Luka Samanic sat in the visiting team locker room at AT&T Center on Wednesday and looked like he’d been through the ringer. He had bruises quickly developing on his neck, along with scratches that were bleeding all over his face and arms. He also wore a smile. 

It was the first NBA game he’d played in since May 12, 2021 and it didn’t matter how sore he was going to be, he was happy.

It was really strange for Samanic to be in San Antonio, the place where he was drafted in 2019 and then waived by the Spurs two years later.

It was strange that he was at the AT&T Center, working with Will Hardy, but this time he was getting ready to play for the Utah Jazz, and the assistant coach that had once worked with him under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich was now a head coach on his own. 

“It’s crazy how God works,” Samanic told the Deseret News. “Definitely strange, but I’m happy. Second chances don’t come quickly or easily.”

Samanic was drafted 19th overall back in 2019, but after two years, multiple stints with the Spurs G League affiliate and minutes in just 36 NBA games, the Spurs waived the once highly regarded prospect and his NBA future was put into serious question. 

The 6-foot-10, 23-year-old Croatian forward could have very easily and understandably felt anger and resentment and headed back to Europe to play professionally. Instead, he decided to stay stateside and play in the G League, first for the Westchester Knicks and most recently for Boston’s affiliate Maine Celtics. And, rather than harboring any anger about his time in San Antonio, he only has gratitude.

“I want to thank the Spurs,” Samanic said. “Even though I got cut, I think that was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It made me who I am today and I learned a lot about myself.”

When Samanic was waived by the Spurs, he was lacking a toughness and an edge that was necessary to take his game to the next level. He needed confidence and to be more dedicated and to carve out a place for himself. But those weren’t things that he totally understood until he realized that his opportunity to play in the NBA was slipping away.

There were many around the league who figured that if the Spurs — specifically Popovich and Spurs CEO R.C. Buford — were giving up on a young, athletic, long prospect so early on, that it meant there was nothing to work with. But Popovich is quick to point out that waiving a player can be the beginning of a career rather than the end.

“It doesn’t work for everyone on their first trip some place,” Popovich said. “Sometimes it’s the second or third team where the light bulb finally goes on and they figure it out. And I think he’s one of those guys, because he’s a great kid. And I’d love to have him figure it out. You know, Danny Green was a guy here who we cut two or three times … and then he ended up being a great player for us.”

Samanic spent the last two seasons on a tour of self-reflection as he played in the G League. He quickly decided that Europe was not where he wanted to be. He wanted to play in the NBA and would do whatever it took to make his way back.

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He started working on his shot and his body. He needed to get stronger and more consistent. But he also started to work on being more vocal on the court and trying to come out of his shell and get to know his teammates more. Being the strong, silent type wasn’t going to be enough, he needed to be a reliable communicator.

“When you’re a high draft pick and you’re a first round pick and people build you up … you may think that things are going to be easier than they’re going to be and you may think that you deserve certain things that maybe you haven’t earned yet. Getting cut and going to the G League and having that taken away so to speak, it does give you a new perspective on how thin the line can be between being in the NBA and being out,” Hardy said. “He knows that it hurt at the time to be waived, but he looked at it and gained some new perspective and I think that’s what he needed to recenter himself and change his approach.”

The Jazz took a chance on Kris Dunn, who was playing in the G League and trying to revive his NBA career. After two 10-day deals with the Jazz, Dunn signed a deal with the team to stay for the remainder of this season with a partially guaranteed deal for the 2023-24 season, so there is some precedent that gives Samanic a little bit of hope.

Of course, the Jazz aren’t going to turn into the team that just tries to revamp G League players. But as they work toward building a stable and competitive team, they’re going to need to find some semi-diamonds in the rough.

The Jazz will be bringing in some high draft picks this summer and they’ll also need to put some contracts on the books to be able to play on the trade market. They also will be looking to bring in top-tier players, whether through trades or free agency. But, as with any team that is hoping to go far in the postseason and build a stable future, they will need role players on team-friendly contracts who can reliably contribute.

That is the kind of role that Samanic is trying to carve out for himself. By all accounts, from G League coaching staffs he’s worked with, Hardy, Popovich, and past teammates, everyone believes that Samanic has something special to offer. And the fact that he’s taken everything on the chin, has taken all of the bumps and scratches and bruises, makes everyone believe that they haven’t seen everything that Samanic has to offer.

“Not everybody is going to adjust perfectly right away,” Samanic said. “I think everything is situational. I’m not saying the previous situations weren’t for me, but I was 19 and it didn’t work out. But maybe the next situation will be the one where I exceed expectations.”