Brandon Paul has been here before.
In 2013 and 2014, Paul had chances to show his stuff with the Canton Charge of the NBA D-League and the Chicago Bulls’ summer league team. But those chances were both sidetracked by shoulder injuries that required surgery.
Paul continued to play in the D-League and abroad over the next couple year, but never quite earned an opportunity to stick at the highest level.
Then the Philadelphia 76ers signed Paul to a partially guaranteed contract in 2016 after a series of standout summer league performances. Paul competed for a back-up guard position in training camp but ultimately fell short: The Sixers waived Paul near the end of the preseason to trim their roster to the maximum of 15 contracts.
But there’s reason to think Paul’s latest NBA shot with the San Antonio Spurs, who agreed with him Thursday on a guaranteed contract, holds more promise.
Full details have yet to be released or reported regarding Paul’s exact agreement with the Spurs. But a quick look at the Spurs’ depth chart (see below for extensive roster/fit analysis) suggests Paul will hover around the very edge of San Antonio’s 15-man roster this season.
This means the contract is most likely either a guaranteed one-year deal for the minimum salary (more likely) or a guaranteed two-way contract (less likely), which is new to the NBA this season.
If Paul has been signed for the minimum, the Spurs are likely optimistic he’ll contend for one of their last couple roster spots. Most NBA teams sign 3-5 fringe players to their preseason rosters each year, and many of those players only earn non-guaranteed deals that are easy to waive.
That Paul could earn a fully guaranteed deal with an excellent team suggests there was more competition for his services than last season, when he signed with the prospect-laden Sixers for a partially guaranteed deal. So even if Paul fails to make the Spurs’ roster, there may be other teams interested in signing him for the regular season.
If Paul signed a two-way contract with the Spurs, which has not yet been reported but is a possibility, then he’s almost certainly going to make the team’s roster. But that doesn’t mean he’ll see significant NBA action this season.
The NBA’s new two-way contracts allow teams to expand their rosters by two spots to 17 total, and then use those additional spots to house intriguing young players who can develop in the G-League (which is the D-League, newly sponsored by Gatorade).
A player with a two-way contract primarily plays on a G-League salary for the team’s independent G-League affiliate (in this case, the Austin Spurs). But the two-way contract also allows that player to be “called up” to the NBA team for up to 45 days of the season and earn an NBA salary for that time.
So the Spurs could have signed Paul as a two-way player who can lead the Austin Spurs and help develop their other prospects. And if he shows enough in his limited NBA stints, they could upgrade his two-way contract to a fully guaranteed NBA deal at any time.
Lastly, and I know we’re deeeeep in the weeds here, there may be an intriguing chance for Paul to straddle both sides of the line here (if my CBA understanding is correct).
If Paul signed a regular deal for the minimum with a specific clause included, he could potentially be waived by the Spurs prior to the regular season, explore his options with other teams and look for a fully guaranteed deal and NBA role, and then come back to the Spurs (if he finds nothing interesting) and exercise the clause that would allow the team to convert his deal to a two-way contract.
So whether or not Paul makes the final 15-man Spurs roster, there’s still a chance he could end training camp with a guaranteed deal to play in the NBA and/or the G-League. It would most likely be with the Spurs, but not necessarily.
More important than anything for Paul is how the Spurs’ final, 15-man roster will shake out. And Paul’s chances of making the team could hinge on the decision of the best shooting guard in Spurs history: Manu Ginobili.
As Mike LaTulip noted to me on Twitter (I recommend Illini fans follow his new, non-hacked account), the Spurs’ depth chart is fairly full at shooting guard, though not with players who’ve shown much more than Paul in their careers:
Depth chart also looks relatively favorable at the SG position. Obviously we know Forbes did himself wonders by his play this summer too. pic.twitter.com/PZiaLBBjNX— Mike LaTulip (@LaTulip_Mike) July 13, 2017
Bryn Forbes had an excellent summer league this year, but he struggled in his 36 games with the Spurs last season. Forbes will need to continue to show the scoring ability he displayed this summer against NBA athletes, but he’s likely to stick with the NBA roster because of his relationship with the team.
So is Derrick White, who won’t be as good as Paul this season, but basically can’t be cut — the Spurs just used their 2017 first round pick on him.
The Spurs previously had Jonathon Simmons manning the wing, but they renounced his contract Thursday and reportedly don’t plan to bring him back. Should the Spurs change their minds, Simmons could return and take another potential spot from Paul.
So despite being perhaps the second-best shooting guard on the team (currently), Paul may still be the odd man out. He could hang on as the team’s seventh guard, but that chance likely hinges on one thing: Ginobili’s potential retirement.
Reports this summer have seemed to indicate that Ginobili has interest in coming back for one more season with the Spurs, but no deal has been agreed upon. Ginobili, who turns 40 on July 28, was originally rumored to be mulling retirement this offseason, and even received something of a send-off when the Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs.
If Ginobili comes back, Paul would have to beat out the likely entrenched Forbes for the Spurs’ final roster spot. That’s a tall task, and would likely result in him being waived and exploring NBA and two-way options elsewhere.
If Paul, 26, does manage to make the Spurs’ roster, whether it’s the 15-man version or the 17-man version through a two-way contract, he’ll fit the prototype of a player whom the Spurs used to great effect just a few seasons ago: former shooting guard Gary Neal.
Neal also played a few years of European basketball before earning his opportunity with the Spurs. Neal was also 26 at the time. He was also a combo guard. He also had excellent shooting ability. He also had some playmaking skill off the bounce. Both players are listed at six-foot-four. I could keep going.
Neal earned 20 minutes per game in his first season with the Spurs, largely because he shot over 42 percent from three. Paul probably can’t reach those heights as a shooter, but he may be better off the bounce and on defense than Neal.
Paul is also notably a high-character guy, whereas Neal increasingly had issues with his role over the course of his career (Neal, now 32, played just two games with the Atlanta Hawks last season).
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is known for his willingness to rest starters and give bench players the keys to the car for a game or two. Over the course of a season, those opportunities could give a fringe player like Paul enough opportunities to really impress opposing teams and NBA scouts. Through those spot starting opportunities and significant bench minutes, the Spurs ultimately helped Neal go from an undrafted free agent with San Antonio to a multimillionaire.
Neal signed a 2-year, $6.5-million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks in the offseason after a solid 2013 NBA Finals performance against the Miami Heat (You may remember him as “Random Dude Who Hit a Ton of Threes”). He also later signed a 1-year, $2 million deal with the Wizards.
For Paul, a career track like Neal’s seems like a best-case scenario, but it’s certainly within the range of possibility. And for a player who has grinded his way through years of competition abroad and consistently shown up in his biggest opportunities, that possibility is as tantalizingly close as ever.
Matt Silich is an editor at The Champaign Room.
Follow Matt on Twitter at @msilich2.