The moment the Spurs landed in the 11th slot for the draft, Spurs fans started setting expectations for the player taken at that spot. After Devin Vassell was selected, The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote in his draft grades, “The Spurs didn’t overthink this—and got it right. Vassell is the best 3-and-D prospect in this year’s draft and has more shot-creating talent than he showed in college.” And through the first 24 games, we’ve seen glimpses of why this was the case, and those glimpses are oddly similar to a former Spur known for his defense – that’s right, I’m talking about Kawhi Leonard.
Before I go any further, let’s shake out those heebie-jeebies. This is going to end being overwhelmingly positive.
If we think back to the day the Spurs traded George Hill for the 15th and 42nd picks, a day that will live in Spurs lore forever, we can all remember the curiosity we had regarding this small forward from San Diego State University. We knew Kawhi was going to be good defensively, but it was how well he could score in the NBA. Turns out, he became pretty good on that end as well. When it comes to his rookie year however, he was an afterthought, and that’s why I make this comparison.
Based solely on what we’re seeing from Vassell and what we saw from Kawhi in his rookie season, they are pretty similar players. Starting with their measurables: Kawhi came in at 6’7”, weighing 225 lbs., and had a 7’3” wingspan, whereas Vassell is listed at 6’7”, weighing 195 lbs., and has a 6’10” wingspan (both were 20 years old). Below you’ll see their per game, per 36, and per 100 possession numbers, and given who the Spurs are now and who they were in 2011, going off the per 36 gives us the best glimpse.
Yes, these are the numbers of rookie Kawhi and rookie Vassell. They have just about the same stats across the board per-36 minutes. Beside the body type and numbers, you can just look at them play and see how alike Vassell is to Kawhi. They never feel like they’re rushed, always seem to be in the right positions, rarely have a play called for them, and if they get burned on a play defensively, that play doesn’t fool them again. One example of this from Vassell came against the Nuggets. Vassell missed stealing a pass intended for Michael Porter Jr., which led to a wide open three. The next time down, Vassell stays home, guards Porter straight up, and ends up causing an up-and-down.
As far as natural instincts, Vassell has them on both ends of the court. He’s first in defensive box plus/minus, seventh in offensive box plus/minus, and first in steal rate for qualified rookies. He leads the team in 3-point percentage, defensive points saved, and has shown a knack for knowing when to make the dribble into a mid-range jumper.
Now I know what you’re thinking, if he’s showing such promise, why doesn’t he play more? Let’s breakdown where the Spurs were at when Kawhi was a rookie compared to this year.
Both this and the 2011-2012 season had to go through strange circumstances (COVID and a lockout), but the teams then and now are in much different spots. The 2011 Spurs were still consistently competing for a title with The Big 3, the game hadn’t yet become the version we watch nightly (putting a premium on athleticism and shooting), and they had Richard Jefferson who was starting over Kawhi at the small forward spot. When the Jefferson/Spurs relationship soured and Kawhi started showing his value, the Spurs made a seemingly uncharacteristic move and traded Jefferson, T.J. Ford, and a 1st-round pick for Stephen Jackson. This move came in March, right before the playoffs started, and signaled the beginning of the Kawhi era.
As already mentioned, this was a season where the Spurs could get away with playing Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair, and Tim Duncan all over 20 minutes, and Tiago Splitter was getting 19. The only guards getting over 20 minutes for this team were Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, and Gary Neal. There was a desperate need at the small forward spot for the Spurs, and Kawhi was allowed to fill that void.
When you look at where the NBA is in the 2020-2021 season and this year’s Spurs roster, you can see why the rookie isn’t getting the same kind of minutes Kawhi did back then. When you’re playing DeMar DeRozan and Keldon Johnson at the small and power forward spots and they’re getting over 30 minutes, plus giving Rudy Gay 22 minutes, then you’re trying to get the guards you’ve drafted over the last few years the minutes they deserve, somebody gets left out. Year after year, Pop tends to slow play his rookies until there’s an opening on the roster.
Since Duncan’s rookie season, only 7 other rookies have played the kind of minutes Vassell is this year, and one of those is Keldon Johnson who probably wouldn’t have been that high had it not been for the bubble. Unless there’s a move made by PATFO, we’re probably going to have to appreciate the minutes Vassell gets. And like Kawhi, he’ll have to continue to show his worth when he sees the court. Who knows? He could be a starter by years end, just like the Klaw – we’ll just hope for a better ending.