SAN ANTONIO — Long trendsetters in drafting international players – see Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – the Spurs selected 19-year-old Croatian power forward Luke Samanic with the 19th pick in the first round of the NBA Draft on Thursday night.
The Silver and Black later took Kentucky guard Keldon Johnson, also 19, with the No. 29 pick in the first round. Johnson played only season for the Wildcats.
San Antonio wrapped up its evening by selecting Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon in the second round with the 49th overall pick.
"We're excited to have Luke, Keldon and Quinndary in our program," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. "It's a long journey, but we're ready to get started."
All three players are expected to spend most of next season with the Spurs' G League affiliate in Austin.
"I’m fine," Johnson said. "I feel like I'll just trust the process. If I’ll be able to play right away, then I’ll do so, but if it takes a year or two years for them to trust me and put me out on the court, no problem with that as well. I’ve just got to keep my head down, keep working and stay humble. Just be focused, locked in."
There had been speculation that San Antonio would package both first-round picks to obtain a veteran forward via trade or move up in the draft. But the Spurs stood pat and made two selections in the first round for only the second time in franchise history.
"For me, honestly, playing for Coach Pop (Gregg Popovich), it's a blessing to be able to learn from such a person," Samanic said in a conference call with the San Antonio media. "They have a winning mentality. They share the ball.
"They play really hard defense and they won many championships.They have really important players from Europe, so I think that history helps me. I'm just happy and excited."
Asked what he considers his strengths on the court, Samanic said: "I think my ability to switch on defense, to shoot the ball, screen, rebound and whatever Coach Pop wants me to do."
Buford described Samanic as "a really skilled player at a position that now is requiring great skill in our league. He's got to tighten up his game. He's got to get better physically, but from a skill and a talent standpoint, we felt like we were acquiring somebody that will fit in with the development of a lot of our young guys."
Samanic, who is 6-foot-11 and 210 pounds, acknowledged that he's light for a power forward, but he expressed confidence that he can hold his own in the NBA.
"Yeah, I mean, I'm skinny," Samanic said. "But everything, I think, is mental. Once you're ready to fight and to be physical, bulking up is the easiest part to get in the weight room and just lift."
Asked if Samanic is a project, given his age, Buford said: "I think we don't want to set any expectations. He's one of the youngest guys in the draft. With all of them, we're just excited to get them in the gym and see where we go."
Johnson also spoke highly of the Spurs, who have won five NBA championships and made the playoffs for the last 22 consecutive seasons.
"The Spurs are definitely a legendary organization," Johnson said. "They're all about winning, I would say, and development (of players). Coming in and learning from Coach Popovich will be a blessing, I think. He definitely knows what he's doing."
Johnson, 6-foot-6 and 211 pounds, averaged 13.5 points and 5.9 rebounds as a freshman at Kentucky. He shot 38 percent from the three-point line, hitting 45 of 118 attempts.
Johnson was projected to go higher in the draft, but he was still available when the Spurs made their second selection in the first round. Johnson was one of three Kentucky players drafted in the first round.
"It was definitely nerve-racking," Johnson said of the wait before getting picked. "I think I was definitely nervous to find out where I was going to finally land. I mean, I'm blessed to be able to come to an organization like the Spurs. I'm ready to take on the opportunity and learn and get to work."
Buford gave Johnson high marks.
"We had him as the top-rated player at his position," Buford said. "It was fun to talk to them afterward because they all seemed excited to be a part of our program."
Samanic played for the KK Petrol Olimpija in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He raised his stock at the NBA Combine, where he was the only international who participated in the event's scrimmage.
Samanic scored 13 points and added seven rebounds in less than 20 minutes and also looked solid on defense, according to reports.
"I just came to the Combine with the mentality to prove that I can play with these guys that are my age or older, and I think I showed that," Samanic said."I just want to fight and to prove myself. As I said, I'm really competitive, so I take things serious on the court."
Although Samanic didn't play in one of the top leagues in Europe and faced subpar competition, he still was considered an intriguing prospect going into the NBA draft.
Still, given his age, it could be a while before Spurs fans see Samanic playing at the AT&T Center.
Samanic's stats are hardly impressive. Playing a total of 50 games for three times, he averaged eight points, 4.8 rebounds and shot only 34 percent from the three-point line. Still, his inside offense, shooting potential and athleticism are considered his strengths.
Samanic said he plans to play in the NBA next season, quickly dismissing any thought that he would continue his career in Europe for the foreseeable future.
"No, no, no, right away," he said, referring to when he plans to come to San Antonio. "Tomorrow."
Weatherspoon finished his four-year career at Mississippi State as the third-leading scorer in school history. He averaged 18.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists as a senior.