The Spurs selected Devin Vassell with the 11th pick of the 2020 draft. The 20-year-old wing is the highest selection San Antonio has made since picking Tim Duncan first overall in 1997.
There was some suspense when the Spurs were about to pick, as both a player that was projected to go higher in Tyrese Haliburton and one that San Antonio was reportedly targeting in Sadiq Bey were both available. In Haliburton, the front office could have perceived a high ceiling while Bey’s main appeal seemed to be his fit. By going for Vassell instead, the Silver and Black might have secured someone that both has potential and fills a need.
Vassell is a 6’7” wing who can play both shooting guard and small forward thanks to his length. The Florida State prospect has all the tools to be the perfect 3-and-D role player the Spurs have been missing for a while, but with plenty of room to grow in other areas. Because of this, on paper, he’s a perfect fit with the rest of the young pieces and could get minutes right away next to Dejounte Murray and Derrick White as a more reliable shooter than either Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson, while also potentially slotting well around the other wings in smaller lineups thanks to his defensive acumen and relentless energy. With Vassell around, the Spurs could decide to play more traditionally and focus on improving the defense or embrace the more dynamic style they displayed in the Orlando bubble.
There are concerns about the former Seminole, of course, otherwise Vassell wouldn’t have slipped past the top 10 after showing off elite defensive skills and shooting 41 percent on over three three-point attempts per game as a sophomore. The worry is that Vassell is nothing more than a spot up shooter on offense. He struggled to create for others in college, and despite being a good athlete, he didn’t get to the free throw line a lot. He’s not necessarily explosive, so even if he beats his man he might not finish at the rim. Vassell’s value on offense right now is inextricably tied to his outside shooting, so if his percentage dips as he gets to the NBA — which is not out of the questions, considering his struggles from the free throw line — he could become the next Wesley Johnson instead of the next great 3-and-D specialist.
Fortunately, the Spurs might be the perfect team to prevent that worst case scenario from happening. San Antonio has a proven track record of helping even mediocre floor spacers improve, so the risk of Vassell becoming a sub-35 percent outside shooter doesn’t feel substantial. If the shot is there, the rest of his game will develop well. He won’t be forced to create, since White, Murray, Walker and the veterans should handle the ball most of the time early on in his career, which will allow him to use his feel for the game to simply look for open spots to just catch and shoot. In five-out lineups, which the Spurs will likely use, he could find opportunities to get to the rim despite a lack of above-average ball-handling and explosive athleticism. He’ll get to round out his offensive game at his own pace, which is what he needs.
On the other hand, Vassell has the potential to not be just useful right away on defense, but transformational. Despite not necessarily being an elite on-ball defender, Vassell has received plenty of praise for his off-ball and team defense. One of the biggest issues the Spurs have had in recent years is that despite having athletic players at the wing and good man-to-man defenders at guard, their perimeter defense was frankly a disaster because of poor habits and communication. Making matters worse, while the guards created turnovers the wing defenders were not disruptive at all. Vassell should help on both areas. His instincts should help plug holes at the team level while his length and anticipation should put plenty of pressure on opposing wing scorers while allowing the guards to do the same with the opponent’s main ball handlers.
Leading up to the draft, one of the biggest questions was whether the Spurs were going to draft for need or go for the best player available. Vassell represents a compromise between both options. He might not have as much potential as others, but with some improvement on offense he could become the type of versatile wing that makes lineups work. His lack of elite size for the forward spots could prevent him from filling the hole left by Kawhi Leonard, but his length and the league’s recent propensity for featuring three-guard units and moving small forwards up a spot could allow him to be a starting wing for years.
There are no sure things in the draft, and Vassell is no exception. But it’s hard to look at this pick and be anything but content. There might have been more exciting or naturally gifted players than Vassell available, but few that had untapped potential while addressing the Spurs’ current needs so perfectly. Not bad for the 11th pick. Not bad at all.