In his first talk to the media of the offseason on Tuesday, Gregg Popovich said all the right things: The identity of the team will continue to evolve and the veterans are ready to buy into the new style. Unfortunately, he also had bad news.
Derrick White, Keldon Johnson and Quinndary Weatherspoon are all dealing with some injuries and they likely won’t be available to start the season. Just like that, a lot of the Spurs’ depth at the guard and wing spots is gone, at least temporarily.
The biggest question mark now is who’s going to start in place of White, who seemed like a safe bet to man one of the guard spots after his play in Orlando. Lonnie Walker IV is probably the likelier answer and certainly a good option, but there’s a strong case for rookie Devin Vassell.
There are practical reasons for giving the No. 11 pick of the 2020 NBA draft minutes early on as a starter. The first one involves not disrupting the normal rotations to make up for an injury, something the Spurs’ have a history of doing. Popovich has in the past gone deep into his bench for a replacement when a starter had to sit out in order to keep his second unit intact and developing chemistry. Perhaps most memorably, Cory Joseph only played in 28 games in his second year in the league, but started nine of those in place of Tony Parker, getting essentially as many minutes in those appearances as in his other 19 combined. If White is only going to be gone for a few matches, giving his role to Vassell could make some sense if the idea is for Patty Mills, Walker IV, Rudy Gay and Jakob Poeltl to continue to develop as a unit.
The uncertainty surrounding the G-League season could also make it a good idea to give the rookie some early season playing time. Normally there would be no rush in San Antonio to get first year players minutes with the big team, because of the way the franchise uses its Austin affiliate to develop prospects. Over the years we’ve seen young players get comfortable with the pro level without much scrutiny only to emerge as more-well rounded and ready to contribute as a result. Just last season, Johnson showed the process works by looking ready for minutes in Orlando after playing mostly in Austin. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic it seems like the G-League season could be cancelled or truncated, which means finding regular minutes for Vassell to accrue experience could be harder to do. White’s temporary absence presents an opportunity to do just that.
Beyond practical reasons that have little to do with Vassell, there are more concrete grounds to want the rookie to start that have everything to do with his actual skill set. The most obvious one involves outside shooting. Last year’s starting shooting guard was a three-point specialist simply because one was needed next to Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan. White improved enough as a marksman last season where he can hopefully provide more spacing along with his defense, but with him out, the best hope to accomplish that task appears to be Vassell. His range and ability to play without the ball could balance out a starting unit that has ball handlers and creators but not a 3-and-D guy.
Of course, there could be downsides to starting Vassell. The last thing the Spurs should want is for their prized rookie to lose his confidence, which could happen if his lack of experience is exposed early on. A few missed open looks as he gets accustomed to the new three-point line, a few blown rotations (and the inevitable scoldings that would result from them) and a few “welcome to the NBA” moments when guarding stars could humble Vassell to the point of turning him tentative.
Similarly, Popovich passing over Walker IV to start Vassell could negatively affect the confidence of the more experienced of the two wings. Walker IV did his time in Austin and had to battle for playing time with Marco Belinelli last season before seemingly winning out, so he could understandably believe he’s earned any extra minutes that could be available, as well as dibs to any momentary starting slots. Walker IV could actually thrive with more shot creating responsibility off the bench, but most players have egos, and while Lonnie has not displayed any sort of diva behavior, he could feel not appreciated if he doesn’t get an opportunity to start in his third year.
As far as early-season problems go, things could have been worse for San Antonio. Figuring out the backcourt rotation should not be too stressful for the guard-heavy Spurs, as the surplus of viable pieces at the positions will give Gregg Popovich decent options. Walker IV and Mills seem like the safer ones, but Vassell could be an underrated alternative.
It seems unlikely he’ll get the nod as a starter this early considering how the Spurs have treated rookies in the past, but Vassell’s combination of shooting, defense and low usage could make him a solid stopgap until Derrick White is ready to take over the spot for good, hopefully sooner rather than later.