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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Magic

The Silver and Black eke out a win in Orlando as they continue reconstructing their roster.

San Antonio Spurs v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs narrowly edged out the Magic at the Amway Center on Sunday night, staving off a furious comeback attempt from a tireless Orlando squad as they clawed back to .500 in their fourth outing of the preseason.

The starting unit took care of business early, putting an 18-point buffer between them and the Magic. But San Antonio’s backups couldn’t keep pace, eventually relinquishing the lead late in the fourth quarter of what looked like a sure-win.

With just the annual Silver and Black Scrimmage and a final tuneup versus the Houston Rockets on Friday, head coach Gregg Popovich is slowly but surely piecing together rotations and answering questions about what this roster can accomplish.

And while Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, and Devin Vassell are busy asserting themselves as staples of the organization, others like Al-Farouq Aminu, Luka Samanic, and Keita Bates-Diop, are on the hot seat for San Antonio’s impending layoffs.

Observations

  • Lonnie Walker IV desperately needed to build some momentum after only going 25.8% from the field over his first three preseason contests, and he finally bounced back with 16 points and a team-high five assists on 6-of-11 shooting. Analysts have long touted the fourth-year swingman as a potentially potent scorer, and he flashed three-level point production against the Magic. What was most impressive was how he accumulated buckets. Lonnie burned Orlando off the bounce, out of dribble handoff actions, and utilizing screens on and off the ball. He even leveraged the extra attention his hot hand afforded him to create open looks for teammates, including a beautiful two-handed crosscourt pass that hit Doug McDermott right in between the numbers. Walker continued to display pick-and-roll chemistry with Drew Eubanks, a welcome sight considering the pair will likely spend plenty of time together in the second unit. By most metrics, the 22-year-old guard was one of the worst defenders in the NBA a season ago, though he’s always had the trademark tools of a suffocating stopper, and he showed improved court awareness on Sunday. If Lonnie Walker IV can consistently bottle up ballhandlers while making the correct rotations, then there’s no reason he can’t become San Antonio’s quintessential sixth-man.
  • Reading too deeply into a few preseason performances probably isn’t the best idea, but the truth is, Josh Primo has been much better than advertised. His debut was nothing short of spectacular, and his poise down the stretch against the Magic was integral to keeping San Antonio from blowing an 18-point cushion. And the fact he held his composure matched up against Orlando’s starters as his fellow third-stringers were falling apart all around him speaks volumes about his maturity. These exhibition showings have convinced a sizeable portion of Spurs fans that the 18-year-old should get an immediate NBA callup once the regular season commences. Although the Alabama product is undoubtedly more league-ready than we initially gave him credit for, there shouldn’t be a rush to usher him into the rotation. As frustrating as it can be watching PATFO ship rookies off to the G League the second they arrive in the Alamo City, sometimes that’s what they need to lay a foundation for future success. Unlike Devin Vassell, who doesn’t project as a lead initiator, Primo has all the prerequisite skills to run an offense. However, his abilities aren’t sharp enough to dominate the best basketball association in the world. And San Antonio’s crowded backcourt depth chart could very well relegate the Canadian guard to bench-warming duties, a role hardly befitting of a lottery investment. The Austin treatment might not be the sexiest option, but it could give him the minutes, shots, touches, and on-ball reps necessary to foster meaningful development.
  • There were plenty of detractors when San Antonio picked Luka Samanic 19th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft, especially with prospects like Matisse Thybulle, Brandon Clarke, and Kevin Porter Jr. on the board. But the Spurs backed their contentious selection of the unproven Croatian combo forward. And after two years in the G League, a handful of inspiring big-league stints, and the departure of Rudy Gay, it finally looked like Luka was going to get his shot at earning minutes with the Silver and Black. Despite flashing unusual ballhandling, passing, shooting, and perimeter defending skills for someone of a six-eleven 235-pound frame, head coach Gregg Popovich still appears unconvinced of his ability to make a difference for the Spurs. Samanic has played the third-fewest minutes of anyone on the roster, which isn’t the most promising sign for a former first-rounder. Besides a one-off start against the Heat, Luka has mostly seen action during garbage time. Sunday evening was probably peak disappointment for Samanic supporters as he logged four scoreless minutes and had his only shot attempt blocked. Even Keita Bates-Diop and two-way rookie Joe Wieskamp checked into the contest before the third-year forward. And while it’s easy to feel sympathy for the 21-year-old’s frustration, it’s difficult to excuse his decision to give up near midcourt on a Cole Anthony breakaway. Luka Samanic is fighting for a spot in the rotation, and he won’t earn one with a striking lack of effort and poor body language.
  • The Silver and Black ran the 21st most efficient offense (111.0 ORtg) a season ago, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given their affinity for midrange jumpers and their inability to knock down the three-ball. Operating at just an average pace with a so-so half-court attack also contributed to lackluster execution on that side of the ball. However, their staggeringly stagnant ball movement is what stands out the most when revisiting the stats. San Antonio was one of only three teams that failed to make at least 19,000 passes last year, odd considering their low volume of isolation plays. But with high-usage veterans and proven scoring options like DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and Patty Mills no longer on the roster, generating points will unquestionably become a more strenuous task. The Spurs can’t afford to lay idle if they want to keep their offense from falling into the bottom-five territory, and it seems head coach Gregg Popovich has gotten that message through to his players. Tracking data like passes made isn’t kept for preseason games, but the eye test says they’ve swung the ball around the horn, sometimes excessively, at a noticeably higher rate. And San Antonio’s 26 assists against the Magic was good for third-most of all the teams that suited up for action on Sunday night.