Who among the Spurs core is ready for an expanded role?

The state of the San Antonio Spurs has been a topic of discussion around the NBA in recent weeks. Yes, the franchise is currently in a holding pattern, with no clear path towards contention in the short or long-term. But a full-scale teardown was never in the cards -- not in that market, not with a 72-year old coaching legend chasing down Lenny Wilkens. Things tend to work out in this league if you draft and develop good young players. The question is, what exactly do the Spurs have?

Following the nirvana that was 2012 through 2015, the Spurs have pulled a complete 180 from the "Beautiful Game" and leaned heavily into caveman basketball. San Antonio has finished in the bottom-ten in passes per game in each of the past three seasons. It can work when you have stellar half-court creator like Kawhi Leonard or even DeMar DeRozan (who for all his warts, still generates quality looks in the regular season). One of the hidden advantages of this strategy is that you never cough up the rock -- the Spurs have ranked 1st, 1st, and 2nd in turnover rate over that same time period. This was one of the main reasons for the team's quality offensive play, even with a hideous shot profile and being allergic to offensive rebounding,

This style doesn't quite function the same without a go-to option though, Gregg Popovich always has his team operating "the right way." Players move and cut with voracity; the actions are crisp and with a sense of purpose. But without a tentpole star, possessions often wind up like this.

So who among San Antonio's core is most ready for an expanded role?

Color me skeptical:

Dejounte Murray

Dejounte Murray is 25 years old, with over 6,000 minutes under his belt (including the postseason) -- he's more of a known commodity than people realize. While DJ has grown tremendously as a shooter and decision-maker from his early days, the limitations overshadow everything for me.

Because of this, Dejounte is never really capable of puncturing a defense. This means that he's shifty in big spaces, but far less so in tight spaces -- critical for creating in the half-court. Per Second Spectrum, he's been a bottom-ten player in both isolations and pick-and-rolls since 2016. Relying on pull-up 2s and never getting to the line will do that for you. Murray's also a bit overrated as a floor general to me.

At this point, I believe it's about incremental improvements with DJ — continued progress on the jumper, more polish running the team — so that he can climb towards respectable efficiency -- nothing game-changing. He looked more refined in the pre-season, even if the ball-handling foibles were still there.

Devin Vassell

Devin Vassell just screams "very good role player." He has a very bright future in these areas — namely spacing the floor on offense (per, only 34% of Devin Vassell's attempts from deep were classified "wide open" -- which is encouraging for a rookie) and team defense — but it's difficult to imagine him scaling upwards. Vassell just doesn't have enough juice as a shot-creator to me.

Going back to Florida State, I was never crazy about Vassell as a prospect because he doesn't play with much force. At the NBA level this has carried over. That said, you never want to write off a young wing in the Spurs' developmental ecosystem. Skinnier guys of Devin's ilk tend to gain more athleticism deeper into their rookie deals. In a small sample of 42 possessions, Vassell's pick-and-roll numbers were surprisingly solid (0.98 points per play, or 76th percentile), mostly due to limiting turnovers.

Interesting, but...

Lonnie Walker IV

Lonnie Walker, a RSCI darling with immense physical tools, has never quite lived up to the promise. Some will point to a lack of opportunity -- his rookie year coincided with the arrival of DeRozan and the emergence of Derrick White. At the same time, Walker hasn't particularly impressed when he has had chances.

Lonnie's fatal flaw is his handle. It prevents him from executing any kind of moves or craft as a creator. Just look at how far the ball is away from his body here:

The frustrating part is that he'll have glimpses of astute play-making. Combined this with a budding jumper and superb athleticism and it's not hard to envision the potential. This potential becomes dimmer and dimmer with each passing season, however. Given the demand for wings across the league, Lonnie Walker can still be a useful player. He's already rounded out many aspects to his game.

Catch-and-shoot 3s, 2020-21:

Player 3PA/36 %
Trevor Ariza 5.2 37.2%
Robert Covington 5.0 37.9%
Lonnie Walker IV 5.0 38.4%
Kevin Huerter 4.8 37.8%
Donte DiVincenzo 4.8 38.1%

But asking him to initiate possessions and create an advantage on his own is recipe for poor efficiency (and thus poor offense) right now. I am more inclined to slot him in the previous category with Murray and Vassell, if not for that allure of untapped upside.

Let them explore the studio space:

Keldon Johnson

After suddenly finding himself on *The* USA Basketball Men's team in Tokyo this summer, Keldon Johnson's stock around the league is pretty high for a former 29th overall pick. Among all of these players, the Virginia native has one standout skill that makes him intriguing: the ability to drive the basketball.

Good luck dealing with that. Keldon is an immense physical presence, with -- almost Zion "bull in a china shop"-like.

Now it's time for the team to see how he can leverage this rim pressure into generating offense. As you'd expect from a 22-year old, the results have been mixed so far. The jump-shot is spotty at best. He has a tendency to turn on the blinders.

But the flashes are there. Let's see what he can do with more reps.

Derrick White

Derrick White has been the best offensive player of this group so far. Now that he's a catch-and-shoot threat, White doesn't really have any weaknesses as a complementary piece -- spotting up, attacking closeouts, running second-side pick-and-rolls. And the Spurs paid him handsomely for it.

The hope is that Derrick White can re-capture the magic from the Disney Bubble, where he averaged over 20 points on ludicrous shooting before injuring his toe. The injury bug has always plagued him, though; and at age-27, White's sneaky athleticism (essential for his driving game) has likely already peaked. In 2020-21, he replaced nearly a third of his rim attempts with above-the-break threes, per Cleaning the Glass.

The rest:

Tre Jones

For someone who totally eschews 3-point shooting, Tre Jones' ability to get to the cup is pretty impressive. Unfortunately, he's currently sidelined with an ankle injury, but the minutes could be there as a backup point guard -- depending on Derrick White's role. I'd like to see more before making an assessment one way or another.

Jakob Poeltl

I do expect Poeltl to be more involved in the offense -- just not creating on his own. His lack of skill level and unaggressive nature puts that pretty much out of the question.

Josh Primo

The history of Gregg Popovich playing rookies, much less entrusting them with a large role, is very limited. Primo seems destined to be in the George Hill/Kyle Anderson/Derrick White Spurs "redshirt" program (i.e. lots of time in Austin).

It's not difficult to ascertain why the expectations are so low this year for the Spurs. No more DeRozan to soak up boatloads of possessions. No more Patty Mills and Rudy Gay (even if he appeared washed last season) to ignite bench units. A bunch of unproven kids — and Derrick White — eager to step in, but none of them likely to emerge as a alpha talent.

Can Popovich cobble together a respectable offense while the defense wins games? In the preseason, the team has been running lots of actions through the elbows and high-post -- utilizing the passing instincts of Poeltl and Thaddeus "Thagic" Young through dribble-handoffs and split cuts.

Two of the offseason acquisitions — Bryn Forbes and Doug McDermott — will make powerful screen-setters due to their off-ball gravity. Interestingly enough, this brand of basketball appears to suit much of the core group well.

Player Percentile on cuts Percentile on handoffs
Dejounte Murray 27.5 37.4
Derrick White 78.5 74.3
Devin Vassell 68.6 69.5
Keldon Johnson 80.6 56.1
Lonnie Walker IV 66.2 31.9

*Percentile for career

But this can only get an offense so far. The Spurs are going to have to unleash a few of their young players -- Keldon Johnson excites me the most. Once Kawhi skipped town, the clock started ticking; and this time would eventually come. San Antonio has only now begun to embrace this Brave New World that 95% of NBA franchises encounter one day or another. And here we go...

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