When Devin Vassell was first drafted 11th overall by the Spurs in the 2020 NBA Draft — their first lottery pick since Tim Duncan — most fans were satisfied. He filled a positional need and was generally considered the best available player at the time. (While there was and maybe still is a contingency that would have preferred Tyrese Haliburton, who was grabbed one spot later by the Kings, their sophomore stats are relatively even so far, so it’s time to move on from that line of thinking.)
Despite having to deal with some unusual circumstances such as the delayed draft, no Summer League, and a COVID-condescend training camp and season, he still managed to do something few Spurs rookies have: make the main rotation. Even though Vassell was considered NBA-ready at the time, Gregg Popovich is notoriously conservative about playing rookies, plus he had other players — specifically Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson — who were ahead of him in the pecking order and had already bided their time.
But Vassell caught a bit of a break, as ongoing injuries to Derrick White opened up some playing time for him early, and he impressed enough to earn a permanent rotation spot for the rest of the season, becoming the first Spurs rookie since Kawhi Leonard to do so. However, the Kawhi comparisons don’t end there. Although he wasn’t gifted with the same 7’3” wingspan as the former Spurs star, Vassell has done just fine with his 6’10” one as one of the most disruptive on-ball defenders in the league who can guard four positions, and the comparisons go beyond just their physical features.
It’s obviously a smaller sample size for Vassell so far, but anyone who doesn’t like what they’re seeing isn’t looking hard enough. Despite Vassell having not reached a starting role yet — although some are clamoring for him to — he is putting up strikingly similar numbers across the board to sophomore Leonard. Perhaps the most satisfying stat Vassell is actually winning is three-point shooting. It is something this Spurs squad desperately needs help with — much more so than 2013’s team did, who mainly needed Leonard for defensive purposes and some occasional offense.
A quick look at Vassell’s shot chart for this season shows he is money from left corner (72.7 percent), which again is vital for a Spurs offense that is very drive oriented and needs a relief valve, and there’s no easier outlet for the driver than to the corner. He is also shooting above league average from the left wing of the arc (45.8 percent), as well as the midrange on the right side of the court (62.5 percent) and from the head of the key (a.k.a. the circle around the free throw line) at 57.1 percent. After being mostly a standstill shooter last season, he has been moving much more this season, either to create for himself or to get open without the ball.
None of this is today Vassell has been perfect. He especially still needs to improve in the paint, where he’s still below league average at just 50 percent, and his ability to create for others is still a work in progress, but the overall improvement is beyond even what I wanted to see from him coming into the season. When he was drafted, he was mostly seen as having a floor of Danny Green and ceiling of pre-2017 Leonard. While it’s still not fair (and way too early) to put the onus of becoming a top 10 player on Vassell, it’s pretty easy to say at this point that he has surpassed Green, at the very least. (Before the season, Zach Lowe referred to him as a Mikal Bridges type, who is currently putting up similar stats to Vassell in his fourth season. That even might be too low of a comparison at this point.)
Sometimes trying to determine who the Spurs’ most promising young player is can be hard, and opinions can fluctuate based on what just happened in the prior game, but right now, based on an ever growing pile evidence, it just might be Vassell, who is quickly outgrowing the 3-and-D moniker and moving up towards a brighter future.