This series will look at each of the Spurs’ eight under-30 players with an eye towards how they can improve in or expand their role on the team. Rather than focus on individual skills, for the most part, we’ll concentrate on what the team needs from each player on offense and defense to identify a key opportunity to have more impact.
Charting Bryn Forbes’ development from an undrafted free agent fighting for a roster spot in summer league and training camp in 2016 to starter on a playoff team in 2019 is low key amazing. He latched onto a job, initially, with his incandescent shooting, but remained on the fringes of the rotation, playing just 285 minutes in his first season.
With every opportunity, though, Bryn has gotten a little bit better. Over the last 3 years he’s improved at almost everything a player can do on the court. The questionable handles and lack of playmaking ability that had him pegged as nothing more than a spot up shooter are all but gone.
His ball handling is so much better that he actually began the season as the team’s starting point guard after injuries sidelined both Dejounte Murray and Derrick White. That’s definitely not a role he’s well suited for, and the team struggled until Derrick’s return, but that Bryn was even capable of doing the job at an NBA level at all was remarkable.
His rebounding, another notable weakness when he came out of college, is now a strength. Bryn pulled down 9.8% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor this season, which puts him in the 60th percentile for combo guards per Cleaning the Glass (CTG). That particular improvement has a lot to do with how much stronger he is now than he was 3 years ago, as does his ability to finish through contact, which has gone from almost non-existent his rookie year to elite. He made an absurd 47.5% of the shots he drew a shooting foul on this season according to CTG, which is in the 98th percentile for combo guards.
As valuable as all that is, the most important part of Bryn’s development has been on the defensive end. He still doesn’t exactly fill up the box score, ranking near the bottom of the league in both steals and blocks for guards, and his physical limitations at just 6’3” tall with a 6’5” wingspan will always be an issue, but he has learned to play solid positional defense with what he has.
He fights, hustles and, for the most part, has managed to be in the right place at the right time. He still gets back cut too often, but to be fair, that was a hallmark of this year’s Spurs’ team, so maybe he was just doing his part to fit in.
Still, he has very real match-up limitations, and can’t do much more than survive unless he’s paired with bigger a guard like Derrick or Dejounte, which allows him to defend a less threatening perimeter player. But that’s still a ton of progress for a player who didn’t have an obvious place in the league just a few years ago.
Unfortunately, there’s not much more room for Bryn to grow on that end of the floor. He’ll get better at anticipating what’s coming, both from opponents and his teammates, but that’s a slow process. His defensive impact will improve, almost by default, when and if he returns to his role as a shooter off the bench. The team’s overall defense should be better next year, too, with Dejounte’s return potentially giving the Spurs the best defensive backcourt in the league, and a rising tide lifts all boats. Bryn and especially DeMar DeRozan will benefit from spending more time on the floor with plus defenders.
Of course, that’s not to say that Bryn is a finished product. All that offensive improvement over the last few years has opened up opportunities for development that Bryn had never really even needed to consider before. Now that he’s driving nearly 4 times per game, he is frequently finding himself in the heart of the defense looking at a help defender and needing to make a decision.
At this point, his first choice in almost every case is to try to finish, even over two defenders. He shot on almost 55% of his drives this season, the 2nd highest percentage on the team behind Rudy Gay, but made only 46% of those attempts, well behind DeMar, Derrick, and Patty Mills, who all hit over 53%.
It’s understandable that DeMar and Derrick are able to shoot more accurately off their drives. Both have more size, get to the rim more often, and are able to finish better once they get there, but part of the problem is that Bryn takes shots he shouldn’t because he can’t see or exploit other opportunities that become available once he begins his drive.
Patty, for instance, led the team in FG% on shots off drives, but shot about half as frequently as Bryn and passed almost twice as often. More importantly, despite passing out of his drives so much more often than Bryn, he turned it over half as much. If Bryn can take a page out of Patty’s book and replace some of his worst shots and turnovers with effective drop offs or kick outs, he could dramatically improve his value as a secondary playmaker.
In all three cases, Bryn takes a difficult shot instead of identifying the help defender and finding the open man. While many of his drives occur late in the shot clock, which changes the calculus on what constitutes an acceptable look, he all too often misses open teammates one pass away with plenty of time to make the play.
Bryn showed the ability to make these types of plays later in the season, so there’s already good reason to expect he’ll enter next season with a better understanding of what to do in these situations. Even if he hadn’t, though, it would be hard to look at how far he’s come and expect anything but more improvement.
That might end up being critical to the Spurs’ chances of making a deeper run into the playoffs next season because there’s a very real chance Bryn could end up back in the starting lineup. The spacing issues that strangled the Spurs’ offense in Game 7 of their series against the Nuggets may very well get even worse next season without some significantly improved shooting from elsewhere on the roster.
If that’s the case, Bryn could easily slide back into the starting 2 guard spot alongside DeMar and one of the Spurs’ outstanding young point guards. That certainly isn’t their preferred scenario, but they may not have much of a choice. Should it get to that point, the Spurs ought to lean into Bryn’s role as a floor spacer.
He shot just over 40% on threes that were 26 feet or farther away from the basket last season. If the floor gets cramped, the Spurs could easily ask Bryn to take another step or two away from the arc without losing much in the way of potential value were he to shoot. That won’t fix the problem entirely, but it will help.
If that’s not the case, Bryn will likely be facing a significant reduction in playing time. He and Patty will split backup minutes behind Dejounte and Derrick, and depending on what happens with the rest of the rotation, may have to share time at the 2 with DeMar, Marco Belinelli, and Lonnie Walker IV, too.
The team has a crowded backcourt, and while injuries can pop up at any time, there almost certainly won’t be enough opportunities for everyone. If Bryn wants to keep a significant role, he’s going to have to earn it, just like he has every step of the way.