Anyone who even glances at the NBA standings will notice the San Antonio Spurs have been better than expected this season despite having yet to play a game with a healthy roster. Anyone who has actually watched them knows a big reason why is the improvement the young players, namely Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson have shown from last season to this.
In looking at how the Spurs have gotten back into the playoff mix after missing out for the first time in 23 years last season, fivethirtyeight.com has taken a deep dive to look at how important that trio has been to their success.
First, there’s the minutes they are playing, which has resulted in the faster, more unpredictable style of offense that proved successful in the Orland Bubble.
The youth movement is being driven primarily by three players: Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson. Murray, in his age-24 season, is averaging 32.6 minutes per game — second-most on the team behind DeMar DeRozan. Walker, 22, is at 28.9 minutes a night; and Johnson, 21, is playing 31.4 minutes per game. It’s the first time since the 2015-16 season that any Spur in his age-24-or-younger season is averaging at least 28 minutes a night.3 It’s also just the second time in the Popovich era that multiple Spurs of that age have reached that minutes threshold. The last time was all the way back in the 2002-03 season, when a 20-year-old Tony Parker and 24-year-old Stephen Jackson each got there.
Perhaps most interestingly, those three players have been wildly successful when they haven’t shared the floor DeMar DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge, posting a staggering plus-31.1 point differential per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, they still post a positive of plus-3.6 when sharing with just DeRozan, but any scenario that features those three with Aldridge (both with and without DeRozan as well) features negative point differential, likely because these players thrive at a faster pace.
Of course, none of this is to say the Spurs would be better off without those two, and this season has proven as much. They are 0-3 without Aldridge, 1-1 without DeRozan — therefore 7-2 with both of them playing — and their presences have been noticeably missed when they’ve been out. So no, the Spurs would not be a better team without their two star players. This more a confirmation of just how improved the young players are, what they bring to the table, and what it could mean for the future.
There’s Dejounte Murray’s defense and being in the upper echelon of the league in terms of deflections and ever-improving assist-to-turnover ratio as despite his increasing ball-handling duties.
There’s Walker and his abilities to attack closeouts:
He works well as a secondary ball-handler and is often at his best attacking a closeout, blowing past an on-the-move defender to get to the rim or swing the ball to an open teammate. According to Second Spectrum, 176 players have faced at least 50 opponent closeouts so far this season; the 1.385 points per possession San Antonio has scored on plays where Walker has faced a closeout ranks 28th among that group, putting him in the 84th percentile.
And of course, Johnson’s bulldog approach on both sides of the ball:
Johnson has been San Antonio’s primary defender on, at times, forwards as diverse as LeBron James, Christian Wood, Zion Williamson and Pascal Siakam. That’s allowed DeRozan to spend those games defending Marc Gasol, P.J. Tucker, Josh Hart and OG Anunoby, thus conserving his energy for the offensive end, where he has far more responsibility. Johnson has also carried his strong college shooting over to the pros, and he’s completely fearless attacking the basket: Among the 131 players who have recorded at least 50 drives to the basket this season, per Second Spectrum, Johnson ranks first in blowby percentage.
Of course, there’s other factors at play in the Spurs current success, such as the staggering of Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl’s minutes, the hot bench shooting of Patty Mills (and occasionally Rudy Gay), DeRozan having one of the best all-around seasons of his career, and the addition of Devin Vassell, to name a few. And per usual, all of this is without even considering what Derrick White would bring to the table once he returns.
But when all is said and done, the much awaited youth movement is finally taking shape, and it just might be moving ahead even quicker than expected. As a result, the Spurs are somewhat unexpectedly right in thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt (and yes, it’s still early), and the future is already looking brighter than many may have predicted.