Devin Vassell is the most NBA-ready rookie the Spurs have drafted since Kawhi Leonard, and while there’s no guarantee he plays meaningful minutes for the Spurs in his inaugural season donning Silver and Black, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t. The 20-year-old wing is further along on both ends of the floor than recent project players like Luka Samanic, Lonnie Walker IV, and Dejounte Murray were at this same point, and his skill set provides him with a defined role heading into the league.
Vassell was a prospect I’ve been monitoring over the past two years while scouting the 2019 and 2020 draft classes, and the flashes of two-way potential he showed as a freshman culminated in a breakout sophomore campaign for the winningest team in the history of Florida State basketball. Not only did he display enticing self-creation abilities when the Seminoles needed a bucket, but he was perhaps the best team defender in the nation.
The stringy swingman has an aptitude for disrupting opposing offenses with his dangerous combination of intelligence, length, and impeccable instincts, and his talent for making calculated gambles resulted in 2.4 steals per game and several more deflections. Turning giveaways into fastbreak opportunities was one of his specialties in college, and his propensity for making reads and blowing up the passing lanes should translate to the next level.
Unlike most incoming rookies, Vassell is less likely to look lost and make boneheaded mistakes on the defensive end. There are very few things he doesn’t do well on that side of the ball, and his effectiveness starts with his tireless motor and carries over to his sound fundamentals. From stunting, digging, and rotating to controlled closeouts and contests, he does all the little things that impact winning, and he does so with excellent footwork and active hands.
And this is where he sets himself apart from some of the gifted youngsters already on San Antonio’s roster. Walker and Keldon Johnson play with boundless energy but are often undisciplined, unaware, and out of proper positioning, leaving head coach Gregg Popovich simmering on the sidelines. With Vassell, you not only get the enthusiasm, commitment, and communication, but you have it packaged with the understanding and purpose to genuinely make his teammates better.
For as spectacular of a team defender as he is this early in his career, Vassell has a ways to go as an on-ball stopper. His slender 195-pound frame hinders his switchability, and though he might be asked to guard forwards from time to time in the NBA, don’t be surprised when heavier players displace the first-year Spur with ease. And despite his proclivity for defensive playmaking, the six-seven swingman is still prone to biting on fakes in an overzealous pursuit of the orange.
Aside from the almost negligible defensive concerns that follow Devin Vassell, there isn’t much to criticize, and his ceiling on this end stands out even in a league full of gifted professionals. His physical tools and knowledge of the game scream future All-Defensive Team member, and much like Murray before him, Vassell will probably have a chance to prove himself as a defender before he ever receives a shot to become a significant cog in the offense.
Returning to the other end of the court, Vassell has more promise than his numbers might initially indicate. Although his team-leading 12.7 points per game don’t pop off the stat sheet, Florida State ran a spread-the-wealth offense that wasn’t conducive to propping up any one player. And when you look at it through that lens, Vassell was quite impressive. He made strides as a scorer, going from notching a single dribble-jumper as a freshman to knocking down 39 as a sophomore.
Considering the Spurs’ loaded depth chart, finding touches for him won’t be a simple task for Pop. Thankfully, generating offense out of isolation sets shouldn’t be a priority for the Spurs rookie. Adding muscle, improving his handle, and diversifying his repertoire will be integral to his growth as a scorer, and it could be a couple of years before Vassell is asked to carry a heavier load. For now, crashing the boards, cutting, and relocating off-ball will be his main means of getting involved.
Dependable three-point shooting is another department in which Vassell can add value to the Spurs. Having lost Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli this offseason, San Antonio will be looking for long-range marksmen who can replace both their volume and efficiency. While mostly a standstill shooter, Vassell was consistent, draining 126 triples at a 41.7% clip in two college seasons. Like I mentioned earlier, he gave us glimpses of creating off the bounce, but that isn’t a reliable part of his arsenal yet.
Seeing the Spurs’ first lottery pick in 22 years play a modest part in the offense may be disappointing, but that’s the role that best suits him. There is a slim chance fans get the instant gratification of production from any rookie this season given their precarious circumstances. Collegiate draftees are coming off the longest layoff in NCAA history, and to make matters worse, they’ll have only a few weeks to get up to speed in what is shaping up to be the shortest NBA offseason we’ve ever seen.
This is usually where the G-League would factor into the equation. After all, virtually every rookie of the last decade excluding Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, and Leonard, has spent the majority of their first go-round up I-35 with the Austin Spurs. However, with the 2020-2021 G-League season up in the air, PATFO might not have the backbone of their development system to lean on. And without a place to send Vassell to learn the ropes, it does him little good to waste away on the bench.
There are pros and cons to throwing first-year players into the action from day one, though the 11th overall pick might be better equipped to adjust to the NBA than any rookie from the 2020 Draft. Pop emphasized the importance of defense in his first presser of the season on Tuesday night, and as we discussed earlier, San Antonio will require steady shooting from beyond the arc. Vassell has the potential to be so much more than a 3&D specialist down the road, but for now, he’s precisely what the Spurs need.