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Determining how good the Spurs’ young core could be

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They’re already proving to be better than many think.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs fans are understandably excited about the team’s young core of talent. Starting with their play in the Bubble in Orlando, the young Spurs have made the best of the extended minutes doled out to them by the coaching staff. Even though the Spurs had been drafting outside the lottery for years — actually decades — until the last draft, virtually all of the recent late first round picks have been “hits”, not “misses”.

As a result, I was very interested to see how Sam Vecenie of The Athletic would rank the Spurs in his annual ranking of teams’ prospect cores that came out recently. I was disappointed to see that he ranked the Spurs 17th out of the NBA’s 30 teams. However, a deeper dive into his methodology explains why his rankings don’t fit with what Spurs fans see on the court, and in their hearts.

The first clue comes from the players the article defines as being in the Spurs’ young core, with the players listed in the order their individual rankings (Position/Age/Contract):

1. Keldon Johnson (Wing / 21 / Three years, $8.1M, last year team option)

2. Derrick White (Guard / 26 / One year, $3.5M, then four-year, $70M extension)

3. Devin Vassell (Wing / 20 / Four years, $18.6M, last two years team options)

4. Lonnie Walker (Swingman / 22 / Two years, $7.3M, then RFA

5. Tre Jones (Guard / 21 / Three years, $4.2M, last year non-guaranteed)

6. Drew Eubanks (Center / 23 / Three years, $5.3M, last two years non-guaranteed)

7. Luka Samanic (Forward / 21 / Three years, $10.3M, last year team option)

8. Quinndary Weatherspoon (Guard / 24 / Two-way contract)

Notice who is missing from the list? Dejounte Murray, probably the best of the players most fans would consider to be part of the Spurs’ young core. Murray is 24 years old, and therefore fits within the listed players age-wise. Also missing from the list is Jakob Poeltl, who is only 25. One could also include Trey Lyles, also 25. All three of these players started in the last few games before the All-Star Game break.

Those three players are not included in the rankings because none are still on their rookie contract, which is how the article defines a “prospect”. If you are wondering, Derrick White (at 27 years old) is still on his rookie contract (and thus eligible to be on the list) because his extension kicks in next year. These are the specifics of the criterion used:

“As usual with these rankings, we’re not ranking where each player is right now, but rather the value he has to the organization both short and long term. Players who have established themselves already certainly get extra credit for being playable in the NBA (or in some cases, being stars in the NBA). But just because a player hasn’t established himself yet doesn’t mean he won’t in the future. Particularly, these rankings account for potential long-term upside based on my scouting insights.

Who is eligible? Any player on a first-round rookie-scale deal, and any player on his first contract after being selected in the second round. Draft-and-stash players who are still prospects also are listed. The rules are fuzzier when it comes to undrafted players. Basically, anyone who is within his first couple of years after draft eligibility but has yet to establish himself in the league is included. To me, this seems to be the best way to account for all of the various stages of prospects across the NBA, from one-and-dones who realize their potential at the end of rookie deals to older players who reach the NBA after traveling overseas.”

While I understand that any ranking must choose a method to define who qualifies as a “prospect”, it seems that a better definition would be based on a player’s age. For the Spurs, using 25 years old as the cut-off would have the effect of adding Murray, Poeltl and Lyles, while losing White. Making that change would surely significantly raise the Spurs’ ranking, which would be especially impressive because the majority of the Spurs’ young talent was drafted very late in the first round. Only Lyles was a top ten pick.

One more though: I don’t want to make too much of just a few games, but Luka Samanic’s recent performances give me much more hope for his future than I had before his recent time in the G League. In particular, his ability to move his feet on defense in order to stay in front of people was quite impressive. Remember Luka is only 21 years old, so he has four more years as a “prospect” when using the Dresie scale instead of the the one used by our friends at The Athletic.

This is the article’s summary of the Spurs, which does not include the “ineligible” Murray, Poeltl and Lyles, and includes a possible overly critical assessment of young Samanic:

“The Spurs continue to accumulate a ton of great complementary pieces. Johnson, White and Vassell will feature in the top 50. White just signed a four-year extension, and his two-way prowess makes him a strong backcourt partner for just about any type of player. He’s the kind of guy who helps you win a lot of games because he can shoot, defend and play unselfishly as a passer. He already has one terrific playoff run under his belt in 2019. Johnson, though, has been one of the breakout performers of the 2020-21 season. He’s consistently attack-oriented and really finishes well around the basket (including some monster above-the-rim dunks). He plays a fearless brand of basketball and fights defensively. Vassell is a prototypical 3-and-D prospect who has already entered the Spurs rotation as a rookie and played a part in bringing their defense back to top-10 levels. He’s a really smart rotationally and has embraced his role off the bench to wreak havoc and make shots.

Walker has entered the starting lineup and become a strong secondary scorer due to his shooting ability and talent for attacking closeouts. I’d like to see him add a bit more as a passer and defender, but he’s already passable on the other end. It wouldn’t stun me to see him put him a few 18-point-per-game seasons. My bet is he’ll be a top-50 guy next year but just fell short this time. I have Jones next, as I had a first-round grade on him. He was the ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year last year. With the Spurs’ loaded youth in the backcourt and Patty Mills’ strong start, he hasn’t been able to enter the rotation yet. But I’m a fan because of his attention to detail as a passer and playmaker, and his ability at the point of attack on defense. At the very least he’ll be a high-level backup, but I think he has a real chance to be a lower-end starter. Eubanks has a chance to be a backup center at some point due to his athleticism and defensive ability. I thought the Spurs took Samanic about 10 spots too high last year, and he was not particularly good in the G League. He needs to bulk up and keep improving as a shooter. Weatherspoon is a scoring guard who needs to keep improving as a shooter to have a chance to stick.”

If you are curious, the article rates the Dallas Mavericks as the top ranked “young core”, largely driven by one player, also named Luka. Not surprisingly, teams at the bottom of the rankings are teams built to “win now”. 30th and last is the Brooklyn Nets, with the Clippers, Bucks and Lakers at 27, 26 and 25.