Luck, Strategy, and the Poker Face
Any successful team needs to use these three elements to shape their franchise. Yes, we can all pat the Spurs on the back for doing their pre-draft homework and having the smarts to properly evaluate talent like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, because they recognized potential. But the Spurs lucked up simply because that potential paid off. No other teams really caught on that a Ginobili-Paker factor would be something to reckon with.
Draft night should be held in Vegas because that’s when the strategic season-long poker showdown culminates. Everyone finally shows their hand and exposes their bluffs. To what extent do teams really tell the truth about who they’re interested in and what they’re thinking anyhow? It’s hilarious to hear some media spout off, “I have a source that told me this and that,” but then draft night proves the source was way off base (sometimes on purpose).
What’s even more hilarious is how some teams fail to recognize the importance of the draft. Instead, they use free agency to make their major moves, and it rarely pans out the way media and other hype-sters make it out.
The Spurs 3 key draft picks prove that with a mix of luck and strategic scouting, the right players can change a team’s fortune. Up first, Tim Duncan.
Tim Duncan - 1st pick overall / 1997 NBA Draft
We all know Duncan was born in the Virgin Islands, but did you know his first love was swimming? Duncan had the talent to strive for the Olympics, but his dream was crushed in 1989 after hurricane Hugo destroyed the Island’s only Olympic size swimming pool. Even more devastating was the death of his mother. She was Duncan's biggest fan and supporter.
After swimming practice was moved from the pool to the ocean, Duncan’s fear of sharks disrupted any concentration he possessed. Basketball found its way into his life at the age of 14 when his sister returned home after spending some time in the states with her American husband, Ricky Lowery, who played basketball for a local college in Ohio. Once they joined Duncan in the Virgin Islands, he became immersed in the game.
Lowery worked with Duncan daily to hone his guard skills and perimeter shooting because of his height. At the time, no one suspected that he would grow to 7 feet. The hard work paid off as the 14-year old freshmen made his high school team. Duncan grew each year, but was self-taught with raw skills due in part to the Virgin Islands lack of quality coaching at the time. Soon, quiet rumors and whispers began to swirl around the basketball recruiting community about a 7-foot player from the Virgin Islands. Had Duncan been a guard, I doubt he would have received serious Division I exposure, but being 7-foot is like the Holy Grail.
Dave Odom was Wake Forest’s coach at time and struggled with recruiting in a top conference against the likes of the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels. He received a call from a former player that 16 year-old Duncan played Alonzo Mourning one on one to a draw. Odom watched Duncan play and offered him a scholarship on the spot. The commitment to Wake Forest came after Duncan’s senior season at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal High School. With little fanfare, he started college as the mystery man. Opposing coaches knew only bits and pieces of his background and assumed he was a project that would take time to develop.
To the contrary, Duncan enjoyed a great freshmen season and immediately captured the attention of NBA teams. Many were amazed with his quiet and unassuming demeanor. Despite the explosion of early entries into the draft and Duncan’s projected status as the 1st pick overall as a sophomore, he continued to assure everyone year in and out that he would be back to school. Entering his senior year there were virtually no doubts he would be the number one pick. The only real drama was the question of what team would do the choosing.
After winning 59 games in 1995-96 season, the Spurs franchise player, David Robinson, went down with an injury along with former all-star Sean Elliott. Many insiders allege the Spurs purposely tanked the 1996-97 season with only 20 wins in hopes of snagging Duncan, the finest basketball player to enter the draft in more than a decade. Lady Luck was with the Spurs as they acquired the player who would become the finest power forward to ever play the game.
Manu Ginobili – 57th pick overall / 1999 NBA Draft
Manu is the youngest brother in the Ginobili family. He often watched and learned from his older siblings who were professional basketball players in Argentina. Ginobili’s father was a solid guard in his own day and went on to become the manager of a local basketball club. Despite his family’s pedigree, few considered Ginobili a future prospect for high-level competition. He was small at the time from a height perspective and extremely underdeveloped physically. While he had the heart to go the basket and take contact, his lack of upper body strength made him a suspect shooter, but that all changed thanks to a late growth spurt that 12 inches to his stature over the course of three years.
With height no longer an issue Ginobili needed only minimal time to adjust. He retained much of his ball handling and passing abilities from his days at point guard, which made for an interesting combination of athleticism and fundamentals. Ginobili led the league in scoring within three years of joining Argentina’s premier level and captured attention in European circles. As a dual citizen of Italy and Argentina, Italian basketball club Basket Viola Reggio Calabria offered him a contract.
Playing in the second division of Italy proved to be very rewarding. Ginobili was away from the confines of Argentina’s lesser competition and began to shine against some of the world’s best. His feel for the game and spectacular plays when driving to the basket were excellent, and like his idol (Michael Jordan), Manu’s body control and solid leaping ability enabled him to make impressive plays. Still no one realized just how good Manu really was. Anyone who says differently isn’t being honest, except maybe R.C. Buford, the Spurs general manager, who saw the 19-year old play for Argentina’s 22 and under team.
Buford believed in the young talent's potential and kept and eye on his development. Ginobili added different aspects to his game every time Buford saw him play. When the NBA draft rolled around Buford took a chance and gambled on the intriguing talent, but by design, the Spurs didn’t sign him immediately after the draft. They wanted Ginobili to continue to play overseas and develop. What happened next was not only unheard of but also proves how much luck plays a role in the draft process.
Over the span of three years Ginobili continued to raise his play. Not only did he win Italian league MVP awards, but was also named MVP at Euroleague finals in his last two years with Italy’s top league. Amazingly, Ginobili became one of the best players outside of the NBA. From that point on, every general manager and scout adopted the “Ginobili philosophy”, which is to pick international players in the second round and send them overseas to develop. With the second to last pick in the 1999 NBA draft, the Spurs selected Ginobili, who is now considered one of the top 3 players in his draft class, easily one of the best picks in NBA draft history, and one of the greatest draft day steals, regardless of the sport.
Tony Parker – 27th pick overall / 2001 NBA Draft
Parker's father was an American basketball player from Loyola University who went overseas for professional basketball opportunities. His parents met in Belgium, married and had three boys, Tony Jr. being the oldest.
Growing up in France, it quickly became apparent that the young Parker was a budding talent. While attending the prestigious INSEP (National Institute for Sports and Physical Education in Paris), Parker averaged 22 points per game and 6.5 assists. At the age of 18 he moved on to France’s professional league and became a member of the Paris Racing Club team as their backup point guard. Although Parker's play was solid, only a few knew of him.
He exploded later that year after participating in the 2000 Nike Hoop Summit where he put up 20 points, 7 assists and 2 steals. That event gave Parker incredible exposure with NBA scouts and college coaches. What made this journey into the prime time even more impressive was the fact that Parker accomplished this against some of the finest basketball players in America.
UCLA tried hard to get involved with Parker and talk him into giving college a chance. They even used their talented Frenchmen Jerome Moiso as part of the pitch. Despite the temptation Parker returned home to enjoy a highly successful campaign in his second season with Paris Racing Club, then entered the NBA Draft with the hope of catching a team’s interest.
Parker had a number of workouts, but there was little draft buzz and few teams appeared to be seriously interested. To the fault of NBA personnel the folklore many clung to at the time was that the international scene wasn't capable of producing quality NBA point guards. Part of this philosophy is contributed to the lack of explosiveness and style of play most overseas guards possess. Parker, however, had tremendous quickness and learned much of the game from his father who grew up in Chicago. His game was more American than European and he had no real issues adjusting to American culture (Parker's family often traveled to Chicago during summers to visit relatives). As the last pick in the 1st round of the 2001 NBA draft, the Spurs stole one of the best point guards in the league with nothing more than a raised eyebrow from draft commentators and little fanfare. The joke's on them.
More Smart Moves
After the Spurs won their first of four championships they didn’t stop adding. Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott, Mario Ellie and David Robinson were veterans vital to the team’s success, but unlike other teams, the Spurs didn’t adopt the credo, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!” Instead, they tweaked and adjusted according team needs (there’s that strategy again). Yes, the Spurs were lucky with Manu Ginobili and blessed with Tim Duncan, but they out-scouted opposing teams for Tony Parker. Defensive wiz Bruce Bowen was a free agency addition and the final ingredient that sealed the Spurs NBA dynasty. Will the legacy continue?