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Jock Landale could be the answer to the Spurs’ backup center conundrum

The Australian big man has made the most of his minutes and could be ready to claim a permanent rotation role.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs have been experimenting all season with the backup center role, but they might have finally found the right man for the job. Since getting the nod as first big man off the bench, Jock Landale has flashed the ability to stretch the defense while providing size, which is exactly what San Antonio needs in the second unit.

Landale arrived with little fanfare in the offseason, looking like a depth signing. The former MVP of the Australian League had good credentials, and the Spurs had success the last time they signed an Aussie center that was playing abroad, but with Jakob Poeltl as the entrenched starter and Drew Eubanks and Thaddeus Young ahead of him in the rotation, it was clear that he wasn’t going to make an immediate impact. A concussion and a COVID-related absence put him behind schedule and prevented him from making a case for minutes, so he was mostly relegated to mop up duty. Until recently, it seemed unlikely for him to get a shot before Zach Collins’ return caused a bigger logjam at the position. Fortunately the opportunity did arrive, and Landale is making the most of it.

The main reason why Landale cracked the rotation is outside shooting. The big man hit 39 percent of his over three three-pointers a game in the NBL last season, and so far it’s looking like his ability to connect from deep has translated to the NBA. Landale is shooting 60 percent from three in the year and has only missed one of his five attempts since cracking the rotation. It’s unclear if opponents don’t know about his skill set yet or they are more concerned with stopping the Spurs’ ball handlers, but they have been leaving him open and he’s making them pay, especially on pick-and-pops from near the top of the arc.

Jock Landale shot chart
Basketball-Reference

The fact that he can stretch the floor alone would be a reason to really consider sticking with Landale long term, but the intriguing thing about him is that he also does traditional big man things well, which really makes him a matchup problem. Landale has always been a good offensive rebounder and has continued to attack the glass whenever he can, which means opponents can’t simply go small and put a perimeter player on him the way they can with shooting bigs that don’t mix it up in the paint. When the Lakers tried it, he created second chance opportunities for the Spurs by using his size and strength. Landale is also perfectly happy setting picks and diving to the rim, where he has the athleticism to finish, so the defense can’t assume he’ll just stay in the perimeter.

Having a big man who can shoot is helpful, but having one who can also hurt opponents inside is a perfect way to supercharge an offense. Over the past four games, the Spurs have scored at an insane rate with Landale on the floor, and they seem to only be scratching the surface of what they could be with a player with his skill set in the rotation. Right now he doesn’t really know his teammates’ tendencies and seems to be playing on instinct outside of the times in which a pick-and-pop is called for him, but with some better chemistry with the guards and with opposing big men likely paying more attention to him soon if the outside shots keep falling, his impact could be magnified.

Landale could also be a threat when opponents switch. He was a prolific post scorer in the Australian league and while he won’t impress anyone with balletic footwork, he was effective not only against smaller players but also against traditional bigs. He also showed enough patience and vision to find cutters, especially when double teamed. Landale has been looking for the ball when he gets a smaller player on him this season, but only for a second, before realizing that he’s not the first option anymore. By no means should the Spurs run the offense through him, but maybe from time to time the ball handlers could give him a post touch if he has a size advantage to see if his ability translates to the NBA.

While Landale really does seem to have all the tools to help the Spurs, there are reason to be cautious. For one, he’s only played a few minutes of meaningful basketball. The shot and the hustle are real, but will they be consistent? Will Jock be useful if opponents pay more attention to him? We don’t know yet. More importantly, will his defense be good enough?The other options aren’t much better on that end, so he won’t need to be a true defensive anchor to keep the job, but he has looked a little lost at times. It’s entirely possible he’ll just improve with more minutes, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him struggle at times, since he has no NBA experience and the Spurs’ scheme asks a lot of the center in the pick-and-roll.

Landale has so far earned the opportunity to erase those concerns thanks to his solid play. On paper, he was always intriguing, but now that he’s been given minutes, he’s showing that he’s really the inside-out threat he was advertised as. If he can also hold his own on defense, he’ll be exactly the player the Spurs’ need off the bench for 15 minutes and a perfect insurance policy in case their bigger offseason signing, Zach Collins, can’t get back into playing shape after being out for months.

It’s too soon to say that Landale is a quality rotation player, but it’s also impossible to ignore that he has looked really good so far in the backup center role. Hopefully he can remain effective and end any discussion about who should be the first big man off the bench for good.