Devin Vassell has had an impressive start to his career. His numbers don’t jump off the page, but the rookie has hit his threes, avoided mistakes and showed an advanced understanding of defense that has made him one of the most prolific in the league at getting steals and deflections on a per minute basis.
On a team in full rebuilding mode, Vassell’s play would earn him plenty of playing time. On the 2020/21 Spurs, he’s only gotten around 18 minutes a game, which is still a lot when compared to other recent rookies. In just 20 games, he’s played more than Keldon Johnson and Luka Samanic did last year, combined.
The question now is, when the Spurs get fully healthy, as they are inching closer to getting now that Derrick White is back, will there be room for Vassell? Because if there isn’t, and with the G-League not a short road trip away, the rookie might not get the minutes he needs to develop.
The strategy the Spurs have used in the past to ensure their young players see the court enough has relied heavily in the use of their affiliate. Guys could be on the active roster one day, then assigned to Austin the next to get the playing time that it was often hard to provide them with the big club. By most measures the plan worked, as San Antonio’s draft picks showed on-court improvement in a pressure-free environment while still being around the varsity team enough to get acclimated to their teammates and to NBA life. In their second year, most prospects saw their minutes and production rise, which was likely a result of being ready for it after going through the program their rookie season.
The usual path isn’t available for Vassell. Due to the pandemic, he won’t be able to go back and forth from San Antonio to Austin to get minutes if the coaching staff can’t find enough for him in the NBA. This year the G-League will take place in a bubble in Orlando, which means that it would be logistically inviable to get Vassell to suit up for games for both the affiliate and the big club in the same day or the same week, like many rookies have in the past. The Spurs can either assign him and likely leave him in Florida for the four weeks the G-League season will go on to ensure he gets all the playing time he can handle, or keep him with the main roster and risk having him get scrap minutes.
Since Vassell was a lottery pick who, as mentioned, has played well enough to earn a place in the rotation, it’s not surprising that PATFO has seemingly decided to keep him around in San Antonio. Otherwise he would have likely joined Luka Samanic and Tre Jones in the list of assignees already submitted. They could change their mind in the future, but for now it seems there will be no G-League stint for Vassell, which is understandable. With Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV out on Saturday and with others surely suffering small injuries and mild illnesses at some point in the season, having Vassell around will at several points be less a luxury than a necessity, so the decision makes sense.
At the same time, there might be times in which everyone is available and Vassell struggles to get on the court. We saw that play out in the two losses against the Grizzlies, in which the rookie got 21 combined minutes, which would have been fewer if not for garbage time in the second matchup. It’s not news that the wing rotation is crowded, so it wasn’t surprising to see Vassell relegated to spot duty, but it could be an issue going forward. Is 10 minutes a game, some of which might come when the score is settled, enough for a productive young player? Because if it isn’t, perhaps a G-League assignment wouldn’t be as asinine as it currently seems.
There’s a third option, of course. The Spurs could simply decide to reduce the minutes going to veterans DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay to make sure all the young players get enough playing time. If they were fully committed to rebuilding, that would be the obvious solution to their current predicament of an excess of depth. Yet such a move could potentially hurt them in the standings, where they are still firmly in the playoff picture, as DeRozan has been their offensive engine and closer while Gay has been a core part of their excellent second unit. It’s possible Vassell simply rises to the challenge and actually helps the team improve while getting some of the veterans’ minutes, but it’s also possible his inexperience hurts the team.
There are no simple answers to this conundrum. Vassell clearly can handle a small rotation role right now, but there might not be one for him if everyone else is healthy. Normally that would mean he’d be in Austin getting minutes until an absence provides him the opportunity to get playing time with the big team, but that’s not an option now that the G-League season will be played in a bubble in Orlando. Maybe everything will be fine and Pop will find playing time for the rookie, or maybe he’ll be relegated to mop up duty. It might depend on Vassell’s individual play or how well the Spurs are doing in the standings. It’s impossible to tell at this point.
The 2020/21 season has been a strange one, for many notable reasons that include a shorter schedule and postponed games. But there are also smaller yet similarly compelling issues that are not obvious until they become impossible to avoid.
The question of how to find minutes for Devin Vassell during his rookie season is one of those issues — not big enough to affect the Spurs’ fate but still a nuisance. Hopefully the franchise has the right plan in place to deal with it.