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The Spurs should finally embrace shooting centers

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Former Spurs big men have developed as outside threats elsewhere while San Antonio struggles with spacing.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years, the Spurs have, under Gregg Popovich, found discarded or undervalued prospects and and made contributors out of them. It’s one of the things they are known for.

One of the biggest reason why it was possible to do so was their decisiveness to lock players into specific roles that emphasized their preexisting strengths while preventing them from venturing outside of very limited roles.

Often that’s the right approach, but in recent years we’ve seen its downside, as floor spacing centers who were not allowed to fire away in San Antonio have found themselves with more freedom elsewhere and have thrived.

Aron Baynes was as traditional as backup centers go in his time with the Spurs. He rebounded well and took up space inside on defense while moving his feet well and he served as a screener and dive man in pick and roll situations. That was the extent of his involvement on offense, really. In his three years with the Silver and Black he attempted just five three-pointers and made only one, which received plenty of attention at the time because of how unlikely it appeared.

Baynes remained in the same role with the Pistons, but since leaving Detroit has discovered a new identity as not only a physical presence on both ends but also a solid shooting big. The Big Banger started to hone his ability as an outside threat with the Celtics before being unleashed last season with the Suns. In Phoenix, Baynes shot 35 percent from beyond the arc on over eight attempts per 100 possessions. For comparison, only three players attempted three-pointers more often on last season’s Spurs’ roster.

Baynes is not the only former Spurs center who has discovered his range outside of San Antonio. Dewayne Dedmon immediately became a three-point shooter as soon as he signed with the Hawks, averaging a combined 37 percent on his first two years in Atlanta on a healthy number of attempts. A player who had earned a place in the league thanks to his shot blocking and rim running suddenly added a completely different dimension to his game mere months after wearing Silver and Black. As it tends to happen to most players, things went awry for him in Sacramento, but now that he’s back with the Hawks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Dedmon return to his previous level as a floor spacer, which could make him a versatile rotation piece.

The Spurs not only seem to prevent centers from developing as outside threats, but also discourage it on some that flashed that potential outside of San Antonio. After being a deadly mid-range shooter for most of his career, LaMarcus Aldridge started to extend his range in his last year in Portland. In his first eight years as a Trail Blazer Aldridge attempted just a total of 116 three-pointers. Then in the 2014/15 season alone he fired 105 threes and connected on 35 percent of them, an extremely encouraging development. He joined the Spurs the following year only to revert back to form, firing just 16 three-pointers and never eclipsing the 100-attempts mark in the following three years.

Last season Aldridge once again started letting it fly from outside, but almost by necessity, as the Spurs desperately lacked outside shooting in the starting lineup. Unsurprisingly, Aldridge showed that he was an able if inconsistent floor spacer all along, connecting on 39 percent of his 157 three-pointers. As a result, Aldridge posted the second best True Shooting percentage of his career despite the percentage of field goal attempts coming near the rim decreasing to the lowest it’s been in his time in San Antonio.

So the question remains: Why don’t the Spurs try to develop their non-shooting centers into shooters or encourage the ones who’ve showed potential as outside threats to hone that skill? It’s hard to tell. Perhaps the success attained with two traditional centers like David Robinson and late-career Tim Duncan left too strong a mark on Gregg Popovich, who now believes those type of big men contribute more. Yet his disciples Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer have gone the completely opposite way, with Coach Bud helping Brook Lopez reinvent himself as a volume three-point shooter and Brown allowing Joel Embiid to take threes despite his dominance inside. There’s no reason why the Spurs, who employ one of the most heralded shooting coaches alive in Chip Engelland, couldn’t attempt something similar if they wanted to.

Alas, so far they haven’t done in the big club or really even in the G-League. Drew Eubanks has attempted a single three-pointer in his time in Austin while Chimezie Metu was only allowed to begin to explore his potential from outside last season, shooting 36 percent on threes in a limited number of attempts after barely taking any in his first year in the G-League. It might be too late for him, though, as he’ll likely enter free agency and leave, potentially continuing to develop as a shooter elsewhere.

Whatever the reason for it, it seems like the Spurs want their centers to be as traditional as possible. They typically target inside players for the position when it comes to the draft and free agency, they don’t try to develop players with shooting potential into actual threats and they seemingly discourage those who have showed the ability to fire from range to do so. It’s not necessarily a bad decision, of course, but there seems to be a pattern worth remembering as we enter the draft and free agency. The likelihood of the Spurs selecting a center prospect with range as one of his main strengths or going for a big man with a proven or developing three-point shot doesn’t seem high.

It’s unquestionable that the Spurs have an excellent developmental program. The results speak for themselves. But it’s that excellence that makes this one blind spot all the more glaring. Whether it derives from the mantra of not taking players out of their designated roles or from a traditional — and increasingly outdated — idea of what a true center is supposed to do, San Antonio seemingly refuses to encourage its bigs to fire from deep.

Hopefully the success of Baynes and Dedmon elsewhere and of Aldridge last season will change that. Not every center needs to be a shooter, but it’s become obvious that having one that can stretch the floor can be valuable, so there’s no reason to avoid securing or developing some.