You might have to go back five years for the last time Coach Pop entrusted a player with meaningful minutes this early in their first NBA season. That was the year Kawhi Leonard burst into our lives via a draft-night trade that continues to look better with each passing day.
That’s because one of the kickers in the deal was Davis Bertans, a young European prospect that the San Antonio front office hoped to bring over in the coming years. Now 24, the 6’10’’ forward’s journey hasn’t been as direct as the Klaw’s, with multiple knee injuries threatening to derail it completely, but he hasn’t wasted any time showing he belongs.
Bertans was already getting time before Dewayne Dedmon went down two weeks ago, including getting a start when LaMarcus Aldridge sat out against Miami. But in the wake of Dedmon’s injury, Pop has leaned on him more, exploring the best ways to implement Bertans offensively while getting a feel for what he’s capable of defensively. The Spurs coach usually chooses his words wisely, but he had some guarded praise for what he’s seen from him so far:
“Obviously, he can shoot the ball... He’s just beginning to feel comfortable. He’s someone who has a good future for us.”
Bertans knows the three ball is a big part of why he’s on the floor. 78% of his shots have been from behind the arc (a rate that, alongside Danny Green at 75%, is one of the highest in the league among rotation players). That’s good, because he’s made 43.8% of them so far.
And it’s where he’s shooting those threes from that’s making a difference. There are plenty of dudes in the league who can step in and knock down corner threes, but today’s defenses are increasingly designed to prevent those. Bertans’ ability to fire away from above the break (the other three colored areas in the shot chart below) make him quite a weapon.
It doesn’t take Bertans long to get a shot off, and he’s got no problems releasing on the move or a foot or two behind the line. He’s already getting in rhythm before he catches the ball, and defenders that don’t close in on him fast usually pay the price.
Chasing him off the line -- something opponents will soon learn to do as he makes it into scouting reports -- won’t likely work out as well as it did against Danny Green when he was new to the league. Bertans’ handle is great for a guy his height, and he’s a terrific decision-maker.
Before seeing him in action, you could kinda-sorta forgive the comparisons that were made between Bertans and the Spurs’ Ginger-haired Emeritus Matt Bonner. The team parted ways with Bonner at the same time that they brought the Latvian over, and one of the few things people knew about him was that he had range. As much as I loved the Red Mamba, though, I don’t remember him making too many plays like this:
Oh my leaping Davis Bertans. pic.twitter.com/AJxtaqfMhI— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) November 27, 2016
Bertans isn’t going to fit the mold of a typical stretch four. He’s very slight of build and has struggled to pull down rebounds, despite putting up a solid effort, thus far. His rebound rate is just below 7% right now, which seems almost unsustainably low. In the Spurs’ last game against the Wizards, Pop pulled him immediately after seeing one possession of him battling against Jason Smith around the basket.
Yet, he may have some defensive upside once he gets more familiar with the NBA game and how he can make an impact. We’ve already seen a handful of impressive blocks at the rim (he’s got 8 on the year), and he looked OK when he had to step out on John Wall last week.
Watch Davis Bertans leave the paint to D up on Wall and force a 24-second violation. He's not just a shooter, folks. pic.twitter.com/YBitdHQin4— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) November 27, 2016
There are going to be growing pains defensively, both as he gets accustomed to the Spurs system and the speed of the NBA game. Bertans was in the middle of the best game of his early career against Boston (15 points in 23 minutes) when this gaffe led to a Celtics basket, a San Antonio timeout and an earful from Extraneous G.
But the good has far outweighed the bad. And while his averages thus far are modest — 3.8 points and 1.4 rebounds in just under 12 minutes per game — they’ve come with the team running very few sets for him. When he’s involved in any motion that’s a bit more sophisticated, you start to see what type of player Bertans may grow into.
That’s good news for a Spurs team that’s still figuring out how good it can be this season, while looking ahead at the years to come.