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Progress the Spurs’ players could make this season

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We can expect players to continue to develop their games next season, but what upgrades are realistic and which ones could make the biggest difference?

Indiana Pacers v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

The forever summer is finally winding down in South Texas, just in time for the 2019-20 regular season. With it comes new opportunities for players to make strides in their game that can not only advance their own careers, but help round out the puzzle that this version of the Spurs is trying to solve.

While carrying over much of a 48-win roster establishes a reasonable floor for San Antonio, its ability to hang with an improved Western Conference and make a run in the postseason depends largely on how many of these things occur, especially with the handful of young players due to get meaningful minutes. Below is a rundown of what leaps are on the table, and which could matter the most.

Realistic and somewhat helpful

Bryn Forbes: Finishing at the rim

Forbes has already exceeded anyone’s expectations for an undrafted, undersized shooting guard, scoring the 5th most total points of any Spur over the last 2 seasons and averaging a career-high 11.8 points per game on 42.6% three-point shooting (and in 81 starts!) last year.

He comes into this season with some uncertainty surrounding his role as one of the team’s best outside threats in a busy backcourt, but continuing to improve in these areas could certainly help. Again, it’s hard to nitpick with him, but a 52.6% shooting at the rim (up from 50.6% in 2017-18) is one opportunity to keep rounding out his game. Being able to learn from Patty Mills, a smaller guard who’s developed a crafty bag of finishing tricks (60.8% around the rim last season), is one reason to be optimistic Forbes gets there.

Lonnie Walker IV: Minutes, Two-point efficiency

It takes roughly a second of watching Walker gallop around the basketball court to know he belongs, and the promise he showed in Summer League only affirmed the notion that what he needs most right now is familiarity with the NBA game and meaningful reps as a part of the San Antonio rotation. There’s little reason to keep him in Austin.

This season will be mostly about getting those reps, but if we’re looking for an area in which we’d like to see early strides, it’s probably in how efficient he is as a scorer inside the arc. A reliable midrange stroke (he can rise up over anyone) and using his athleticism to find his way to the rim and finish efficiently will be two things to look out for.

Jakob Poeltl: Offensive facilitation, Free-throw shooting

Poeltl’s already an effective screen setter and finisher as a roll man. One area of development that could benefit him and the team in the short term would be to see how much his passing game can open up, not only when working around the elbow area, but as a passer when working as a roll man — something David Lee proved to be excellent at in his one season in San Antonio.

Poeltl also made just 53.3% of his free throws last season, and it’s fair to expect that to trend up, especially after a full year of working with Chip Engelland.

DeMar DeRozan: 3-point percentage

It’s not bold to think DeRozan will be better than last year’s 7 for 46, but I’m also not optimistic in percentage and volume of attempts being extremely meaningful for team outcomes. He could surprise us here, but I’m of the mindset that expectations are better kept low.

Unrealistic and somewhat helpful

Bryn Forbes: On-ball defense

Many fans are understandably higher on guys like Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, and Walker than Forbes due to their athleticism and defensive upside, but the make-up of this team next season should still suit Forbes’ floor-spacing skillset — which is why you’re seeing his name multiple times here.

Still, any improvement on the other end of the floor would help. Defensive field-goal percentage is a poor individual metric to show a player’s defensive impact, but him owning the worst differential (+5.6%) of any returning Spur suggests a certain lack of resistance that he provided against opponents. It’s not for a lack of trying or awareness on Forbes’ part — he’s just a smaller guard playing in an era of super-athletes at the position, and there’s something to be said for ball-handlers simply not fearing the man in front of him. We’ll see if more seasoning and craftiness can help shore that deficiency up.

Patty Mills: Spot-up frequency

At 31, Mills will continue to be more or less who we know him to be, a demigod on the FIBA stage and reliable cog in one of the league’s best 2nd units. This bump has obviously more to do with usage than skill development, but Mills being asked to do less creating off the dribble and more of what he does best (he was in the 98th percentile among spot-up shooters last year) would be a win for everyone. Given the relative inexperience in the backcourt, however, Mills may need to still assume his usual secondary creation duties.

LaMarcus Aldridge: 3-point volume

Could this number go up from the 45 attempts of last season? Maybe a little. Would a significant increase be good? That depends on a lot of factors, including how it would affect Aldridge’s engagement and what it would mean for a Spurs system that has revolved very much around what he does on the block. In the long run, though, this could be what’s best for the big man’s career progression — I’m just not sure how much of a positive impact it would be next season.

Realistic and very helpful

Dejounte Murray: Shooting efficiency

While the midrange is the area where most young Spurs start their shooting development, rather than along the perimeter, Murray’s improved stroke offers opportunity for growth on most fronts. I don’t see teams adjusting to stick with him when he’s off ball behind the arc, but we may see him punish defenses that cheat too much from time to time.

More beneficial may be what he does from 15 to 18 feet when teams go under screens. Hitting that shot with consistency would open up other parts of his game and elevate the offensive ceiling for the lineups that he’s a part of.

DeMar DeRozan: Team defense

He won’t be getting any DPOY votes, but it’s also not unrealistic to expect the defensive metrics to like DeRozan more after a year of system familiarity and given the likelihood he’ll play more minutes alongside better defenders.

Bryn Forbes: Three-point attempts per game

The Spurs offense walked a fine line last season between retro and outdated, and I’m not sure how much of a hit that balancing act will take from the re-integration of the defensively inclined Murray. Ratcheting up Forbes’ already-green light (5 attempts last season) may be necessary for a team that may rank 30th in the league in attempts for a second year in a row.

Unrealistic and very helpful

DeMar DeRozan: Shooting efficiency

You’re probably sensing a theme here with DeRozan — who I enjoy watching and don’t mean to single out. Still, I think it’s a helpful part of this exercise to deconstruct different areas of players’ games to explore what could improve and how it would impact this team’s outlook. DeRozan’s 48.1 FG% was the 2nd best of his career, but still only good for a 48.3 effective field-goal percentage.

Do shooting numbers tell the whole story of how DeRozan contributes offensively? No, but we may be looking at those individual efficiency numbers as approaching a ceiling of his own design. If they do happen to get a major bump, perhaps through a shift in how he gets his usual looks (the Spurs could do better in getting him downhill) or changes in his shooting habits, much of the conversation around him changes, the Spurs stand to benefit significantly.

Dejounte Murray: Playmaking

The weird thing about the Spurs’ point guard is that he was an undeniably impactful player in 2017-18 without any real point guard strengths, which included averaging under 5 assists per 36 minutes and being a non-threat from anywhere outside of 5 feet. The scuttlebutt early in training camp has included how Murray devoured film in his year off, and I’m leaning into expecting some good things in regards to how he creates for his teammates. He was already looking poised for a jump in his shooting before the ACL injury a year ago, and I don’t see why he couldn’t move forward with that now.

Derrick White: 3-point percentage

It’s hard to get a read on what White’s development arc will look like, but I think a marginal improvement on his 33.8% shooting last season can be expected as he settles into his role. I’m not sure we can expect a large improvement given he’s not had time this offseason to really focus on it or any other individual skill, but his work ethic and mechanics should be a good foundation to build on. It would be a huge plus if it happened sooner rather than later.

To be determined

LaMarcus Aldridge: Shooting efficiency

After starting off last year with one of the coldest stretches of his career, Aldridge was a monster on the block and as a two-point scorer — only Giannis Antetokounmpo made more field goals inside the arc. He’s now coming off his two best seasons in terms of effective field-goal percentage (52% and 52.2%) , and playing terrific basketball overall. He’s also gotten better as a passer out of double teams, adding a crucial second dimension to his post-ups. The Spurs system has also adapted around his strengths and used it as a way of anchoring possessions and creating defensive breakdowns.

The flip side to that is that eFG%s in the low 50s are still far from elite. Therein lies the paradox with Aldridge, and it’s hard to tell if the team will mess with the formula they’ve established in his four years in San Antonio.

DeMar DeRozan: 3-point volume

Honestly, I have no idea here. DeRozan had only 46 attempts from deep including the playoffs, 40 of which happened before the new year. That means 6 total attempts (0 made) in 2019 and may suggest that him settling into his role in San Antonio has coincided with a focus on scoring and creating in his comfort zone.

There’s a chance the total number of attempts goes up through a concerted few months where it’s a point of emphasis. Will that be a good thing in of itself? Maybe!