The San Antonio Spurs have failed to reach familiar heights in the last two seasons, due to key injuries. The most noted example, Kawhi Leonard, still stings as “the Klaw” is thriving in the NBA Finals for another team. His departure forced the Spurs to re-tool, something Gregg Popovich has done continually for the past 30 years. Part of his solution was aided by the emergence of Dejounte Murray.
In his 2nd season as a pro, Murray made the 2nd All-NBA Defensive team. It was a welcome surprise for the franchise to find a budding star for a quick transition away from the Leonard era. However, a preseason knee injury forced Murray to miss all of the 2018-19 season.
The removal of two of the top three players hurt San Antonio in many areas that need correcting. Looking ahead to the NBA draft in two weeks, the Spurs have a great opportunity to restack their lineup. Unusual for this team, San Antonio has two first-round picks this season and select their players much sooner than they usually do. Looking at what the team needs to address, the problem areas are:
Rebounding: 27th offensive and 21st overall in the NBA
Perimeter Defense: 30th in steals, 30th in creating turnovers, 18th in allowed 3-pt %
Internal Defense: 18th in allowed FG%, 17th in 2-pt %, 21st in blocks
Extra Opportunities: 24th in free throw attempts, 20th in free throws made
The good news is with Murray back at the helm in 2019, a lot of these areas can be fixed. However, several players are likely to depart the team for various reasons this offseason. Along with bench players Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter, Chimezie Metu and Donatas Montejunas, Rudy Gay’s projected contract is likely to make him difficult to resign.
San Antonio will be in high need for an athletic Center to pair with LaMarcus Aldridge, wings, and a backup point guard. With these areas in mind, what should the Spurs be looking for with their 19th, 29th, and 49th picks in this year’s draft?Embed from Getty Images
1st round – Pick # 19
Option A: Matisse Thybulle, SG Washington–
Thybulle is the best defensive player in this year’s draft and it’s not even close. As 2-time defensive player of the year in the Pac-12, he led the nation with 3.5 steals per game and was top 15 in blocks (2.3 per game) as a shooting guard. His prowess on that side of the ball makes him an instant upgrade on the wing for a team that failed to create turnovers last season.
Also producing 9.9 points per game last season for the Huskies, Thybulle has the tools to effectively contribute at both ends. While he isn’t as big of an offensive asset as Claxton (13.0 PPG) or Kabengele (13.2 PPG) – options B and C – the Spurs staff has proven time and time again (ex: Tony Parker, Bryn Forbes, etc) they can develop improved shooting technique and efficiency of their players.
A small benefit of adding Thybulle to this backcourt is the chemistry developed between he and current Spur Dejounte Murray. In 2015, the pair stepped onto Washington’s campus as freshman and could grow that chemistry to be one of the better defensive backcourts in the NBA.
Option B: Nicolas Claxton, PF Georgia –
Claxton offers many of the same traits Thybulle brings: a strong, explosive, long-armed, productive defensive player. The former Bulldog plays a lot like a recent Spur, Dewayne Dedmon, on the defensive end. Very persistent on the boards and tracking defenders to block shots, he possesses a great vertical, even at his height of 6’11”, to excel in these areas.
The other side of the ball is where Claxton is able to differentiate himself from a guy like Dedmon. Playing for Georgia, he showed his skills as a point forward and often ran offensive sets as the primary ball handler. Most impressive was his ability to stretch the floor and knife through the lane past multiple defenders.
He is still raw on the offensive end, but his production in his freshman season was inspiring about his potential development in the future. As I feel the Spurs can do with Thybulle, Claxton’s offensive game can grow and morph with the shooting coaches in San Antonio. His versatility will allow him to slot in next to Aldridge without crowding the All-Star in the lane.
Option C: Mfiondu Kabengele, PF Florida State –
Kabengele projects as another option the Spurs could use next to LaMarcus Aldridge or as depth behind him and Jakob Poetl. He can stretch the floor, but his game centers largely around the paint and midrange game. Very strong on the boards, the Seminole product does not shy away from the dirty work inside.
As the nephew of NBA Hall of Famer and shot-blocking savant Dikembe Mutombo, Kabengele was the recipient of the family’s defensive genes. Skilled at tracking the ball across the lane, he forces many shooters to settle for midrange attempts with his shot altering ability.
Offensively Kabengele would be a versatile piece for the Spurs offense. He is solid in the post, but can create off the dribble from the perimeter. His shot is decent from behind the arc, but he doesn’t rely on it enough to make it burdensome (again something the Spurs staff can work with him on).
The benefit of his game is being able to play away from Aldridge in the paint or have a secondary player posting up when Aldridge runs the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop with the primary ball handler. With Jakob Poetl, the Spurs do not have that luxury: a true stay at home big that clogs the paint and provides little to no offensive help unless he is passed open by another player.
[Players to consider but will likely be taken by this pick: Center Bol Bol (Oregon), Wings/Forwards Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga), Tyler Herro (Kentucky), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Virginia Tech)]