How player development keeps the Spurs a playoff staple

Gregg Popovich said the key to Derrick White's development was the guard believing he belonged in the NBA, and White found some of that confidence leading the Austin Spurs to the G League title. AP Photo/Matt Slocum

San Antonio Spurs player-development assistant Cameron Hodges stood barefoot near the end of the line, staring at the shiny shards of broken glass piled high on an orange-and-white blanket.

As Davis Bertans began his walk, the high-pitched crackle of the broken bits under the feet of the Spurs rookie resonated with each cautious step.

This -- clearly -- was not a Spurs exercise. This was a "trust walk" in Latvia to prepare the national basketball team for EuroBasket 2017.

The Spurs might not go as far as broken glass, but their player development knows few boundaries. San Antonio finagled a spot for Hodges as an assistant on the Latvian team so that Hodges could keep close tabs on Bertans, who averaged 4.5 points in 12.1 minutes as a rookie. By the way, Hodges also did the trust walk.

"We sent Cameron Hodges with Davis as an assistant coach on the Latvian national team all through international competition that summer just to have somebody there to not only strength-train Davis, but to work him out, because we knew [2017-18] was going to be an important year for him," Spurs general manager RC Buford said.

The strategy worked. Bertans starred in the tournament, averaging 14 points while shooting 44.7 percent from 3-point range, and he's currently one of the reasons the Spurs are entering their NBA-record-tying 22nd consecutive postseason.

The move demonstrated the lengths to which San Antonio will go to develop players through a program described by some within the organization as "holistic." That program was born from a need to find and develop under-the-radar prospects because the Spurs' success kept them out of the NBA draft lottery. It's how they end up with the Manu Ginobilis and Tony Parkers of Spurs lore.

Two of the most recent products of the development program -- Derrick White and Bryn Forbes -- will make their first postseason starts on Saturday in Denver (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET). Bertans also is logging key minutes.

In a way, the ascents of White and Forbes can be traced back to the season-ending knee injury suffered by another Spurs development success story: Dejounte Murray, who took over as starting point guard for Parker last season.

The 29th pick of the 2016 draft, Murray played 15 games as a rookie for San Antonio's G League affiliate, the Austin Spurs. His preseason injury meant more minutes for Forbes and White, who both had stints during the regular season as San Antonio's starting point guard.

"We've had a history of player development with [former Spurs assistant and current Philadelphia 76ers head coach] Brett Brown, RC and [Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich] not having lottery picks for so many years," said Spurs assistant Chip Engelland, who heads up San Antonio's player-development program with assistant Will Hardy. "They were trying to comb all the areas of the world for players [to draft]. Then, when we get them, we try to improve them. I think the Spurs and ownership, RC and Pop, they were on it early. Let's find players where no one else is finding them. Expand the world. The ones we get, let's make them better. Tony Parker was one of the players that I came to make better, and that was 14 years ago, summer of '05.

"It takes resources and planning. You have to have the financial backing to want to put money in player development and believe there's benefits there. I think they were early in that, too."

Although player development serves an important role for most NBA teams, it's everything in San Antonio, which last drafted in the lottery in 1997 with the pickup of Tim Duncan at No. 1 overall.

Since then, the Spurs haven't gone into the draft with a pick higher than the No. 18 selection they used last year to bring aboard rookie guard Lonnie Walker IV, the club's latest development project. Before picking up Walker, the closest San Antonio would come to landing a lottery player was in 2011, when it traded former No. 26 pick George Hill to Indiana for Kawhi Leonard, who was the 15th selection. Bertans was included in that trade. Leonard was developed by Engelland and Chad Forcier, who left the Spurs in 2016 and is now an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies.

"We've developed a lot of players as time has gone along, either our second-round picks or people we picked up that nobody else wanted," Popovich said. "There are people in lots of organizations that went through here, from the film room to development, and somebody grabbed them. They're all over [the league].

"But development has been very important here. The group that we have now has been fantastic and continue to do that with Cory Joseph, Kawhi Leonard, the two guys starting for us this year -- Bryn and Derrick, and others."

Joseph was a development project who left San Antonio in 2015 on a four-year, $30 million deal with the Toronto Raptors, and is now with the Pacers. He's another example of someone who benefited from time in Austin and with the Spurs' development coaches.

"It's been part of what's kept us being competitive for so long," Popovich added.

Having taken over as head coach of the Austin Spurs in 2017, Blake Ahearn stays in close contact with Austin general manager Andy Birdsong, who acts as somewhat of a liaison between the G League affiliate and the NBA franchise's development efforts.

Engelland joined the Spurs in the summer of 2005, in part to help Parker improve as a shooter, The assistant started his career working with Grant Hill in Detroit. Hardy, meanwhile, spent his first six years in San Antonio working in the video room and learning from Engelland and Forcier before receiving a call from Popovich after the latter's 2016 departure.

Engelland and Hardy communicate the development goals set forth for every player by Popovich and Buford.

Forbes, who was undrafted coming out of Michigan State in 2016, credits Engelland and Hardy for his three-year tenure with the San Antonio Spurs. Forbes signed a two-year contract this past July worth $6 million, a bargain considering he has started 81 games during the regular season, averaging a career-high 11.8 points and 42.6 percent from 3-point range. Forbes met with Popovich as a rookie before embarking on his G League tenure, and the coach suggested the rookie increase his value to the franchise by learning multiple positions.

The shooting guard needed to learn to run the show from the point. Even after toiling in the G League for most of his rookie season, Forbes would spend most of the 2017 offseason working with Engelland and Hardy to learn how to make decisions in the pick-and-roll while also focusing on defensive improvement.

"I talked to Coach Pop, so I understood," Forbes said. "I took that very seriously."

For White, it was about confidence. Coming out of Legend High School in Parker, Colorado, White didn't receive a single Division I scholarship offer. A junior college in Wyoming offered White a scholarship, and Division II University of Colorado-Colorado Springs gave the guard a $3,000 housing voucher.

White took the housing stipend and developed into a Division II All-American before transferring to the University of Colorado as a senior, where he would earn recognition as a member of the Pac-12's 2017 All-Conference first team in addition to making the All-Defensive team and All-Tournament team.

The Spurs selected White at No. 29 overall in 2017 and almost immediately sent him to Austin. He helped lead the Austin Spurs to the G League title on April 10, 2018, and 48 hours later, he was in San Francisco preparing to help the big league team face the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

"He was a pretty quick study," Popovich said. "We were all surprised by a few different things, but with Derrick, it was just a matter of believing he belonged in the NBA more than anything. All those skills that were sort of latent in a way, they would show themselves from time to time. But he learned to stick his nose in, to be more confident, to just go out, compete and let it go where it would lead.

"Now, we've got a very well-rounded player who's going to have a wonderful NBA career."

Bertans, meanwhile, navigated a more winding road. He was the 42nd pick in 2011, but he didn't debut for the Spurs until the 2016-17 season. He had been playing professionally in Europe since the 2007-08 season.

Popovich still jokes about Bertans' affinity for shooting the ball.

"Before I came here to San Antonio, I was coming off screens and pretty much like the guys on Golden State, I was just shooting whatever I could get my hands on," Bertans said. "We're looking for better shots here and not forcing it. It's more team basketball where you're just trying to get good looks for either yourself or you attack for a teammate. You find something for someone else. You're not settling for the tough ones."

The 20-year-old Walker is building the foundation for the dogged professionalism expected in San Antonio. Part of that for G League players is dealing with the logistical challenges presented by playing for two different teams in the same season.

"Being a rookie, coming into this league, you've got to deal with adversity," Walker said. "Years down the road, you're going to have adversity. You can't expect your life to be glamorous just immediately. Sooner or later, I know it's going to have a positive effect seeing Derrick White, Dejounte, Bryn, the list goes on and on. The Spurs are great with their development."

Engelland views that attitude as crucial to Walker's development.

"We've had a lot of 19- and 20-year-olds come in here," Engelland explained. "Cory Joseph, Kawhi Leonard, DeJuan Blair, Ian Mahinmi, and the most important lessons for those guys was the day-to-day approach.

"We had great role models. You've got the Duncans. You've got them. But you've also got every other player that has come through here: the Brent Barrys, the Michael Finleys, the Bruce Bowens with great professional work habits. With the abilities of a Lonnie Walker, if he respects the game and approaches it day-to-day with hard work, he's gonna get better. What specifically? It almost doesn't matter, because if he's approaching it with a positive attitude in a positive environment, he's gonna get better. Then, with that approach, they don't know anything else but putting in that time in the gym. And that's from being on time to being a good teammate to responding after a win to responding to reporters after a tough loss. It's all those things. It's hard, and it's a lot."

The AT&T Center seemed a shell of itself on March 8, when the Austin Spurs were set to host the Raptors 905 in the San Antonio Spurs' home arena, which was stripped down to accommodate a smaller audience. On this night, you could have walked the concourse and picked up college- and career-readiness brochures with subjects ranging from how to obtain scholarships to effectively managing time, as well as 15 tips for surviving freshman year at college.

Two hours before tip, Ahearn put the Austin Spurs through a pregame warm-up routine. It was a long way from their digs at the Cedar Park Rec Center, where nets dividing the gym separate pickleball enthusiasts from NBA dreamers.

White, Forbes and Bertans were all attending.

"We feel like we're a mini-NBA organization. They treat us that way. When you have phone conversations with RC Buford, and Pop's asking questions about certain guys -- I don't know how many teams do that. The coaching staff watches games and sends texts and emails." Austin Spurs head coach Blake Ahearn

As tipoff approached, there was Engelland, dressed in street clothes, working the floor, spending several minutes speaking individually with multiple players -- including Blair, who was drafted by San Antonio No. 37 overall in 2009 and is attempting a comeback. Blair played 424 games over seven seasons in the NBA with the Spurs, Mavericks and Wizards before leaving the league in 2016, only to be drafted by the Austin Spurs in October.

Ahearn marveled at the synergy between Austin and San Antonio. Even Buford is quick to correct anyone terming a G League assignment as somebody going "down to the G League," pointing out that Austin is actually north of San Antonio.

"We feel like we're a mini-NBA organization," Ahearn said. "They treat us that way. When you have phone conversations with RC Buford, and Pop's asking questions about certain guys -- I don't know how many teams do that. The coaching staff watches games and sends texts and emails. You walk into a practice when we're in San Antonio, and you've got guys like Patty Mills talking to players about the game, and that means a lot. Our players don't feel like it's Austin and San Antonio. They just feel like we're a part of the Spurs, and the organization does a great job from the standpoint of making sure that we're treated and these guys are valued like a Spurs player."

Development stretches deep on the NBA side, too.

Once the offseason hits and all the players disperse to their respective locales, the organization readies a summer schedule of visits and workouts with veterans all over the globe. Buford said the player-development staff "splits that up where, hopefully, they get some time away, but they spend a great deal of their time committed to the offseason work with our guys."

Engelland and Hardy are a part of the travelling crew, which considers the off-court interaction with the players just as important as the workout sessions.

"We travel to see some guys where they are," Hardy said. "We also have some players come to San Antonio to see us. That just depends on who you are. In the summer, we definitely go and try to check in with the guys. One: just on a personal relationship level to check in, touch base and see how they're doing to make sure they have what they need. The summertime is when guys are working on their game and trying to maybe add something that during the season is tougher because you're managing minutes and trying to stay sharp for games."

Added Engelland: "The more veteran you are, the further we'll go. The young guys would probably come back here sometimes to San Antonio. Then, as you build your career out, and hopefully you're successful, we'll go find you at the other end of the Earth to get up shots."

Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego came up through the Spurs system in two stints: first, as an assistant video coordinator like Hardy; and second, as an assistant before taking over his own squad last summer. Borrego isn't surprised with the recent impacts of players such as White, Forbes and Bertans, saying San Antonio's development system set them up for success.

"The reason we were able to sustain the success was these young, core pieces were able to develop at the right rate," he said. "And we had good players around them. Put that together with very good development coaches, and it was a wonderful formula to build these young guys. I think it was also a mixture of learning from great veterans, high-IQ basketball players. Put that together with the great development coaching that goes on there, and then the process there is probably the third layer.

"You're not thrust into an area where you're asked to do too much too early. You would ease your way into a role there in San Antonio, whether that's through the G League at times, whether that's through sitting on the bench, in practice. But you're able through all of that to watch great basketball, watch high-IQ basketball players taught by very good coaches. Then, when your time was called, all these guys seemed ready."

That's what the organization expects when White and Forbes make their first postseason starts on Saturday.

For Bertans, "it's hard to think" about where he'd be as a player without San Antonio's development program. When asked whether he would be the player he is today without it, Forbes said, "Absolutely not." Bertans, White and Forbes all cite "confidence" as what they gained most from the program.

So instead of expressing surprise about the Spurs' sending Hodges across the globe to join Bertans as an assistant for the Latvian national team, Bertans laughed and said, "I'm glad Cam was there."

"I think they're that serious about everybody they bring in," he said. "It definitely shows they care about the players."