The San Antonio Spurs have built a dynasty primarily through superior international scouting, timely drafting and key trades. Unlike perhaps any other team in the league, though, the Spurs can attribute a significant part of its success to the team up the road on I-35, in Austin.
The Spurs, considered the model franchise of the NBA, continue to set the tone with using the Developmental League for just that purpose. They are one of the 19 teams in the NBA that currently owns a D-League team outright. Doing so allows the Spurs to send players to grow within the Spurs system, which allows for a more seamless transition when a player is called up to the AT&T Center.
Of the current roster, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Anderson, Jonathon Simmons, Ray McCallum and Boban Marjanovic have all have spent time in Austin at some point during their tenure with the team.
All have become — or are becoming — legitimate contributors to the Spurs’ continuing success. Leonard and Green are regular starters this season. Marjanovic has filled in when needed, with positive results. Simmons is a key member of the vaunted “Juice Unit,” the second unit that comes off the bench to provide a much-needed boost.
We all know how Leonard has turned out: a 2014 championship ring, Finals MVP, last season’s Defensive Player of the Year, and the current future of the Spurs franchise who is keeping himself in the conversation for this year’s league MVP. Anderson, affectionately known as “Slo-Mo” from his college days, lit up the Las Vegas Summer League this past summer and helped lead the San Antonio team — and its head coach, Becky Hammon — to the championship.
Marjanovic has not only become a fan favorite, but has set a couple of franchise records for points made in 15 minutes or less. McCallum is seeing a slow but noticeable improvement in minutes and even made his starting debut in December of last year, while Tony Parker nursed a sore hip.
Perhaps the most stellar Austin alumni this season has been Simmons.
The 26-year-old rookie has spent most of his professional career on the fringes of the NBA: first with the Sugar Land Legends of the semi-pro American Basketball League, then two years with the D-League Toros (as the team was known before 2014) — now Spurs — after performing well in open tryouts for the team.
Before making the Spurs roster from training camp, Simmons accepted an invite to play for them in the Las Vegas Summer League. He earned Championship Game MVP honors, which led to the training camp invite. Until he got the Summer League invite, Simmons had promised himself that this would be his last season in the D-League: if he didn’t make someone’s roster, he’d go get a regular job.
The Spurs saw something in him, as they are wont to do, and Simmons earned one of the final two roster spots in training camp and a two-year contract. He has made a name for himself in the Alamo City after a brief, early-season stint with the Austin Spurs.
His game continues to improve and he has made a difference every time he gets on the court — traits that head coach Gregg Popovich attributes to Simmons’ time in the D-League. “I think it’s been very important in the sense that he was down there for a while and never lost hope,” Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “He basically paid his dues.”
Green may be the best Austin-to-San Antonio success story, period. He was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009 and cut at the beginning of his second league season. He was picked up by the Spurs in Nov. 2010, once he cleared waivers. He lasted six days before being cut again, at which point he was acquired by the D-League’s Reno Bighorns.
He re-signed with the Spurs in Mar. 2011 and was sent down to the Toros. He finally made himself stick and began to work even harder on his game after being called up shortly thereafter. While often serving as Pop’s whipping boy in past seasons, Green took the constructive criticism and honed his game.
He quickly became one of the leading 3-and-D specialists in the league; his contributions were so critical that he took a slight pay cut in free agency over the summer to suit up again for the Silver and Black on a four-year, $45 million contract.
In the past year Charlotte, Chicago, and Brooklyn have purchased D-League teams that will start in the 2016–17 season, and Indiana purchased the Fort Wayne Mad Ants (which used to be a shared D-League franchise) outright. This brings the total number of teams that own their D-League affiliates outright to 22.
The league’s goal is to have every parent team have its own D-League affiliate, which should not only provide more opportunities for players to enter the league, but also improve the consistency of play between parent and D-League clubs. It will give teams another shot at replicating whatever makes the Spurs tick; for all of the hoopla surrounding clubs trying to be like the Warriors in the short term, many are quietly trying to emulate the Spurs in the long term. Be Like Steph? No; the trend behind the curtains is to Be Like Pop.
By once again blazing paths with regard to player retention, management, and development, the Spurs are proving that even the roughest gem can shine in the correct setting. Thank them later.
Originally published at hoopshabit.com on January 17, 2016.