The college basketball season is about a month old, enough time to for draft geeks like me to start looking ahead to June's NBA Draft. The NBA Draft has always been less fun as a Spurs fan since they've always drafted at or near the end of the first round. Through the middle part of the last decade the Spurs either traded their draft picks or draft and stashed someone playing in Europe (see: Splitter, Tiago).
Five years ago there was sea change starting with drafting George Hill instead of European big guys like Nikola Pecovic and Omer Asik, who both were drafted early in the second round (I'll let you decide how that worked out, I'm cool with it). The next year DeJuan Blair was drafted early in the second round, then James Anderson, then the trade for Kawhi Leonard. As their core got older the Spurs draft plans went from help later to help now. Even last year, the Spurs followed that philosophy by surrendering their first round pick in the Richard Jefferson-Stephen Jackson trade. Jackson is a better fit than Jefferson and sacrificing the pick was worth it.
This season I see no reason why that would be any different. The Spurs will likely have a pick late in the first round and will use it through trade or for a player they think can help in his first couple of seasons a la George Hill. Assuming the latter is the case here's a look at some guys to keep an eye through the rest of the college season.
Gorgui Dieng, C, Louisville - Did anyone see Toronto's Ed Davis and Washington's Kevin Seraphin give the Spurs fits last week. Well, Dieng is built in that same mold. At a long 6'11", Dieng is mobile and excels on defense, particularly protecting the rim. He's having a bit of a down year so far and just suffered a wrist injury that will keep him out 4-6 weeks. While that hurts his stock, it actually might help the Spurs since there's a better chance of him being there at the end of the first round.
Patric Young, C, Florida - Young hasn't developed into a low post scorer many thought he would, but his athleticism and defensive make him hard to pass up at the end of the first round. In last June's draft, Golden State took Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli (with the Spurs' pick ironically enough) specifically for his size and defense and now he's starting for them while the Warriors wait for Andrew Bogut to get healthy. Young could do the same thing for a team next year.
Andrew Roberson, F, Colorado - I wrote about the San Antonio native in October, saying he was poised for a huge season assuming his offensive game improved. Through the first month, his offense hasn't really improved. Right now he's averaging 11.6 points and 11 rebounds a game. He's still shooting 50 percent from the field, most of those shots coming in the paint. Still, he hasn't shown an ability to create his own shot which is what scouts were looking for to make him a top 15 or 20 pick. That matter less to the Spurs than what he can do on defense. He's able to guard shooting guards, small forwards and even some power forwards. He averages over a block per game. If you have him and Kawhi Leonard on the wing together, they could create absolute mayhem. Plus it'd just be exciting to have a kid from San Antonio playing for the home town team.
Brandon Ashley, F, Arizona - The freshman has already moved himself in to the Wildcats starting five. He's got a lot of Shawn Marion in him. You're probably thinking the Spurs don't need another 6'8" power forward but the difference between Ashley and Boris Diaw and DeJuan Blair is his athleticism. He's already had one 20 point, 10 rebound game and is averaging two blocks a game. He's one of three freshman splitting time at the center and power forward positions. It's entirely possible that he'll declare for the draft if he continues to play well rather than fight for playing time with Grant Jarrett and Kaleb Tarczewski.
So you're seeing the pattern, athletic forwards, regardless of height. Truth is the Spurs have plenty of good to great post defenders. They need a guy or two to defend the pick and roll provide weakside defense. All of these four can do that. Keep an eye on all of them. We've got a long way to go to June.