The Spurs made up for their lack of a star on opening night as a team, logging 31 assists in 49 buckets and having seven players in double figures. It was a great collective performance that would normally make it hard to focus on any individual. But what Devin Vassell did on Wednesday deserves to be highlighted.
Vassell finished the game with 19 points on 12 shots, two rebounds, five assists and two steals. The stat line is impressive on its own for a role player, but it fails to fully explain how important he was to the Spurs’ success. The second year forward not only made shots, but made them at key junctures. He didn’t force anything, but was still aggressive. A look at all the possessions that had him directly involved shows that even his fouls were good.
Let’s start with the scoring. Vassell is not a shot creator at this point. His threes were all assisted, he had no trips to the line, and his only shot at the rim came from a breakaway dunk. Yet he’s not just a spot-up player, either. Vassell seems comfortable pulling up from mid-range, which makes him a lot more versatile than prototypical 3-and-D wings. His pull-up gives him a way to score when his drive attempts go nowhere and on simple pick and roll or hand-off plays. Sure, the Magic didn’t have any crack defenders on him (no one is going to have Terrence Ross, Ignas Brazdeikis, Jalen Suggs or RJ Hampton on their Defensive Player of the Year ballot), but Vassell was aggressive and never hesitated when he had room to rise for a jumper.
More surprising than the 19 points were Vassell’s career-best five assists. Again, there was nothing flashy about them, but that’s perfectly fine by the Spurs. In part what makes the second-year forward’s performance impressive is that it came completely within the flow of the offense. He just made the right pass, at the right time, to the right player. His assists resulted in four three-pointers and a shot at the rim, exactly the types of looks the offense wants. And two of those assists came in garbage time, when no one would have blamed Vassell for getting greedy for points on what was a career night, which shows his how focused he was on making the right play instead of hunting for his own.
Finally, we get to the two highlights of the night for Vassell: his strip dunk and his buzzer-beating three-pointer to crown a special stretch for both him and the team.
The strip and dunk epitomizes how special Vassell (and the Spurs) could be on defense. He’s already a terrific off-ball defender but now he’s starting to unlock more of his on-ball potential, which should help a San Antonio team that lacks a big wing defender. The play also came at a key moment and it energized the crowd and the bench.
Also, the three-pointer came at the end of a run that let San Antonio run away with it, showed Vassell’s ability to find the open space and knock down the shot without hesitation. But the best part was seeing how confident Vassell looked after what has to be one of the biggest shots in his young career and finally playing in front of a big crowd.
All the individual moments tell a tale, but what makes the whole of Vassell’s performance so exciting is that it encompassed everything the Spurs set out to be this season. Disruptive on defense, decisive on offense, unselfish on both ends. Vassell didn’t try to do too much on his own but he didn’t shy away from the big moments, either. It was a coming out party for the young wing whose selection has often been questioned, but it was also a sign that this young San Antonio team has an identity that everyone has embraced.
It’s very possible both Vassell and the Spurs will struggle to replicate the performance they put together on Wednesday, especially against better opponents, but it doesn’t matter. What’s important is we got to see what both are capable of, and it’s impossible to be anything but thrilled at what the future might have in store.