The Spurs had an interesting offseason. They re-upped Patty Mills and Pau Gasol, and added Joffrey Lauvergne, Brandon Paul and Rudy Gay. They let Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon sign with the Magic and Hawks respectively, and the situations of David Lee and Joel Anthony are still unknown.
This leads to the Spurs being short on depth in the frontcourt. LaMarcus Aldridge, Gasol and Lauvergne are the only pure bigs on the Spurs roster. Davis Bertans can play some four, and the Spurs definitely look ready to experiment with some small ball lineups that could help them keep up with the Warriors.
The small ball lineups look like their plan for the season ahead. But for the seasons after that, it looks like they’re betting on young Serbian center Nikola Milutinov who is stashed overseas with Greek Euroleague club Olympiacos. However, the Spurs aren’t the only team betting on Milutinov — Olympiacos appears to be betting big on him as well.
Here’s why they are, and how that could help the Spurs in the long run.
Milutinov is a 7-foot tall, 220-pound center who’s only 21-years-old. The Spurs selected him with the 26th overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft.
Milutinov was just coming off of a strong season with Partizan Belgrade, where he averaged a career-high in minutes per game (26.0) across all competitions. He also averaged a career-high 9.7 points per game to go along with 7.6 rebounds per game and a then career-high 55 percent accuracy from the field.
While Milutinov didn’t come over to the Spurs, he made the jump to Olympiacos where he has played the past two seasons. Through his first season-and-a-half with the club, he struggled for a regular spot in the rotation. This is common for young players in Europe because it takes a lot for them to earn their coach’s trust over an experienced veteran. But in the second half of the 2016-17 Euroleague regular season, playoffs and Final Four, Milutinov locked down Ioannis Sfairopoulos’ trust and started to show everyone who was watching just how good he is.
The first way to gain Sfairopoulos’ trust is by valuing the basketball and being a solid defender. Milutinov certainly valued the ball — he averaged one turnover per game, which isn’t bad for a 22-year-old who just started to get the ball in their hands more at the Euroleague level — and he was more than a solid defender. By the end of the Euroleague season, he was actually a great defender.
In Round 28 of the regular season, Olympiacos hosted Real Madrid and Milutinov was matched-up with Gustavo Ayon, a player with NBA experience who has NBA level skills as a pick-and-roll player and low post scorer. This didn’t deter Milutinov, who asserted his dominance on both ends of the paint right from the beginning, at all.
In this first clip, you’ll see Milutinov force Ayon into a tough turn-around fadeaway and contest it well. Then he beats Ayon down the court and gets incredible post position so he can knock down a baby hook over him.
In the second clip, Milutinov is defending Ayon in a wing pick-and-roll where Ayon’s partner is Sergio Llull. Llull is able to slip the pocket pass to Ayon, but Milutinov recovers and pins his lay-up to the backboard.
We see another good example of pick-and-roll defense by Milutinov in this following clip. Going up against Darussafaka, he plays ICE pick-and-roll defense against James Anderson and Semih Erden. He helps contain Anderson, who has the ball after he comes around the screen, while still shadowing Erden and not giving Anderson a passing angle. This leads to Anderson trying a tough lay-up, which Milutinov swats with ease.
In this final highlight of Milutinov’s defensive prowess, we see him help Erick Green who gets beat off the dribble by Thomas Heurtel. Milutinov alters Heurtel’s shot so much that he chooses to pass to a cutting Bryant Dunston in mid-air, and he recovers again and forces Dunston into a very awkward missed lay-up.
Milutinov is more than just a good defender — he’s a terrific rebounder as well. He averaged 10.2 rebounds per 40 minutes in Euroleague play last year and he has great anticipation skills, especially on the offensive end.
In the next clip, Georgios Printezis catches the ball in the low-post for Olympiacos and starts to go to work. However, he works himself into a tough angle (which Milutinov picks up on), so Milutinov decides to get himself in good weak-side rebounding position and scores an easy putback off of Printezis’ uncomfortable lay-up attempt.
Here, we see another example of Milutinov’s anticipation allowing him to beat Dunston to an offensive rebound. Vassilis Spanoulis penetrates and gets to the rim, forcing Dunston to help. Milutinov slides right over with Dunston and gets the better position to capitalize on the missed lay-up for another putback.
This final clip of Milutinov feasting on the offensive glass is against Real Madrid. Ioannis Papapetrou does great work in the low post to beat Anthony Randolph and force Ayon to help. Ayon’s help is enough to force a Papapetrou miss, but Milutinov once again anticipates this and gets another easy tip-in.
Milutinov’s skill continues as he isn’t just a grinder down low who protects the rim and hunts for offensive boards. He’s good with the ball in his hands, too, and he showcased this on Europe’s highest level this season when Olympiacos faced off against Fenerbahce in the Euroleague championship game.
Milutinov was up against All-Euroleague center Ekpe Udoh, who was the best defensive big man in Europe last season by far and just signed with the Jazz. This didn’t slow Milutinov down at all, though, which we see in this first clip as he establishes fantastic position against Udoh and gets the bucket plus the foul against him.
In the second quarter, Milutinov gets matched-up with Udoh one-on-one in the low post and takes him to school with the old fashioned back down, up-and-under and left handed finish.
The up-and-under is a preferred move of Milutinov. We see him use it again here against Nikola Kalinic and finish with the right hand.
Milutinov is a good catch-and-finish above-the-rim player. He showcased this skill twice against Fenerbahce. This first example is a simple one where Fenerbahce miscommunicates their defensive rotation and gives up an uncontested dunk.
In this second example, Jan Vesely tries to meet Milutinov at the rim, and the meeting doesn’t end well for Vesely.
Milutinov also flashed his ability to pass against Fenerbahce. It was only on one occasion but it was something he had shown the ability to do at previous times during the season and a skill we can expect him to continue to improve on as he gets more experience.
Milutinov is clearly a very skilled player in all facets of the game, but he does come with his weaknesses. He currently doesn’t have range outside of 12-feet, although he did shoot 70 percent from the free throw line in all competitions last season, meaning his mechanics are solid and there’s a chance he does extend his range down the road.
Another weakness is that he doesn’t have the mobility to switch out onto the perimeter. He struggles with this in Europe, which means NBA players will roast him. It’s why the Spurs will have to use the ICE strategy with him on the court. Fortunately for them, it’s something he’s shown to be very good at.
Milutinov’s strong showing towards the end of the season led to some wondering if the Spurs were going to sign him this summer, but they chose not to. He ended up staying with Olympiacos and they look ready to bet on him big time. Patric Young signed with Olimpia Milano and Khem Birch signed with the Magic. They only added one other center in Jamel McLean, who seems to be the athletic backup option to Milutinov.
This experience will help him grow even more as a player. With Gasol continuing to age for the Spurs, they can bring over Milutinov and let him learn from the experienced European big man and grow under his tutelage before becoming the center the Spurs desperately need.