Mitnick: Spurs sitting on two Eurostash studs

The Spurs stars may be getting old, but their blueprint for winning remains as strong as ever.

They were beaten at their own game by former Spurs executive, Sam Presti, this season, but they still have a few more tricks up their sleeve with Erazem Lorbek and Nando De Colo.

Since that fortunate day in 1997 when the ping-pong balls magically awarded Tim Duncan to San Antonio, the Spurs have written the instruction manual on how a small market team can achieve sustained success.

While opposing teams regularly hand out expensive long-term contracts to keep average starters, the Spurs mine the globe for undervalued talent that can be picked up at a fraction of the price. Through the draft and free agency, the Spurs surrounded their core with players that every other team in the NBA passed up on, like DaJuan Blair, Danny Green, Gary Neal and most impressively, Manu Ginobili.

This coming season should be no different, as the Spurs look like they have two more quality European players ready to suit up in silver and black next season.

At the 2011 draft, when the Spurs shipped George Hill to Indiana for Kawhi Leonard (the 15thpick), the deal seemed like a fair trade to most. The Spurs gave up a quality young combo guard in exchange for an energetic rookie forward with good size for his position and a lot of upside. What many didn’t factor into the move was that the Spurs also picked up the rights to Erazem Lorbek, an All-Euroleague first team big man from Regal Barcelona, whom the Pacers chose with the 46th pick, way back in 2005.

The Pacers had given up hope of bringing Lorbek to the NBA, as he had found a home as a well-compensated, All-League forward for one of Europe’s premier organizations. Leaving Barcelona, where he was playing for championships in multiple top level competitions, for Indiana, a team that had been struggling to recuperate from the Malice at the Palace, never seemed like an attractive option. With the move to the Spurs, unquestionably the easiest team for a foreign player to make the transition to the NBA, Lorbek is way more likely to cross the pond this summer.

Lorbek’s skill set would be a perfect fit into Gregg Popovich’s system. His combination of size and versatility make him well suited to be paired with virtually any other front court player. He has a knack for hitting baseline jumpers (58.7% from 2PT in Euroleague) in the flow of the offense, which will add to the Spurs already excellent spacing offensively. He can mix it up defensively against big guys, and while not super athletic, he can guard athletic forwards in short bursts using his high basketball IQ. Overall, Lorbek is a very team oriented player who makes most of his plays in the flow of the game.

Similar to Nenad Krstic, Lorbek is more suited to play 20-25 minutes as a role player rather than be a 30-35 minute starter. As a 28-year-old veteran, Lorbek should fit right in on the Spurs, who similar to most Euroleague teams, spread the minutes out around the roster to keep everyone on the team healthy and engaged in the season.

Lorbek actually might actually fill a position of need as the Spurs may lose Boris Diaw and DaJuan Blair. Diaw, who was picked up (for peanuts) mid-season after being bought out by the Bobcats, seems destined to follow the path of Tim Thomas and parlay an excellent two month stretch, after an awful two year stretch, into a second bloated contract. Blair has a roughly $1 million team option next season, but fell out of the Spurs rotation shortly after Diaw’s arrival. The Spurs likely will pick up his option as an asset, but look for him to potentially be involved in a trade before the start of the season.

Nando De Colo, the 53rd pick in 2009, is a 24-year-old French guard, who most recently teamed up with former Maryland star, Nik Caner-Medley, on the Spanish ACB team, Valencia. The Spurs have long been familiar with De Colo, as he has been Parker’s backup on the French national team, and he will get a chance this summer at the Olympics to test out if he is ready to keep the seat warm for Parker as a full-time job.

At 6-foot-5, De Colo has excellent length and court vision for a guard. His decision-making in the pick and roll should make him a smooth fit into the Spurs system. While he has the tools and the instincts of a lead guard, he doesn’t yet possess the poise and leadership to be a full time point guard, but playing next to Ginobili in the second unit should make him a lot more comfortable. One thing Popovich will really like about this kid, is that he understands how to play the passing lanes while staying in front of his man, making things tougher on the passer without gambling.

De Colo is excellent at creating shots for himself off the dribble, and just like it was with Ginobili, it may take a year or two for him and Pop to come to a compromise over what is a good shot for him.  While he likely would only receive roughly 15 minutes a game as a rookie, he may fill a vital role for the team.

While Patty Mills had a few impressive performances during the last month of the regular season, he most likely played his way toward a raise from the $1 million dollar player option he has for next season. The Spurs however, aren’t likely to be willing to break the bank knowing they have another strong option, so look for Mills only to stay in San Antonio if he has modest contract expectations.

Neither of these additions will make major waves this offseason, with Deron Williams and Dwight Howard poised to dominate the headlines after the draft. For two thirds of the season, barely anyone will notice the impact they are making in helping the Spurs play winning basketball. Just like every season, the Spurs moves won’t get them any hoopla, but they will net players who can make an impact.

For Mitnick’s earlier column on the top international players in the 2012 NBA draft, click here.

AJ Mitnick is an American currently living in Israel and working for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A recent graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick also maintains a  basketball blog,, and is pursuing a professional basketball coaching license from the Wingate Institute in Israel. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. John says

    Tiago Splitter was never that good in Europe. He was like Rubio. Ridiculously overrated. It’s really gotten to be way out of line how everyone in the USA makes the NBA players that came from Europe to be way better than they actually were when they were there.

    I’m actually totally sick of hearing and reading this stuff. Splitter was never good in Europe. That’s the truth. The same with Rubio.

    Americans really need to stop this revisionist history about the game in Europe, because it’s really gotten out of hand. It’s really actually quite insulting to be honest. Please stop this nonsense about how guys like Splitter were anything special in Europe – then they definitely were not.

    Spurs fans are HORRIBLE at this. Splitter, Neal…they just make up this fantasy nonsense of imaginary make believe about what these guys supposedly were in Europe.

    I wonder how NBA fans would feel if European fans talked this way about NBA players in Europe.

    “Trajan Langdon was the best two guard in the NBA”.

    It’s about as ridiculous as the nonsense that comes from NBA fans whenever some current NBA player that used to play in Europe comes from. “Gary Neal dominated over there”, etc.

    NBA fans are a curse against the game of basketball.

  2. Matt says

    AJ, thanks for the reply. You’re right, I don’t know much about the EuroLeague.

    So, I looked at the stats that Tiago had accumulated in his time with Tau Ceramica. He is a little bit better defensively than Lorbek (4.8 reboutds, 0.7 blocks per game). I think this is a good gauge as to how Lorbek will perform in the nba.

    Tiago has needed two seasons to get acclimated with the nba (although in fairness, his first season was spent sitting on the bench with injury or in a learning type mode). His defense is something that still needs to be worked on, as evidenced by the fact that he played very little in the WCF this year.

    The Spurs need a strong defensive presence and Lorbek, who is at best a second Tiago, won’t provide that, at least not in the first two years. The Spurs are one player away from the title, and I believe that one player is a big that is a strong defender. Lorbek isn’t, and I would much rather see picking up a player that is nba ready, even if it is not the ideal big (Elton Brand if he is waived/ac’d for example).

  3. AJ Mitnick says

    Matt, playing for a team like Barcelona in the ACB and the Euroleague is not like playing in the NBA. There are significantly less possessions per minute and significantly less rebounding opportunities per minute than there are in the NBA. That said,Lorbek’s strength will not be as a rebounder, and his versatility offensively will makes him effective. In Europe some teams play team oriented to a point where practically nobody on their team has good stats, but the team gets W’s. You need to be wary of judging players on teams like Barcelona just by the numbers.

  4. Matt says

    Disagree about Lorbek. He is not even close to a perfect fit. His averages in 25 mpg were 4.7 rebounds and 0.3 blocks. Dismal, and in the NBA, this will only get worse.

    Too many people are using a lot of subjective nonsense to justify bringing this guy to the Spurs (“Lorbek will use his high basketball IQ to guard athletic power forwards in short bursts” Really?)

    I think Lorbek’s rights were only acquired in the George HIll trade just to even out the finances. Spurs will be much better served in this summer’s FA market or somehow trying to find a pick in the draft.

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