By Jeff McDonald
Tonight, just after 6:30 local time, the NBA will commence its annual draft from Newark, N.J.
Unless a meteor strikes the Prudential Center right around then, the New Orleans Hornets will make Kentucky forward Anthony Davis the No. 1 pick.
From that point forward, an hours-long waiting game will begin for the Spurs, who own just one pick — No. 59 — after trading their first-rounder to Golden State as sweetener to the Stephen Jackson deal in March.
The team’s brain trust will spend the interim doing what it does every year: playing a real-life form of fantasy basketball.
“I think you prepare as if you had every pick in the draft,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. “We’re not preparing only to be ready to make the 59th pick.”
That due diligence was in play in 1999, when the Spurs struck Spindletop by nabbing future All-Star guard Manu Ginobili at No. 57, long after all but the geekiest of draft geeks had stopped paying attention.
It was in play again last season, when San Diego State small forward Kawhi Leonard dropped to No. 15, and the Spurs deftly engineered a trade with Indiana to get him.
And it will be in play again tonight, even as the Spurs enter the draft with a pick doubtful to provide immediate impact for a team that finished with the Western Conference’s best record two years running.
“I think you always approach the draft looking to improve your team,” Buford said. “You have to be prepared to react to whatever strategic opportunity presents itself.”
If the Spurs remain at No. 59, the player selected there is mathematically most likely to wind up one of three places: overseas, the NBA Development League or the waiver wire. Just uncovering a future rotation player would represent a win.
Fans waiting on another late-round lightning bolt, like Ginobili, would be better off playing Powerball.
The odds of a player of that caliber slipping into the 50s are miniscule compared to 1999, when the Spurs helped pioneer the draft-and-stash approach to international blue-chippers.
The scouting landscape has changed since then, as has the technology — ever hear of YouTube? — meaning even mediocre players in Europe have difficulty falling through the cracks.
“Today, most of the league people have a better feel for the (international) game than they did then,” said one rival Western Conference executive, who wished not to be named while talking about another team’s draft prospects. “San Antonio was ahead of the curve.
“(Now) it’s very hard for a guy to slip through, especially a guy who can be an impact player here. They’re going to be known.”
In 2012, a future star such as Ginobili probably would be scouted into the lottery.
“It’s just a different era, with people who make it their business to scout internationally,” another rival executive said. “Everybody has an international scout, and everybody goes over there.”
Despite the long odds stacked against them tonight, Buford and his front-office team soldier on, kicking the tires on prospects they might not get the chance to draft.
At the recent NBA combine in Chicago, Spurs representatives took time to interview a handful of likely lottery picks, including Connecticut 7-footer Andre Drummond, who is projected to go in the top 10.
They have also heavily scouted St. Bonaventure power forward Andrew Nicholson, who is expected to go toward the end of the first round.
The team also reportedly worked out a slew of prospects more apt to be available late tonight, among them Pittsburgh point guard Ashton Gibbs, Syracuse combo guard Scoop Jardine, Georgetown guard Jason Clark, Missouri State forward Kyle Weems and Purdue forward Robbie Hummel.
As past drafts prove, there is no guessing what kind of curveballs tonight’s extravaganza will provide. All Buford can promise is the Spurs will be ready for whatever happens, or doesn’t.
Staff writer Mike Monroe contributed to this report.