Heading into the 2019 NBA Combine, Croatian big man Luka Samanic wasn’t regarded as an appealing prospect to most scouts in the association. After all, he was coming off a disappointing year overseas in which his points per game stayed relatively the same even with his increased playing time. Another note worth mentioning was Samanic’s free throw percentage. It dropped off six percentage points from 78 to 72 percent from the line from 2018 to 2019.
However, despite being the only international player to suit up for the combine’s scrimmage event, Samanic was able to display his skills graciously to the audience in attendance. He scored thirteen points and grabbed seven rebounds in less than twenty minutes of court time. This effort helped skyrocket his draft projection.
During the contest, he looked fluid on both ends as he chased after loose balls and was able to keep his ground defensively. In fact, his day-one scrimmage was so impressive that scouts advised him to not participate in the following games as they didn’t want his recent success to dwindle his newly-found praise.
Last season, Samanic played for the KK Petrol Olimpija over in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Unlike most European NBA prospects, Samanic played in a league that wasn’t regarded as the top league in Europe. As a result, the competition he was matched up against wasn’t up to par as many international prospects before him.
Luka Doncic and Tony Parker are prime examples of prospects who played against Europe’s best talent. Even with the lesser skill of competition, Samanic and his club weren’t able to steamroll against the members of the Liga Nova KBM. The team finished in the middle of their league’s standings last season. This mediocre team play lead to only a minuscule amount of attention drawn from international scouts regarding Samanic and his play. Instead, the main interest surfaced around prospects like Goga Bitazde and Sekou Dembouya, who are each regarded as first-round talents in their own right.
This “untapped” evaluation from many scouts makes Samanic certainly one of the most intriguing prospects heading into Thursday’s draft.
Let’s shift gears and talk about his play on the court.
Weight: 210 lbs
Stats: (Total of 50 games between three teams) 8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 34 percent from three off 1.6 shots per game
Strengths: Inside offense, shooting potential and athleticism
Even though his 210-lb frame is smaller compared to most professional frontcourt players, Samanic is still able to get his way in the painted area. He has a great ability to finish off the fastbreak as through a variety of his floaters and hook shots near the rim.
This also transitions into his post game where he has been proven to be a reliable scorer once he gets a good enough position down low. Although he won’t bully his defenders in the post, Samanic is still able to set himself up for great shot selections in large part due to his above-average ball handling ability.
Fortunately, Samanic is more than just an inside presence offensively.
He has been able to consistently stretch the floor out from three as his deep-range shot reached the highest efficiency in his career last season. These baskets from three come in a variety of ways. he is able to confidently shoot from both catch-and-shoot and shot off-the-dribble. This causes opponents to stay more uptight with him along the perimeter as his sharpshooting ability makes him a threat anytime he has space to let it go from downtown.
Combine this shooting mark with his underrated athleticism and you have a player that, if properly developed, can turn into a scoring machine at the power forward spot.
Samanic uses his elusiveness to get by his opponents who play him closely near the three-point line. This allows him to cut towards the basket, opening up easy opportunities to score near the rim. Having this unique speed gives him the ability to be that elusive player out in transition.
His athleticism expands beyond the offensive end. Despite his short wingspan, Samanic is able to wreak havoc on defense by putting up heavy shot contests from different places on the halfcourt. Using his excellent lateral quickness in the halfcourt, he is able to locate the ball and interfere shot opportunities from baseline to baseline. While shot-blocking has never been a staple of his game Samanaic has made a strong foundation for himself defensively.
Weaknesses: Passing and inconsistencies
Similar to international prospect Goga Bitazde, of which you can read here, I talked about his lack of facilitating skills on offense. Unfortunately, Samanic comes in with the same struggle to dish out passes to open teammates. Through his first three years of professional ball, Samanic has created more turnovers than assists per ballgame. If he resides predominately to the power forward role instead of center, having some form of ball distribution would be key in order to maintain steady offensive flow.
For instance, look at Hornets forward Marvin Williams’s 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. Williams helps the team’s offensive move when there is an opportunity to either kick-out to an open three or to find a man slashing inside. Having a player like this in the frontcourt has helped the Charlotte maintain one of the more prolific assist teams in the association.
The inability to have a steady production output is one of the biggest scars in Samanic’s game. Often times after a big, explosive offensive show he would follow it up with performances of weak defensive coverage and inability to score the basketball. This is often a characteristic in many young players’ games and one that is relatively simple to fix.
Dwayne Bacon, Jayson Tatum, and Jonathon Isaac are three examples from the 2017 NBA Draft class alone who were regarded as inconsistent players coming out of college. In these cases, excluding Isaac due to the lack of playing time, these players have gone out of their initial reports of putting out varying results on the court. Under the right organization and development, players can have an easy transition defining themselves into established roles on the basketball court.
Pro comparison: Rodions Kurucs
Interestingly enough, a player who enhances a very similar playing style to Samanic happened to hear his name called in last year’s NBA Draft. That player is Brooklyn Nets power forward Rodions Kurucs. Kurucs, who grew up in Latvia, was selected 40th overall and became a prominent figure in the Nets system towards the latter half of the regular season. Before the draft, he played for FC Barcelona which features some of the best talents Europe has to offer.
Like Samanic, Kurucs is great at finishing the end of fastbreak opportunities. Having the upper hand in pickpocketing opposing players, Kurucs is a more defined defender than Samanic is currently. The two are practically inseparable on offense, having the ability to stretch the floor while also providing buckets in the paint.
Both players are on the rise as they transition from European basketball to the more physically imposing NBA. With each having a stable footing on both ends of the court, their ceilings are truly something to fathom about.
As for Samanic, there is a realistic chance the Hornets will at least consider him on draft night. They have the 36th and 52nd pick in this year’s second round and they have avenues to explore in order to select the Croatian big man. They can either package those picks together and earn a spot in the late 20s, or they could get lucky and land Samanaic early in the second round.
At 19 years of age, there is a lot to like about this international prospect. Just imagine the pairing of Samanic and Hornets draft-and-stash wing Arnoldas Kulboka, who was selected 55th overall in last year’s draft. These two, if developed to their fullest extent, could become a true one-two punch for the Hornets offense in years to come.
All stats courtesy of basketball.realgm.com