In a deal that constitutes the boldest draft-day move of their post-championship era, the San Antonio Spurs traded George Hill a key rotation who coach Gregg Popovich once lauded as “my favorite player” to the Indiana Pacers for a package highlighted by Kawhi Leonard, a high-energy small forward the Pacers selected with the 15th overall pick.
Though the Spurs are intrigued by Leonard, who at 6-foot-7 gives the Spurs added size at a position where they were small, Buford made clear the night was bittersweet.
“This might have been one of the most difficult nights in Spurs history, as long as we’ve been here,” Buford said. “To lose a player like George Hill, who has meant so much to our team, to our culture, to our locker room … it’s one of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to make.”
The Spurs entered the offseason with the stated goal of regaining a defensive edge that had eluded them the previous few seasons. By trading for Leonard and using their own first-round pick, 29th overall, on defensive-minded Texas point guard Cory Joseph, draft night further underscored that intention.
Leonard averaged 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds as a sophomore at San Diego State last season, but his value comes in his ability to guard multiple positions.
He was the cornerstone of an Aztecs team last season that rose to a top-5 national ranking.
“I don’t know if he’s a throwback to Bruce (Bowen),” Buford said, referring to a player widely viewed as the best defensive wing in club history. “But he led a team at SDSU that had little to no success and took them to one of the top rankings in the country.”
Joseph on the other hand, is a freshman who played alongside Buford’s adopted son, Alexis Wangmene at UT, Buford said: “We saw him a lot. And we think he has terrific defensive qualities, terrific Spurs qualities.”
Hill’s departure leaves an immediate need for a backup point guard, a role that can be assumed by Joseph, he has similar skill set of Hill and he could only improve a lot under Popovich’s guidance and playing under a good system with the Spurs.
“I don’t think it was any secret we thought we would impact our team more through trades than through the draft,” Buford said. “In the end, it was a combination.”
Those close to Hill say he is leaving town neither willingly nor happily.
“The thing we made George aware of, he’s always a Spur,” Buford said.
If there’s any consolation for Hill, it’s that he’s headed back home to Indianapolis, where he thrived as a prep star at Broad Ripple High before playing his college ball at IUPUI.
As part of Thursday’s deal, the Spurs also get rights to Indiana’s second-round pick, 18-year-old Latvian sharpshooter Davis Bertans (42nd overall), as well as 2005 second-round pick Erazem Lorbek, a 6-10 center currently playing in Spain.
Bertans, a 6-10 forward is considered one of the best pure shooters in the draft, he has been playing with the Slovenian team Union Olympia and will probably remain overseas for the time being.
With their final pick, 59th overall, the Spurs took 22-year-old Hungarian Adam Hanga, a 6-6 shooting guard.
Trading Hill was tough and painful, but on the surface, it looks like the Spurs made a good deal out of it.
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