Why you should care
Only two international players have gone on to be drafted from the G League — until now.
Seventy miles south of Oracle Arena, the Warriors this summer hit the jackpot.
The project the Santa Cruz Warriors took on by recruiting Alen Smailagic to the G League from Serbia and turning him into a player they ultimately took 39th overall in this year’s NBA draft was risky. It also may not be replicable.
Worth noting: While international players like Jonas Kaden and Darel Poirier have graced the G League in recent years,
Smailagic is only the third international player in NBA history to be drafted from the G League to the NBA.
The other two international players to play in the G League — and be drafted to the NBA — are Thanasis Antetokounmpo, drafted in 2014, and Chukwudiebere Maduabum (2011). Maduabum has yet to play an NBA game, while Antetokounmpo — brother of the reigning MVP — played just two games in 2016.
With Smailagic, the Warriors may have caught lightning in a bottle.
The project began when Santa Cruz general manager Kent Lacob, who is also the son of majority owner Joe Lacob, visited Treviso, Italy, with a Warriors scout in early 2017 to check out the Eurocamp held there. On the way, they stopped in Serbia and saw the raw, gangly Smailagic.
Then just 17 — and already 6-foot-6 — Smailagic played point guard and appeared versatile defensively. After a breakout performance in the 2016 FIBA U16 tournament, Smailagic was far from anonymous, so Santa Cruz decided quickly to move up in the 2018 G League draft to grab him.
Opposing teams scout the G League, and games are broadcast across the country, but still, the Warriors holding Smailagic out of the annual G League showcase (and keeping him from media appearances) raised eyebrows. League rules restricted the 18-year-old from jumping right to the NBA, so even though Golden State had his G League rights, they would need to draft him again to get him to their NBA roster.
Many believed Golden State was hiding their prized prospect in hopes of gathering more intel on him before the 2019 NBA Draft.
“They couldn’t just bring Alen over and protect his draft rights, so there’s an inherent risk/reward in bringing a guy over a year in advance of his draft and then putting him on display,” says Adam Johnson, the Santa Cruz Warriors sideline reporter as well as an independent G League reporter.
Though there was a risk of losing Smailagic — or hurting his development by bringing him to the United States at a young age — the Warriors believed their infrastructure in Santa Cruz (plus the synergy between the NBA and G League staff) would help him.
Over the past several years, the Warriors have upgraded their facilities in Santa Cruz, invested in a more diligent diet routine for players, and hired a special coach, Luke Loucks, who moves back and forth with players from Oakland to Santa Cruz. The goal? To maintain a consistent experience across both teams.
“A lot of thought went into [this],” explained Lacob. “If we weren’t prepared to have the resources in place to make it possible for him to be successful, I don’t think we could have gone into this and I think it would have been a problem.”
Other franchises will have a difficult time pulling off a project like Smailagic’s assimilation. Rarely do international players from countries where they can compete professionally at a young age agree to expose themselves in the U.S. Rarer still is the franchise that trusts its G League team enough to develop him properly. The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets still do not have direct G League affiliates.
Still, Smailagic is not the only prized Warriors asset to spend time in Santa Cruz. The organization has consistently used the southern squad to develop young talent, from 2018 first-round pick Damian Jones to Finals contributor Alfonzo McKinnie.
“Are these international players going to be exposed to the NBA game and their draft stock will fall in essence too? They’re in limbo, so to speak; they’re not drafted yet but they could be,” explains Johnson. “In Alen’s case, it worked out. If he didn’t come over, would he have been on anybody’s radar?”
In a cutthroat league, Lacob and head coach Aaron Miles spend a lot of time focusing on culture. They’ve also structured a program around specific goals and benchmarks during a player’s time in Santa Cruz. The Warriors even sent their former All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to Santa Cruz while he rehabbed his ruptured Achilles’ last winter.
“We’re all pulling for each other,” says Miles, who was recently promoted to a player development coach on the Golden State staff. “I stress to our guys to enjoy each other’s success. That’s helped us.”
Integrating Smailagic was easier because the building blocks were already in place. The Warriors had already seen developmental success from prospects who came through Santa Cruz and trusted the infrastructure to benefit Smailagic.
“It may be Antonius Cleveland’s today, the next day it may be Alen Smailagic’s day, but whoever’s day it may be, be supportive of that person,” says Miles, “because your day is going to come and you’re going to want them to be supportive of you.”
Just as changing league rules will make it difficult for rival teams to replicate the Warriors’ plan with Smailagic, the risk may be less palatable with the suddenly mortal Warriors. Gone are Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Using the entire organization to develop players, with Santa Cruz occupying a key role, is critical.
The biggest change the story of Smailagic may have set off in the league is not actually at the league level but within the Warriors franchise itself.
“We’re happy with where the first step of that process turned out,” says Lacob of Smailagic’s trajectory. “We realized that we’ve only scratched the surface of what we think we can do in terms of using the G League to having a fully fleshed-out player development program in general.”