Ranking all Spurs first round draft picks from the Gregg Popovich era

It’s Draft Night, and for just the third time in franchise history, the Spurs will pick first overall. It is an absolute no brainer who they will choose in French phenomenon Victor Wembanyama. In years past, with their picks ranging from the late lottery to the end of the first round, it was always a mystery who the Spurs would select right up until the announcement was made.

Regardless of where they’ve chosen, the Spurs have built a reputation for surprising with unconventional picks or grabbing players others were skeptical of and turning them into great players. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to look at all the first round picks of the Gregg Popovich era and rank them, from the rare bust to the absolute steal.

But first, a quick shout out to the picks we’ve never seen in a Spurs uniform:

  • Felipe Lopez — 24th, 1998: Who, you might ask? While Lopez was traded to the Vancouver Grizzlies after he was drafted, it was the deal that brought Antonio Daniels to San Antonio, so he actually played a bigger role here than you think!
  • John Salmons — 26. 2002: Most fans probably remember Salmons as a solid NBA player, but forget that the Spurs drafted him when he was promptly traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Speedy Claxton.
  • Leandro Barbosa — 28th, 2003: After their second championship, the Spurs traded his rights to the Suns for a future protected pick. It was understandable at the time considering they thought they were set for SG, but in hindsight this is one Spurs could have happily kept.
  • Nikola Milutinov — 26. 2015: One of many draft-and-stashes, the Spurs didn’t need another big man in 2015 and rumor has it that when they tried to bring Milutinov over, they could never reach a contract deal as the Euros offered more.

Too early to say

  • Jeremy Sochan — 9. 2022: This is where all of last year’s rookies will fall for obvious reasons, but Sochan showed massive improvement during his rookie season and is expected to be part of the main core going forward.
  • Malachi Branham — 20. 2022: Branham also showed improvement during his first season as his role expanded and he was free to take/create his own snaps. Nothing stands out, but he’s already a very solid role player.
  • Blake Wesley – 25. 2022: A knee injury derailed the first half of his rookie season, and he struggled throughout the second half while looking extremely raw. The potential is there, but there is still plenty of work to be done.

Bust / did not live up to expectations

  • Ian Mahinmi — 28th, 2005: A surprising pick, considering he wasn’t among the 128 players listed in the league’s draft guide, he didn’t come until 2007, was immediately hampered by injuries and traded after just two years. While Mahinmi went on to have a solid NBA career elsewhere, he didn’t become the next center to pair with Tim Duncan as they had hoped.
  • James Anderson — 20th, 2010: In six games, it appeared the Spurs had found the shooting guard of the future in the former Big 12 Player of the Year. Unfortunately, a stress fracture in his foot almost derailed his career as he never looked the same after it.
  • Livio Jean-Charles – 28. 2013: Another surprise pick, LJC has never actually played in a regular season NBA game, but he’s here instead of the above because he actually signed with the Spurs in 2016 before being waived after five preseason games. He appeared in Austin during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, but has otherwise stayed overseas.
  • Luka Samanic — 19. 2019: Everyone agreed that the Spurs went with potential and positional need with this pick, but it just didn’t pan out. They even brought Samanic in right away instead of stashing him overseas to work with him directly, but his work ethic held him back before he was waived after just two seasons.
  • Joshua Primo — 12. 2021: No one knew what the Spurs were doing when they selected the youngest player in the draft, who was barely considered a first-round pick, and while he quickly won fans over with his potential, he got into an off-field scandal and was out of the league early in his second season.

Good choice for the location / lived up to expectations

  • Beno Udrih – 28. 2004: Udrih was a solid backup point guard for Tony Parker for three seasons, but was nothing special, which is exactly what is expected at the end of the first round.
  • Tiago Splitter — 28. 2007: This one is tough. Splitter’s 2014 championship contribution (and it was much more than many give him credit for) makes me want to put him in the next category, and he was certainly better than many of the 28th overall picks, but his playing time was often dictated by matchups as the NBA changed around him, plus his career was unfortunately cut short by injury.
  • Cory Joseph – 29. 2011: Kawhi Leonard got all the attention in that draft, but CoJo ended up being a solid pick for the slot and was always ready when called upon, especially in the 2014 championship when Parker needed a breather, but his career as a solid NBA PG flourished. more when he left.
  • Lonnie Walker – 18. 2018: Another tough one, it almost feels like the jury is still out on Walker, if only because it seems he has yet to fulfill his true potential, but it’s been five years. At the Spurs, he was simply a solid role player who showed brief flashes of greatness, which is generally what’s expected of a non-lottery pick, but there’s still a degree of disappointment that he hasn’t done more.
  • Devin Vassell — 11. 2020: Vassell is well on his way to the next category, but with just three seasons under his belt (of which he played only a primary role, all while dealing with injuries), it still feels a bit premature. He also has the added pressure of being the Spurs’ first lottery pick in decades, which raises expectations a notch, but he’s well on his way to becoming a goaltender.

Exceeded expectations

  • Tim Duncan — 1st, 1997: Although he was selected first overall, where expectations are already high, and he was considered a premiere talent that everyone wanted when he arrived, probably no one expected Timmy to have the career he had. He literally changed the franchise.
  • Kyle Anderson — 30th, 2014: Expected to go closer to the lottery, Slow Mo fell all the way to the Spurs, likely due to teams unsure how to use him — he possessed super skills but seemed too slow for an NBA guard while lacking a wing agility. He proved everyone wrong and turned into a multi-tool that could play all five positions. Most 2014 realignments now have him in the top 10.
  • Keldon Johnson – 29. 2019: KJ could very well move into the “steal” category when all is said and done, but we’ll hold off for now as he’s only entering his 5th NBA season. Still, he has far exceeded the expectations of any 29th overall pick and is still improving as he enters his first major NBA contract.

Steal of the draft

  • Tony Parker — 28th, 2001: What more needs to be said? The Spurs set up shop at the end of the first round during the height of their dynasty where they could swing for the fences, and they hit a home run here. Parker became a Hall of Famer and was the first of many steals in this part of the draft for the Spurs.
  • George Hill – 26. 2008: An unknown from tiny IUIPUI, Hill was probably the greatest backup point guard the Spurs have had (before Patty Mills, anyway) and at times even looked like a threat to Parker’s job. Although trading him paid off since it brought in Leonard, it was one of the more heartbreaking moments for Spurs fans.
  • Dejounte Murray — 29. 2016: Everyone knows his story. Another projected lottery pick that fell to the Spurs, Murray overtook an aging Parker to start PG and overcame a devastating knee injury to become an All-Star. Regardless of how it ended, he remains one of the Spurs’ biggest draft-night steals.
  • Derrick White – 29. 2017: Another one whose story everyone knows, White rose from not even receiving a Division I scholarship to one of the best two-way role players in the NBA. As was the case with Hill, he is another fan favorite and tears were shed when he was traded.

Wow. Turns out the Spurs had a lot more first round picks in the last 26 years than I realized when I started writing this! Is there anything you would change, a different place you would put someone? (I know few were a struggle for me.) Feel free to discuss in the comments below, and get excited for bug night tonight!

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