DeJuan Blair is at a crossroads: If he shows enough improvement in some of the flashier aspects of his game, he could get a hefty offer this off-season. If his evolution is real, he could become a building block for the future and the Spurs would surely re-sign him long term. If he's instead eyeing a payday and looking for inflated stats, it wouldn't be surprising to see him traded for an asset mid-season.
Blair's raw production has him on the shortlist of the league's best young bigs despite his physical limitations, but for him to actually be the player the Spurs need him to be, he'll have to improve in subtler ways. If DeJuan fights to cement his place within the league and the team, instead of shooting for a breakout season, the Spurs could have in their hands something they have lacked in the recent past: a reliable role-playing big for the post-season. What exactly are these areas that Blair needs to improve?
We've discussed this many, many times, so I'll only touch briefly on it. Blair's declining individual numbers can be explained away to a certain degree by the emergence of Kawhi Leonard, who is a great defensive rebounder for a small forward, but the team also seems to rebound better as a whole with DeJuan on the bench. If Blair would simply put a body on his man consistently, he would truly be one of the best rebounders in the league. Someone might say that very few NBA bigs box out on every play, and while that's true, a player with significant physical limitations like DeJuan can't take possessions off. If Blair improves his focus and fundamentals (Please, stop looking at the ball! Seal off your man first) and applies himself, he should have no problems boxing out thanks to his low center of gravity, wide frame and strength.
Closing out on Shooters
This one applies to all Spurs bigs, really, but I'm singling out Blair because in my eyes he was the worst offender. By design, the Spurs often allow mid-range jumpers on pick-and-rolls. When guarding the perimeter on rotations, the guards and wings close out aggressively, trying to chase shooters off the 3-point line. In theory, these are good ideas. In practice, the league has evolved to a point where every team has at least one big that can shoot from mid-range (or from 3) and P&R ball handlers that are dual threats to pass and score; it's simply foolish to not contest jumpers and still hope to be a top defensive team. Blair's weight loss this off-season will probably help him recover faster and contest shooters. Another year with the team should improve his system knowledge, while playing with virtually the same teammates should (and this is key) help prevent communication breakdowns. There have been times when Blair didn't know if he was supposed to help on a penetration and leave his man open from 16 feet, or stay put. Those mistakes have to stop, and with the maturity his 3 years in the league should bring, I believe they will.
DeJuan's range, or lack thereof, makes him dependent on finishing at the rim to get points. His tear drop never developed and unless his improvement as a shooter is significant (unlikely), he'll depend on point blank shots for points this upcoming season. The problem is Blair is not a particularly great finisher. It's not hard to figure out why: at 6-7, Blair is one of the shortest centers in the league and he plays below the rim. That results in him scoring only a slightly above-average 64.8% on 4.4 shots per game at the rim and getting blocked on 10.3% of his shots. That's a lot, in case you were wondering.
He's far from an awful interior scorer, but unless Blair develops deadly foot work in the paint, he will always struggle to finish against bigger players because of his lack of explosiveness and size. The only plausible short-term solution for DeJuan to take a step forward as an offensive player is to try to get fouled more often.
Blair posted a below-average .24 free throws per shot attempted last season. Getting that number up to a figure similar to that of other undersized bigs like Reggie Evans (.99), Carl Landry (.51) or Kenneth Faried (.53) should be an area of focus. If I were to suggest a number, I would say that anything below 4 attempts per 36 minutes should be unacceptable. Blair should look for contact more often, instead of avoiding it and favoring tough reverse layups and acrobatic finishes. Drawing fouls would not only help him score more efficiently, but would also benefit the team, since he might get opposing bigs in foul trouble and their team in the penalty.
I'm convinced Blair still has ample room to grow his game. If reports about a mid-range jumper are accurate, that would be a huge step in the right direction. But by improving on simple things like his defensive rebounding fundamentals, using his new-found quickness to contest shots and trying to get himself to the line more, DeJuan would immediately provide enough positives to outweigh any negatives his lack of versatility present. A huge jump in quality would be great, but some small adjustments will do, for the moment.
Stats courtesy of Hoopdata and Basketball-Reference