There's always a duality in player assessment, two often conflicting factors that is important to always keep in mind: Production vs. potential. It can be frustrating at times to discuss the value of someone without agreeing on which of the two aspects we are basing our opinions. Finding a balance is hard. Until eventually potential and production meet and we are forced to reassess how we view players in light of new evidence.
We are at that point with Aron Baynes and Cory Joseph.
Up until recently, discussing the merits of either had been mostly a theoretical exercise in which potential always dominated the conversation. Here's the entire list of players that entered the league the same year that Joseph who haven't played at least 2000 minutes in 100 appearances. It consists of nine players, some of whom are out of the league and some who are on the fringes of rosters. Adjusting the parameters to Baynes, a similarly underwhelming collection of players shows up. The two had not been good in their short careers but they have also not been on the court enough for anyone to know what they could potentially become.
This year, however, they have been thrown into the fire because of injuries to the players directly above them in the depth chart. After a quarter of a season on a consistent role they have thrived, as much as any marginal rotation player can. So what changed? Obviously the fact that they have gotten the opportunity to play is the biggest difference. But there have been subtle adjustments the two players have made that have allowed them to succeed where they had failed in the past.
Joseph is always moving
Joseph is a dreadful three-point shooter. The list of guards that take over one outside shot per game and convert on less than 30% of those chances is short and largely comprised of a) volume shooters -- your Kobes, DeMarr DeRozans and Reggie Jacksons -- or b) guys that have showed they can hit the three at a league-average level but are slumping, like Kemba Walker, Lance Stephenson or Ty Lawson. Joseph is neither. He is being more assertive as a shot taker this season but he's still not a gunner and his career three-point shooting percentage is 27%.
That's one serious handicap Joseph has to overcome. And he's doing it by being self-aware of his shortcoming and finding other ways to be useful on offense. He takes most of his three-pointers from the corner (13 of 21 threes from the corner) and when he's absolutely open (19 of 21 threes with no defender within six feet). More importantly, he moves without the ball constantly, making baseline cuts on plays in which other Spurs guards would stand around. And he immediately, almost automatically attacks after kickouts, even if the defender is not aggressively closing out.
Focus on Joseph. He gets the ball relatively open, a situation in which Patty Mills would likely let it fly. But he doesn't even think about setting his feet. He goes straight for a drive. He knows it's not going to result in an open lane but he also understands that it will keep the defense moving if he attacks while pump-faking would result in a reset and shooting in a miss. The offense will always be better the more shooters it has but Joseph has discovered a way to mask his biggest flaw in that end by simply attacking. As a result, the team can get away with having him on the court more, giving him the opportunity to showcase his strengths.
Baynes is now a more versatile screener
Aron Baynes is a gigantic human being. He's tall and broad. He relishes contact. Those traits make for a naturally good screener. But what consistently, annoyingly gets ignored when discussing pick-setting is that it's not enough to make contact, to make the opponent feel it. There is a nuance to setting screens that can't be ignored. Some guys know exactly when to slip them, some know when to flip them and some know when to set another one once the first one failed. Baynes, for all his physical ability for the task, was not all that good at recognizing what each particular situation called for. That has changed as he has began to understand angles and timing better.
There are too many examples to choose from. Here you have him early in the season in a typical Spurs play not really making contact despite moving:
Here he is a few games later, in the same situation.
He makes contact and immediately dives, sucking the defense in. Then he vacates the lane and eventually the play ends with him getting a layup.
Here's a play from last season. It's a side pick and roll against an "ice" or "blue" defense:
Baynes doesn't know what to do. He sets up the wrong way and since there is no easy angle for the pass, Paul Millsap stays home and gets a steal.
Here's a similar play from this season:
He sets up in the right angle, draws the attention of a second defender and makes the pass to Diaw possible.
The difference is subtle but the Spurs' offense is a fine-tuned machine and the little things matter.
They might still be getting better
Joseph and Baynes had strengths to build upon. Cory is a relentless defender, someone who might not succeed in getting the stop every time but not for a lack of effort. Baynes offers energy and physicality whenever he's on the floor. Now they have added extra abilities in the form of a smart dribble-drive attack to make up for a lack of outside shot and better screen-setting, respectively. Those skill sets are more than adequate for bench guys. Yet there are flashes of more to come, aspects of their games that are still in the "potential" stage but could soon result in production.
Baynes is starting to understand position defense better. He hasn't faced a well-spaced offense that can target him as the weak link in the pick and roll lately but in the limited opportunities in which he has been asked to defend those plays against mediocre opponents he has done well despite being slow-footed. And his short jumper, especially from the baseline, is falling.
Joseph is still not a great scorer inside but he is showing more variety in his finishes, occasionally going for Parker-esque floaters. His above-average rebounding from the point guard spot is beginning to seem more than just fluky. The guy knows where to be. And for a young veteran, he shows poise that is not all that common. Long careers have been built on less.
Is there such a thing as too much depth?
Does this mean Baynes and Joseph are now good enough to make Mills and Splitter expendable? Of course not. I doubt even they think so. As soon as the injuries subside and everyone is healthy again, Baynes and Joseph will likely go back to smaller roles. The key, then, would be for them to stay ready and motivated when called upon. As it's been made clear many times -- most recently with DeJuan Blair, Nando De Colo and Stephen Jackson -- Pop won't tolerate complaints about playing time.
The good news is both Baynes and Jospeh seem to be level-headed guys who like playing for the Spurs. Both have been fine with spending time in Austin in the past and Baynes took some early-season benchings in stride. They are also on contract years, so any negative attention could hurt their stock. It's a situation to monitor but it's hard to see any trouble brewing.
For now ,their development seems to be only a positive as the Spurs, improbably, have gotten even deeper as a team.