SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The San Antonio Spurs knew they needed changes, and they used the NBA draft to start making some.
The Spurs kicked off an unusually busy draft for coach Gregg Popovich by trading backup point guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for their first-round pick, 6-foot-7 forward Kawhi Leonard of San Diego State. San Antonio then picked Texas guard Cory Joseph at No. 29 overall.
Although Hill has always played behind Tony Parker during his three NBA seasons, Popovich has long lauded Hill as his “favorite player” and predicted he would eventually transition from a role player into a star for the Spurs.
But San Antonio’s outlook changed after a 61-win season came to a crashing halt in the first round.
“George has been a big part of everything we’ve done over the last three years, and I’m not sure that will be replaceable anytime in the near future,” Buford said. “But we think the talent level Kawhi has, the winning habits he brings to our group, gives us an opportunity to add some talents to our team in a different location.”
Leonard averaged 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds for the Aztecs last season. The Spurs will likely hope that Leonard can provide the athleticism the Spurs so sorely missed against the youthful Memphis Grizzlies, who particularly manhandled the aging Tim Duncan and Antonio McDyess in the frontcourt.
“I think as we saw some of the teams we’re going to have to face in the future, size for our positions weren’t one of our strengths,” Buford said.
Buford said the expectation is that Leonard can hopefully contribute immediately. The Pacers took Leonard at 15th, making him the highest first-round pick headed to the Spurs since 1997 _ when San Antonio drafted Duncan at No. 1.
Joseph, meanwhile, could eventually grow into a replacement for Hill. He averaged 10.4 points and 3.6 rebounds as a freshman for the Longhorns last season.
The Spurs are among the NBA’s best at uncovering jewels deep in the draft. Hill was the 26th pick in 2008, and center DeJuan Blair became the steal of the 2009 draft after being picked at 37th. More famously, the Spurs picked up Parker at 28th and Manu Ginobili at 57th.
The Spurs also received two Slovenian big men in the deal with Indiana: Davis Bertrans, the 42nd pick, and Erazem Lorbek, a second-round pick from 2005. Both will be added to San Antonio’s stockpile of long-term international projects, as well as Adam Hanga of Budapest, who the Spurs took 59th overall.
Hill was San Antonio’s fourth-leading scorer, averaging 11.6 points.
Hill, who went home to his native Indiana, tweeted: “Very emotional moment right now!!! But just want to Thank Everyone for all the Support. SA has been great to me and will never forget it!!”