Inside a screened off Disney gym, quartered from a burning world and with long odds to advance, what place did convention have in how the Spurs returned to the court? If their first scrimmage on Thursday is any indication, refreshingly little.
To the surprise of few, the LaMarcus Aldridge-less group got walloped on Thursday afternoon by the league-leading Bucks, 113-92. Fresh off four months without organized basketball, they offered little resistance to MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, turned the ball over 22 times and gave up a bunch of open threes. That part felt relatively familiar—the rest not so much.
In one of the last plays of the 40-minute exhibition, Lonnie Walker IV zipped a pass to an open Drew Eubanks in the paint, who gathered and, with some help from his off hand, threw down a dunk over Thanasis Antetokounmpo. The bucket had zero effect on the end result, with San Antonio down 97-82 with 1:20 to go, but the collision dropped the lesser-known brother of Giannis to the ground in temporarily scary fashion. The Spurs big man felt the momentum of his garbage-time highlight in his own way, briefly but intensely staring down his opponent. Antetokounmpo lay there for what felt like minutes, visibly in pain but at least not noticeably seriously injured. Play stopped, the muted action giving way to a muted official review.
Had it happened in Milwaukee, boos would’ve swelled inside Fiserv Forum. Had it occurred in San Antonio the dunk may have been shown on the Jumbotron a handful more times to the delight of whatever Spurs fans weren’t already on I-35. In the neutral void of the Bubble, reactions were tempered and teams mostly kept to themselves while a decision was made. (Antetokounmpo seems to be fine and, upon review, Eubanks was absolved of any malice on the play but still hit with a technical foul for taunting.)
While the Spurs took the L on the day, a spiritual victory may have come in their shift in priorities as they take part in this Orlando restart. Becky Hammon pinch-coached the first scrimmage for Gregg Popovich (Will Hardy and Mitch Johnson are handling the other two), who watched from one row back. Her starting five—the never-before-used group of Dejounte Murray, DeMar DeRozan, Derrick White, Walker and Jakob Poeltl— affirmed Pop’s recent quotes about the team’s increased emphasis on development.
“The big thing is seeing Derrick and DJ play together and giving them a little bit of chemistry instead of strictly one running one group and the other running the other group. I think it will help us play faster, you couldn’t tell today in the scrimmage. We like a lot of aggressiveness on all areas on the floor. We’re just trying to figure out a defensive lineup that can give us a really great chance to start off the game well.”
The White-Murray pairing has felt long-overdue. Concerns about potential spacing issues aside, they’ve each established themselves as excellent perimeter defenders deserving of more than the 102 minutes they shared the floor over the regular season, if only to help shore up the league’s 24th ranked defense. They didn’t show tremendous chemistry outside of White linking up with Murray on an alley-oop in transition, nor did they make much happen on the other end, but you need to build on something.
Not far behind that narrative has been the anticipation to see a more liberated Walker. In a rare start, he played the most minutes of any Spur and, despite some turnovers and lapses on defense, did plenty with the opportunities given. He led all Spurs with 14 points, which included two threes and a giddy dunk in transition.
The focus on youth didn’t stop there. Keldon Johnson, who had moments before the league stoppage, was one of the first Spurs off the bench, throwing his body around in his trademark style and flashing a bit of vision on one drive and kick to a Bryn Forbes three. There were also minutes for Quinndary Weatherspoon, Chimezie Metu, and Luka Samanic.
Patty Mills being a surprise DNP helped free up some minutes in the backcourt. In post-game, Hammon was asked about his absence but couldn’t hear the reporter between the Zoom call and the in-room noise where the press conference was held, and no answer was given. All parties inside the NBA bubble are still figuring processes out.
To his credit, DeRozan seemed happy to take a backseat and let the young players lead the way. Still, it was his creation that triggered some of the team’s better possessions early on: something fans should keep in mind if they’re looking forward to a future where he’s moved and clears the way for the youth movement.
The obligatory caveat is that this was a scrimmage—not just any scrimmage, but the first one following an unprecedented period of sedentary life and social distancing. No lineup or playing style that we see over the next 10 games should mean much of anything. Murray and Hammon acknowledged as much in their interviews.
But we can’t deny that the tone with the team has certainly shifted, and it lends a levity to these Orlando games. In the middle of the season, Popovich would’ve answered a question about what he was looking for from Walker in his few minutes a game with something to the tune of: “to play well.” (I remember because I asked it.) Maybe it’s because the conversation was too much at odds with his main focus at the time: competing. Here he is before Thursday’s scrimmage when asked what he looks for in a young player to gain a bigger role:
“Obviously, just the ability to learn is huge. If a young player is picking up what you’re trying to teach and carrying it over to game situations that tells a lot because being valuable in that sense and growing is a huge factor in your development. Next thing probably is work ethic. Who is willing to spend the time? Who really loves the game? Who wants to really be good? Who stays after practice, who comes in early? Who works on skills? It tells a lot. And also, how players relate to teammates. Does this young person have the potential to be a leader later on? Is he a follower? Is he strong, is he weak, mentally in that sense? What makes him tick and how does that fit into the overall picture of your team. So, those are some of the things we look at while we’re developing young kids.”
These are all things that Pop and the Spurs have been able to observe throughout the year—which has always been a counter to the criticism that the team wasn’t developing its young talent simply by not rolling it out in San Antonio. The Spurs program is always at work, whether it’s in Austin or in practices, and it’s shaped at least part of how the team sees itself and its young pieces. Now, in these new circumstances, it’s something we may all be able to watch unfold.