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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Pistons

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This game was a draft nerd’s dream.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re anything like me and have been geeking out behind the scenes over the fact that the San Antonio Spurs still have all six of their first round draft picks from the last five years (not to mention a couple of second round picks) and have been developing them all into solid NBA players at a bare minimum, then you, me and draft nerds alike couldn’t help but smile when the Spurs announced their starting lineup against the Detroit Pistons.

With DeMar DeRozan still out and Trey Lyles totaling one point in his previous two starts, Gregg Popovich moved Lonnie Walker back to the starting lineup in his place, which meant he and three 29th overall picks in Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson all started together, alongside Jakob Poeltl. Not having Luka Samanic or Devin Vassell out there prevented the draft circle from being complete, but neither are centers, and you have to have at least one starting caliber big out there, so that’s understandable.

While a four-guard lineup won’t work in every match-up from a size standpoint (Johnson is the tallest of that group at just 6-5), it did against a woeful Pistons team that, as Jesus mentioned, maybe has two players who could crack the Spurs’ deep rotation. Even though the Spurs did their usual first quarter things and were initially uninspiring, they still managed to tie everything back up heading into the second, which is something for this team.

Overall the four draftees combined for 48 points on 22-43 shooting on the night, which is not world-beating but overall pretty good if you ignore the 3-10 shooting from three and eight combined turnovers. (In fairness, Poeltl and Drew Eubanks contributed 10 of the team’s 21 TOs on the night, so an average of two a piece for the four guards kinda pales in comparison.)

Predictably, this group was swarming on defense after the first quarter, and even though they didn’t generate many turnovers on the other end, the Pistons struggled to get good looks the rest of the night (or at least before garbage time). Again, this is not a lineup that will work all the time, and someone (likely Walker) will move back to the bench when DeRozan returns, but it was still fun for those who appreciate the process of drafting and developing players to see a tiny dream come true, even if it’s just for one game.

Of course, not be outdone, the Spurs most recent first round draft pick and first lottery pick since Tim Duncan had himself a night. Vassell continues to give the Spurs whatever they need, be it swarming defense, timely threes, or running the floor in transition. He’s calm, cool, and collected and extremely mature for a rookie. And this is all despite no summer league, almost no training camp, and very little practice time.

At this point, there is zero reason to believe he will ever end up in Austin — they’re done with this season, and why would he go next season? — which will allow him to buck a trend and become the first Spurs rookie to not be assigned to the G League by Pop since DeJuan Blair. (Kawhi Leonard was briefly assigned for practice purposes after a knee injury his rookie season.) Even if Vassell’s numbers this season look relatively average on paper, his presence on the court is far from it, and just imagining the step he could take his second year with an expanded role after a possible Summer League appearance (which is expected to return to Vegas in August) and hopefully a complete training camp is enough to make anyone giddy.

The fact that Pop has managed to balance recreating a playoff team while developing a new young core with a solid future is something to be admired. If the Spurs make the playoffs this season, and especially if they’re in the top 6 in the deep, deep West and avoid the play-in tournament despite having no “All-Stars” in the voters’ minds, he should be under consideration for Coach of the Year. He may not get the appreciation he deserves — Steve Nash will probably get some votes for stepping into a winning situation and merely “managing” three egos for the Brooklyn Nets — but this has quietly been one of Pop’s most underrated performances yet, and for that he deserves credit.

Game Notes

  • Of course, credit must also be given to the bench in this one. We’ve already discussed Vassell and his 13-point performance, and Eubanks continued to show he is worthy of the backup center minutes with 8 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists (ignoring the six turnovers because that’s more fluky than anything). Perhaps most importantly, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay bounced back from a combined two-point outing in Philly to show what their play means to the Spurs with a combined 24 points on 6-10 shooting from three. With the Spurs bench being a huge reason for the their success this season, it is vital that at least one of the two vets show up each and every game, and we saw what happens when neither do the night before. It was good to see them both bounce back in Detroit, and more of that will help keep the team fresher as they navigate a treacherous second half schedule.
  • Fun fact: whatever ailed last season’s Spurs, it took them 43 games to reach 20 wins, largely thanks to an unprecedented eight-game losing streak earl in the season that they never fully recovered from. Despite a valiant effort in the Bubble from roughly the same team we’re seeing this season, there weren’t enough games after the season was suspended to fully make up for it. This year’s squad reached its 20th win in 36 games last night, and while still slower than the Spurs of yore, the difference it makes in the standings is obvious. Instead of fighting for their playoff lives, they have a six-game cushion (in the loss column) to make the play-in tournament, and although they have four more games to make-up, they should all be winnable. This schedule will still be tough, and they’ll have to keep winning at a similar, if not greater rate than they are to reach the 6th seed or higher, but they have what it takes, and that’s something that couldn’t be said last year.
  • Last but not least, the one other thing that stood out to me last night was the officiating. I’m not one to complain much unless the refs truly cost the Spurs the game, but the fact that it still stood out amidst a blowout win tells you all you need to know. Despite the Spurs being similarly aggressive driving to the hoop — they had 60 points in the paint to Detroit’s 62 — they still managed just 5 free throws compared to the Pistons’ 25 (which fortunately they missed 11 of) and were called for 14 more fouls, many questionable. Pop appeared more and more exacerbated as the game went on, and he finally used his Coach’s Challenge early in the fourth despite the Spurs being up 21 to help White avoid his 5th foul. The play itself featured Josh Jackson driving into White, who had both arms straight up in the air, was backpedaling, and the initial (and practically only) contact was initiated by Jackson’s leading elbow hitting White’s torso/chin area. It seemed like a good challenge, but after a brief review, the refs let the call stand (meaning they couldn’t find enough evidence to overturn it, different than “confirmed”). My guess is they just didn’t want to be bothered studying the play when it was obvious the Spurs were going to win, but it still felt like the wrong call. It’s just a good thing the Spurs played well enough in other aspects of the game to overcome it, because it’s not often teams win so comfortably when the other team shoots 20 more free throws and commits 13 fewer turnovers.