carolina, and he’s someone who stands out to me as playing with a high IQ. He seems to make timely plays and smart decisions throughout games that help the Tar Heels win, and I think that tends to slip through the cracks with the high profile players they have.
The criticism I keep hearing of Johnson is that he’s not an “elite” athlete. I get it because he doesn’t jump out of the gym or burst down the floor in a way that catches your eye, but I think he’s a sneaky athlete and has a great build for the league. There really aren’t any holes in his game. Truly a smooth style of play and a high level of skill that I think will translate very well to the next level. But what it really comes down to is that basketball is a game of make or miss, and the NBA in particular is a make or miss league. It’s cliche but it’s true. You can never have enough shooting and Johnson is already a knock-down shooter at every level on the floor. That shooting ability combined with his winning pedigree and well-rounded game makes him a prime target for the Spurs.
- Admiral Schofield, Tennessee
- Grant Williams, Tennessee
- Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
- Bruno Fernando, Maryland
- Ty Jerome, Virginia