The 2021-22 season has officially begun now that Media Day has happened and training camps are underway. Part of that Media Day was Coach Gregg Popovich and the rest of the team talking about the roster and what they think about it. One statement that stood out was Pop explaining how there’s no superstar on the team and nobody that stands out to be the “go-to” guy.
However, there does seem to be a pretty good understanding of whom the Spurs will rely on more than others. That would be Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker, and Jakob Poeltl, all who seem primed and ready to take over the reins and lead the team into this new phase of the franchise.
Behind those five, there are some things that need to be figured out as to how the rest of the roster will shape out and what their roles will be. Earlier this week, Damien Bartonek wrote about how the veteran additions of Doug McDermott and Thaddeus Young will help the Spurs. Bryn Forbes and the much-needed shooting he will provide off the bench also deserves a mention, but it may be three unproven members of the team who make the most impact this season.
Devin Vassell, Tre Jones, and Luka Samanic are entering this season with some NBA experience under their belt. Vassell brings the most, as he played more games and minutes than any Spurs rookie since Kawhi Leonard, but Jones and Samanic did get some run with the Spurs when they weren’t leading the charge in the G-League Bubble. The departure of Patty Mills and Rudy Gay should help them earn more minutes in this upcoming season, and what they do with those minutes could lead to this Spurs team being better than anybody expects, so let’s take a look at what they bring to the table.
Starting with the player with the most expected out of him, Devin Vassell. He’s been written about a few times throughout the season, once by myself and more recently by Marilyn Dubinski here. But for the sake of this piece, his game and stats need to be restated.
After being selected with the first Spurs lottery pick since Tim Duncan, Vassell showed off why he was seen as one of the best, if not the best, 3-and-D prospects of his draft class. For a guy who played a mere 17 minutes a game, he averaged 0.7 steals a game, which doesn’t seem amazing, but there was only one player (Stanley Johnson) who played fewer minutes to average that many steals. On top of that, he was shooting 40.8% from 3 until he seemingly hit a rookie wall on April 19th, when he shot a measly 21.3% over the last 17 games of the season. That shooting slump caused his overall average to plummet to 34.7%, and when looking at overall stats, makes him seem like less of a threat from distance.
When you watch everything else he does on the court, you can start to see Vassell becoming more than just a 3-and-D type player. As Zach Lowe recently wrote when breaking down the team, “Vassell could become San Antonio’s Mikal Bridges — and maybe more.” He displayed an ability to get into the lane, and because of his shooting form, he can shoot over most anybody trying to guard him. His playmaking will need to improve, like almost very young player ever, but the Spurs should be able to wait for that to progress slowly. Defensively, aside from his steals, he understands positional defense and uses his size and athleticism to guard 1-4. If you choose to go to Lowe’s article, you’ll see a clip of him hounding Trae Young after a switch. Players with the overall skillset are vital because they can be plugged into any lineup at any time, and it’s likely that’ll be the case with Vassell.
This moves us onto Vassell’s classmate and somebody else Marilyn wrote about when discussing the State of the Spurs: Tre Jones. We’re not quite sure how the bench rotation is going to fill out, but Jones should be given a chance to earn some minutes as he and Murray are the only pure point guards on the team, unless you’d consider White one. Not to mention that he showed out at Summer League, where he was 4th in scoring at 22.8 and 9th in assists at 6.3. While it was just Summer League, those are still impressive numbers when you realize he only played 27.4 minutes a game, which wasn’t among the top-50.
While Jones has shown flashes that he can finish in the paint and knockdown an open 3 or two, where he really makes his bones is on the defensive end of the court. Coming into the league after being named ACC Defensive Player of the Year, he proves to be in the mold of a player like Cory Joseph: somebody who is going to work his tail off defensively and be capable offensively. And knowing Pop, a player earns his keep by competing on defense. That defensive ability should make for a nice pairing with Lonnie Walker off the bench, hopefully turning the Spurs bench unit back into its formidable self.
That brings us to perhaps the most controversial Spur on the entire roster: Luka Samanic. The first two years of his career have been all about him growing into his body and getting comfortable with NBA-quality players, and as Jesus Gomez wrote, he’s getting ready for a breakout season. He looks to have the tools of a player who could be a top-10 talent in the league — sure, he may not get there, but you can’t deny that his handle and shot at his size alone makes his ceiling sky-high. His biggest supporters will then point to his game against the Knicks and guarding the All-NBA 2nd teamer Julius Randle. It’s just one game, but it’s evident that the potential to be a tremendous all-around player is there.
Samanic is another young Spur where you can’t look at numbers to try to make a case in either direction, since he only played 308 minutes over 33 games and only more than 10 in 12 of those. What we do know is that he was able to combine with Jones to dominate the G-League games they played, going 6-0 (they lost the only game they didn’t plan together), with Samanic averaging 21.8 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. Should he be able to get his shot more consistently, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t step into the role Gay played last season (position wise, not usage wise).
Needless to say, if these three can take the next step, they’ll be playing a larger role than anybody anticipated. They won’t be go-to scorers, but they are all capable of scoring in the right situations. It’s going to be their ability to defend that impacts the team the most. To use another line from that Lowe Post (yes, this pun was intended), “If this really is a top-5 defense, the Spurs will be in the play-in race,” and this trio of young Spurs playing more would go a long way in making that happen. We’ll just have to wait and see what Pop decides to do with everybody — he certainly has enough to work with.