If Brian Wright had spent all day frantically working the phones and trying to finesse last-minute deals that failed to materialize, he didn’t look like it. At least not when he stepped into frame for the team’s post-draft Zoom call as the clock approached midnight on Wednesday.
Instead, Wright (who was promoted to Spurs GM last summer) radiated a calm excitement as he fielded questions about the two picks the team made at their scheduled slots of 11 and 41: FSU’s Devin Vassell and Duke’s Tre Jones, respectively.
“Both very high character guys from great programs that have had a lot of success, won at every level. Workers, competitors, just good, solid basketball players,” he said. “We think we added to our team on the court tonight, but in the locker room and in the community, as well. Just two really phenomenal young human beings.”
In the weeks leading up to the NBA Draft, there was palpable buzz around what San Antonio might do, and how it may drastically alter their future or reimagine their present. Some of that may still take place — Wright spoke to impending free agency and a “roadmap” the team was confident it may realize — but nothing, including a rare lottery trip, forced their hand on Wednesday.
“With every draft there’s always a bunch of things on the board,” Wright said. “Whether it’s to move up, move-backs, it’s a chance for you to get creative and see what’s there. Outside of just today, we just tried to understand the whole board, the entire draft, and as you get further and further you’re just erasing and seeing what else comes in. We always thought we would pick in this draft. Where we would pick was always the question and ultimately when Devin was there we knew we had a good player at 11 and to stay put and draft there.”
Free agency opens on Friday, November 20th, clearing the way for Wright and the Spurs to try and realize that plan. While we don’t know whether that means moving DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge or Patty Mills, or preparing to match any offer for restricted free agent Jakob Poeltl, we do know which rookies will be in the fold.
“We’re not able to do any negotiating yet,” Wright said when asked what work they had left to do this offseason. “So everything is still a work in progress. I think we have a roadmap of what we hope to get done, and we’ll see in the next few days if we can get that done”
There were two qualities that both Vassell and Jones shared, beyond being rising sophomores from the ACC: defensive accolades and reputations as high-character guys. Wright was quick to note that the two came back spotless in their background checks and, for whatever it’s worth, both came across well in their draft-night media calls. Last season’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Jones took a clear pride in his nightly effort on that end of the floor while Vassell was probably at his most enthusiastic when asked about his former teammate, Patrick Williams, who was taken with the 4th pick by the Bulls.
Of Vassell, Wright said: “He’s someone that we’ve been evaluating a long time, a couple of years at Florida State... [He] impacts the game in so many different ways. [He has the] ability to create, make plays, score at all three levels, and obviously shoot the ball, as well.”
A long and lean 6’7”, Vassell projects as a versatile guard-wing with legitimate two-way potential. It’s a profile that sounds a little familiar to fans that have watched team select a handful of players in recent years that exist somewhere in the growing chasm between point guard and power forward. And there were options at either of those positions should the Spurs have let need outweigh their scouting work and desire to go with who they saw as the best player available.
That approach, to be clear, does carry some risk. While Wright would later talk about how little that traditional positional designations mean today, tangible skills still do, and the reality is that Vassell adds to a stockpile of young perimeter players who can ostensibly guard 1 through 3 but who will give up size to bigger wings while neither serving as the engine or initiator of an offense.
“Speed, length, shooting ability all hold value, so we’ll continue to look for those things,” said Wright when asked if Vassell affirms the type of player the team has sought out. “I think the league has really changed where you look at guys as one-position players—you’re either a 1, 2, 3, 4 or a 5. I think what you see now is you’ve got guards, you’ve got wings and you’ve got bigs, and depending on who they’re playing with you diversify. And you want guys who are versatile, who can play multiple positions. I think with Devin for sure he can play across multiple positions. As he gets stronger, he’ll be able to do that even more.”
There’s a certain madness to any method when it comes to building a winner. You have to gamble and step boldly in whatever direction you’re headed. Even not gambling is a gamble. Whether Wright is speaking about the nuances of the physical development he expects of Vassell or bigger-picture sea changes with the league, you get glimpses of how he wants to bring the Spurs back to the top. Like Wright, it’s a still-forming vision that seems to bridge the same values we’re used to with sensibilities that befit the NBA in 2020. If draft night was any indication, we may not get the full picture anytime soon but the Spurs have never been one to skip steps.