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Low Voltage: What went wrong with Luka Šamanić and the San Antonio Spurs?

The 6'11" 21 year old was waived barely halfway through his rookie deal and after a lackadaisical preseason game. There's a lot to unpack, and blame to share.

SAN ANTONIO — On what would be his last night as a Spur, Luka Šamanić wore a t-shirt of AC/DC's album cover for 'Who Made Who?'

The simple design of Angus Young's diminutive frame standing in a schoolboy uniform with a devil-horned Gibson SG evoked fond memories of the live performances of one of the greatest guitarists of all time. 

AC/DC is about electricity, down to the name. High Voltage is an ethos, and since he was a child Angus Young has played the guitar like he's trying to split a mountain in half with it, darting around the stage with constant motion and a melting face. He brought his manic energy to the crowd with his instrument while masterfully controlling both. By all accounts a laid-back tea sipper off stage, he still turns it on and performs like a hyperactive little brother at retirement age, always.

Luka Šamanić is not Angus Young, and in the fourth of six preseason games, he showed another disappointing lack of intensity that must have been the final straw for decision-makers in the Spurs organization. He was cut on Monday afternoon, barely halfway through his rookie deal and well before the Spurs needed to cut anybody. 

The timing makes a bad draft and development outcome look even worse for all parties involved, and there's enough blame to share. Let's start with how Šamanić and the Spurs got here.

Coach Popovich played with his lineups and rotations through the first two tune-ups, but one of the constants was minimal play for the 21-year-old who the Spurs took with the 19th pick in 2019.

He didn't play more than 10 minutes of garbage time in either game, scoring six points each time. He started the third game and finished with 11 points in just 15 minutes. He had some impressive flashes of secondary shot creation after catching at the arc but also had some hesitant moments as the Heat outscored the Spurs by 20 when he was in the game.

Keita Bates-Diop came back from a minor injury for the fourth game against the Magic, and Coach Popovich made it a priority to get him some minutes off the bench. As a backup power forward, he disrupted a few plays defensively with his exceptionally long arms (7'3"-ish wingspan) but got his shot blocked twice in the same quarter.

San Antonio's main rotation built an 18-point fourth-quarter lead on the Magic, and Pop threw out a lineup with Bryn Forbes, KBD, Drew Eubanks, and rookies Josh Primo and Joe Wieskamp. Orlando left their key guys in, and they were unsurprisingly able to cut into the lead.

With just under four minutes to go, the end of the Spurs' bench was clinging to a six-point lead in a game where the result was immaterial, but the opponents were highly motivated. That was when the Croatian kid got put in the game for the first time, joining a weird lineup as a center as they tried to hold off Orlando's surging starters.

Primo attempted a pass to Šamanić at the top of the arc, and Cole Anthony picked it off and started running the other way. Luka was next to him, chasing him for a moment, then clearly and abruptly aborted his pursuit at half court.

Part of the context is that it was a strange moment in a preseason game for a guy who went in cold. The other part of the context is that he's always struggled to lock in at the NBA level, and on a night when he was fighting for a roster spot he visibly gave up on the play. Fans in San Antonio were upset about it, and it's easy to see why. It's a play that already represents why his time here has come to an end.

Not wanting to chase someone down and risk a clear path foul or an injury during a preseason game is one thing, but it's not the only time he's played like that, and it wasn't even the only effort issue in his odd final 3:48 on the court for San Antonio. He missed a rotation as a help defender, and even when he handed the ball to KBD for the winning three, he didn't look all that interested in setting a screen.

Šamanić's critics will tell you, correctly, that he has never looked comfortable on an NBA court. His defenders will tell you, correctly, that he has never had an NBA role consistent enough to develop any comfort level. The critics will say he didn't earn it, and his defenders will say he didn't have long enough to do that, and both may have a point.

Some will primarily blame Šamanić for not wanting it enough to rise to the occasion, others will fault the team for failing to develop him and/or giving up on him too soon. There's room for all of it.

After two years, Šamanić had played in just 36 games for the San Antonio Spurs. That shouldn't have been a big issue because there were more established players ahead of him and the plan was pretty clear once he came in: draft him early and help him refine his skills and add strength over time. He was taken as a long-term project over more NBA-ready prospects like Matisse Thybulle and Brandon Clarke.

6'11" wings who can do a bit of everything don't just grow on trees, and they were clearly willing to forgo early production to see if he could be something special down the line.

Šamanić is now up to 235 pounds, and the additional muscle seemed to be making a difference for a guy who was easy to push around as a rookie and had begun to do a bit more pushing himself.

In 33 games last year, he hit 45% from the floor and 28% from three, showing versatile scoring ability and a shocking amount of lateral quickness for a defender his size. 

As the featured player for Austin in the G League, he averaged 16.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 29.1 minutes per game over 39 total games.

Šamanić gave himself lofty player comparisons to aim for on draft night.

“Right now I think KD. A big guy who can shoot, who can play facing the basket, low post," he said. "But all the time, maybe (Andrei) Kirilenko. He played in Utah. I can run and jump and play defense. Just whatever it takes.”

"He's a really skilled player at a position that now is requiring great skill in our league," RC Buford said that night. He had scouted Šamanić heavily in Europe. "He's got to tighten up his game. He's got to get better physically, but from a skill and talent standpoint, we felt like we were acquiring someone that would fit in with the development of a lot of our young guys." 

All of that remains true. During a stretch last season when the big club was dealing with a string of injuries, he played double-digit minutes in six of eight games. 

"I think he's beginning to prove himself deserving of time," Popovich said. "He's played well, he's got more confident, and he's a good athlete with good size. Hopefully, he'll continue to improve."

Šamanic said then that the G League helped him condition his body and play more than he would have in San Antonio, but the next part was still to come.

"I don't think it has to do anything with confidence," he said. "It's the work you do off court, not in the games but in trainings. I don't think the G League affected it much, just work hard and wait for opportunities, and that's where confidence comes."

In the next eight games, Šamanic played double-digit minutes just once. The flashes of potential that he showed were tremendous but limited in quantity, and there were plenty of unfocused moments in between that looked rough. He was turnover-prone and inconsistent, but the biggest lingering concern was a lack of effort.

That was the main reason to not be sold on the Luka Šamanić project at this juncture, but the timing of San Antonio's decision to walk away from a project that they invested a first-round pick halfway through his rookie deal indicates that they are already very sure that they made a mistake then, and chose the wrong guy to take a swing on. It looks bad for Šamanić, and also for the front office that reached for him in the draft.

RC Buford's pick was roundly criticized on draft night, and that criticism has been revisited many nights since, but some adopted the patient approach of the Spurs and withheld judgment on a player the organization clearly saw as a long-term development guy.

Those folks were excited for this season when Šamanić would theoretically have the most opportunity he's ever had to show what he's got and prove that he belongs in the NBA. He was a year away from being a year away on draft night, and now with a bit of muscle and two years of experience, he was poised to set out for year three as ready as he's ever been.

The Spurs will be highly focused on developing and assessing their young talent this season after moving on from many veterans, and Šamanić was one of the most intriguing wells of untapped potential on this team. They could have kept him on his rookie deal for another two years at a relatively low cost, and those are the two years of the deal when they would have seen any return on their investment.

San Antonio's front office made a decision to bet on Šamanić's big-picture potential, a decision that was not made lightly. They have seen enough in their 2+ years with him to decide that it isn't even worth a roster spot to see what he turns into, not for the next year or two, and not even for the last two preseason games. They are completely done with him very early into this long-term project, paying him his $2.9 million to go away, and that speaks volumes.

Sending him packing now is like putting money on a long shot and throwing the ticket defeated and frustrated as the race enters the second turn. It's like spending a chunk of change on the shell of what could be a special project car, using time, work, and resources to get it on the road, getting more time to drive it, and deciding right then that the frustration isn't even worth finding a spot to keep it parked. 

The front office under Buford gambled in drafting him, and the front office under Brian Wright has now gambled in sending him away at this point and giving up any chance to realize his potential here, which is the reason he was drafted in the first place.

"I like Luka, feel like we were close," Jakob Poeltl said at practice Tuesday, lamenting this tough part of the business. "I texted him to wish him the best of luck, and hopefully he does his thing. He's a very talented player, so I think he can figure it out, maybe here just wasn't the spot for him."

If he joins another team and produces, it will reflect even worse on the development style and asset management of the Spurs in this case than it already does. None of this is the end of the world, but none of it looks good either.  

These things happen, picks get missed, but the last time San Antonio cut a first-round pick was Livio Jean-Charles. His career was impacted by injuries, and with all due respect to him, Šamanić was a far more intriguing prospect.

Al-Farouq Aminu and Keita Bates-Diop seemed the two players most likely to be cut before the beginning of the season. Aminu came in to help the salaries match in the DeMar DeRozan sign and trade, and has spent the last two seasons dealing with injuries. Bates-Diop is on his third team since being selected in the second round of the 2018 draft, on a smaller contract.

Either could potentially be a defensive-minded wing off the end of the bench for the Spurs, but neither has the immense growth potential that Šamanić was drafted for. The Spurs will almost certainly keep one of those players over him.

It was a bad, early ending for Šamanić, and for everyone who gave him the benefit of the doubt inside and outside the organization. Those who never liked the pick get a victory lap in this moment and a hearty 'Told ya so' to those who held on to hope. It was earned.

If the Spurs can admit it through their actions then I can say it with my chest: I was wrong about this one, at least for now, and that's my bad. 

When asked about the decision after a noticeably long practice on Tuesday, Popovich gave a diplomatic answer.

"Luka worked hard, he tried his best," Popovich said. "These are always decisions that are difficult, when you have to tell somebody that you're gonna go with another player. We had that talk after the Orlando game, and wish him well. He's got a lot of skills, and hopefully it'll translate and he'll find a situation where those skills can be used. Hopefully he'll be able to stay in the league someplace."

Maybe he did work harder than he's getting credit for. After all, he was spotted working out at a local gym Tuesday morning not far from the Spurs' practice facility. For as much "can-do" as he worked on adding to his game, the in-game "want-to" never revealed itself.

You'd be hard-pressed to get a revelatory answer about the specifics of what made Pop ready to have that conversation with Šamanić soon after the fateful Magic game, but we can make some inferences based on what we all saw and what we know about the environment that he couldn't survive in.

"I think one of the main things that we want to do this year that might be a little different to past years is we want to be active on defense, we want to be disruptive, get in there, make a play at some point that's not 100% safe but try and put some pressure on the offense," Poeltl said after practice. "Don't be too passive is one of the points that Pop keeps trying to make, and I think so far we've done a pretty good job of it."

Šamanić now has time to clear waivers, become a free agent, and sign with another team before the season begins. The timing is a pretty harsh message to him. It's the kind of thing that could motivate him to show the intensity and focus necessary to use his body and talent successfully and consistently in the NBA. 

If the Spurs made the right call to cut him loose, he does not have what it takes to do that. Echoing draft night analysis: it's too early to tell if they were right, but they have more information than we do.

This unpleasant surprise is also a message to every player in San Antonio that a failure to bring it will not be tolerated. 

It's easy to imagine a scowl forming across the face of a certain old-school coach as he watched those four lackadaisical minutes from Šamanić, pleading for some nasty before being disappointed one last time, and deciding he's seen enough to know he isn't interested in any nasty that the young man might provide in the future.

If only he played a little more like Angus Young.

Credit: AP Image | KENS Illustration

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