By Raul Dominguez
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SAN ANTONIO _ Eighteen years to the day after selecting Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs chose another former swimmer in the first round of the NBA draft.
The Spurs selected 7-footer Nikola Milutinov of Serbia with the 26th selection Thursday night.
Milutinov was a promising swimmer with Olympic aspirations when he said he was literally run out of the pool. Two bullies pushed a 12-year-old Milutinov off the side of pool, nearly breaking his jaw. He began playing basketball two days later and has since become one of the top European centres.
Sound familiar? As a youth in the Virgin Islands, Duncan was a promising swimmer with hopes of qualifying for the 1992 Olympics.
Those dreams were dashed in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo destroyed the Virgin Island’s lone Olympic-sized swimming pool. Duncan trained briefly in the ocean, but has said a fear of sharks drove him from the water and ended his swimming career.
The rest is history. Taken No. 1 in 1997 by the Spurs, Duncan is perhaps the greatest power forward in NBA history after leading the Spurs to five championships and 18 straight post-season appearances.
While Duncan had an immediate impact with the Spurs, Milutinov is expected to spend at least a few seasons overseas before joining San Antonio. The 20-year-old averaged 10.1 points and 7.7 rebounds last season while playing for Partizan in the EuroCup and Adriatic and Serbian leagues.
“We are excited to get Nikola,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. “He is a young big guy that has improved a great deal over the last year. As we go in the future and need to replenish our size, we’re excited to add a player like that. Give him a chance to develop and see what he can do.”
Milutinov will play for the Serbian National Team in the EuroBasket Championship in September.
“He’s an athletic big guy that has a really good shooting form,” Buford said. “The expectations with Cady, we don’t know what to expect. We hope to get him in summer league and then start building him as a player from there.”
The Spurs did not stray from what has made them so successful the past two decades.
The Spurs have found great success with international players, winning five titles since 1999 while selecting Tony Parker out of France and Argentina’s Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter out of the EuroLeague. San Antonio has also signed France’s Boris Diaw, Australia’s Patty Mills and Italy’s Marco Belinelli to shore up the roster and play in the Spurs’ vaunted system under coach Gregg Popovich.
Buford has largely been able to tinker with the roster instead of overhauling it over the past two decades. That strategy will definitely be altered this season since San Antonio only has five players currently under contract.
Duncan and Ginobili have not announced whether they will retire or return to the Spurs. NBA Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is a restricted free agent. Stalwart role players Danny Green and Belinelli are unrestricted free agents.
Last season, San Antonio lost a seven-game series to the Los Angeles Clippers in the opening round after reaching the NBA Finals for two consecutive seasons and the Western Conference Finals for three straight.