Resident genius: Spurs credit assistant GM Presti for their successful scouting
Web Posted: 09/30/2006 11:22 PM CDT
Express-News Staff Writer
He's 29 years old, allegedly stands 6-foot-2 and isn't going to snap anyone's ankles with his crossover dribble anytime soon.
He played his college ball at Emerson, a small Division III school in Boston, where, if you talk to the people there, his greatest accomplishment might have been taking a school-record six charges in a single game and living to tell about it.
Sam Presti also very well may be one of the most talented prospects Spurs general manager R.C. Buford has ever discovered.
As one of the NBA's fastest-rising young executives, Presti hasn't distinguished himself on the court nearly as much as he has away from it. In six years he has gone from $250-a-month intern to vice president/assistant general manager, working behind the scenes to help Buford and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich shape one of the most successful sports franchises of the past decade.
Popovich calls Presti the team's "resident genius." Buford calls him invaluable.
Presti, most notably, has helped expand the Spurs' scouting department, implementing a database system that has since been copied by other teams. This summer, he assisted Buford in structuring the offer sheets made to restricted free-agent centers Francisco Elson and Jackie Butler in a way to best dissuade Denver and New York from matching.
Presti's responsibilities also have stretched during the past year to the business end of the franchise. He has provided advice on the team's marketing strategies and also met with corporate sponsors.
"Sam's combination of intelligence and creativity and work ethic," Buford said, "are unique."
So is his story.
Climbing the ranks
Presti grew up in Concord, Mass., like most New Englanders, as a Boston Celtics fan. After transferring to Emerson College from Virginia Wesleyan, he joined the basketball team and helped lead the Lions to the Great Northeast Athletic Conference title. He became team captain and averaged a respectable 12.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists during his senior season.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in communications, politics and law, Presti contemplated attending law school (he was Emerson's first Rhodes Scholar nominee) or studying music (he's also an accomplished drummer).
Buford, meanwhile, was looking for someone to help him at his annual basketball camp in Aspen, Colo. The superintendent of the town's schools recommended a family friend: Presti.
"Thirty minutes after talking to him," Buford said, "I also wanted to bring him to San Antonio."
Presti agreed to come — for the grand sum of $250 a month. And that was before taxes.
As a basketball operations intern, Presti got to do a little bit of everything. He helped Buford assemble profiles on prospective draft picks and free agents. He shagged balls for Danny Ferry after practice.
"I didn't realize how front offices worked," Presti said. "I never thought this was something I could get into right after school."
Presti learned quickly enough. After a year, he was promoted to special assistant. A year later he became assistant director of scouting. The year after that he was named director of player personnel.
"'Surprising' would be a tempered term," Presti said of his climb through the ranks. "I was just very lucky to walk into a situation where the leadership of people like Pop and R.C. believe in giving someone an opportunity to learn."
Buford realized soon enough it didn't matter what task he gave Presti. He devoured them all with a thoroughness that was surprising for someone his age.
After Tony Parker struggled in his initial workout for the Spurs and the coaches seemed ready to write him off as a candidate for the team's 2001 first-round pick, Presti helped compile game footage of Parker that allayed most of their concerns. When Buford asked for suggestions on how the team should pursue Jason Kidd and other free agents, Presti showed up in his office at the end of the week with a report thick enough to pass for a doctoral thesis.
Buford continued to mentor Presti and, perhaps most importantly, showed him the value of grassroots scouting. Veteran international scouts began to notice Presti wherever they went. And not only in Europe. During the 2003-04 season, Presti totaled a rental car after hitting a deer on the back roads of Mississippi while going to a high school game to see Al Jefferson.
Two years ago, Presti turned the Spurs on to French forward Ian Mahinmi, who would become their 2005 first-round draft pick. It remains to be seen whether Mahinmi will be an impact player in the NBA, but the Spurs still like his potential.
"Sam's helped enhance our relationships in so many basketball venues," Buford said.
Not all of Presti's decisions have produced gold. He convinced the Spurs to gamble a late second-round pick in 2004 on Sergei Karaulov, a young 7-foot center from Uzbekistan, even though he had never seen him play. In fact, he didn't even know what Karaulov looked like.
After the draft, Presti flew to Russia to have Karaulov sign the standard rookie tender. For four consecutive days, Presti was given a different location for where Karaulov's team was practicing. Each time, Presti arrived to find an empty gym.
When Presti finally located the team, Karaulov's coaches — who had been providing the misinformation — told him Karaulov had developed a mysterious illness and wasn't there. Presti then staked out the hotel where he thought Karaulov was staying.
"I just waited in the lobby until I thought I saw someone who might be him," Presti said, "and went up and shook his hand."
For all of that, the Spurs now own the rights to a player who probably will never see even the end of an NBA bench.
But the same type of outside-the-box thinking that led Presti to invest a low-risk pick on Karaulov, according to those who have worked with him, is also what has made him successful. Because of his age and interest in data analysis, Presti has been branded another of the young "Moneyball" executives, who, in addition to filling some of Major League Baseball's top front-office positions, also have started to appear on NBA payrolls.
It's a label, Ferry said, that doesn't give Presti enough credit for his other skills.
"I think he gets miscast as a stats specialist," said Ferry, who worked alongside Presti from 2003-05, "when he's really a basketball specialist."
When Ferry left after the 2005 championship season to become Cleveland's general manager, Presti was the first person he tried to hire. The Spurs responded by promoting Presti to assistant general manager. A week ago, they gave him a vice president's title.
Denver also expressed some interest in Presti during the recent restructuring of its front office. After Ferry and former scouting director Lance Blanks both left to join the Cavaliers, one rival Western Conference general manager didn't think the Spurs needed to worry much.
"Sam," he said, "is the guy they can't lose."
Presti doesn't deny he would someday like to run his own team. But he also said his only goal, for now, is to continue to help fulfill the franchise "vision" of Popovich and Buford.
Although Presti doesn't turn 30 until next month, Ferry doesn't consider his age a detriment. Two years ago, Presti was helping oversee him in the team's scouting department.
"If I was an owner," Ferry said, "I would feel very comfortable with Sam leading my team."
So would Buford. After giving Presti his latest promotion, Buford said he hoped it would keep his protégé around until "someone offers him the keys to their franchise."
"If Pop and (Spurs chairman) Peter (Holt) are really smart," Buford added, "they'll do that themselves."
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