Derrick White is not expected back this season, which is not a surprise to anyone who witnessed his ankle injury against the Wizards. As soon as he was helped off the floor, it was clear that he was going to miss considerable time.
The timing of the injury couldn’t have been worst, as White was playing better than ever and the Spurs were surging just in time to face a grueling schedule to close out the regular season. The Silver and Black’s ceiling will be significantly lower without him.
Alas, that’s just how things stand. The Spurs will have to find a way to replace White. It’s a tall task, but it seems like they have selected the best option available to them. Devin Vassell started against the Heat and hopefully will remain in that role going forward.
It’s important to note that the Spurs had and continue to have other alternatives. The safer one would be Lonnie Walker IV, who actually filled in for White when he missed time early in the season. The starters struggled mightily back then, to the tune of getting outscored by a whopping 12 points per 100 possessions, but the group included the now retired LaMarcus Aldridge. Defensively the downgrade would have been huge, as Lonnie logs a surprisingly low amount of steals, blocks and charges drawn and has been absolutely roasted in isolation situations, according to Synergy Sports, but with the need for volume shooting, it could have made sense to go with a guy that as a starter has attempted over over six three-pointers per 36 minutes this season while making 38 percent of them.
Then there‘s the more risky option of simply including Luka Samanic as the fifth starter. It might sound impractical at first, but DeMar DeRozan played shooting guard for most of his career, and Keldon Johnson’s natural position is small forward. So why not embrace size by starting Samanic and moving the other two down a spot? In theory, Samanic is a capable shooter who can defend in space, so he could stretch the floor on one end while providing switching ability on the other. The problem is that in reality, Samanic is shooting 24 percent from beyond the arc, and while he had a stretch of fantastic defensive play when he got meaningful minutes earlier in the season, his motor runs hot and cold. He could be a great option or a complete disaster.
Vassell represents a balance between the boom-or-bust potential of a Samanic promotion and the familiar but clearly flawed option of starting Walker. For one thing, moving him to the starting spot will allow Gregg Popovich to not only preserve the team’s current small ball identity and pecking order but also keep his second unit intact, something he’s valued in the past. There’s even precedent of him using a rookie to do so when Kyle Anderson got starts over Manu Ginobili in Kawhi Leonard’s absence back in 2014/15. Those reasons alone made Vassell a good candidate almost by default, but there’s more to like about the decision.
Vassell has the potential to fill White’s role as a floor spacer just as well as Walker. He’s taking just five three-pointers per 36 minutes for the season, but he’s shooting 39 percent on them. Even if his efficiency takes a small hit as he let’s more outside shots fly, the Spurs could live with it, as long as he represents a big enough threat that opponent defenses always have to account for. After all, White was only averaging 38 percent from beyond the arc. Against the Heat, Vassell looked the part, pulling the trigger from outside six times in just 25 minutes of action. While only two of those attempts went in, volume seems to be more important for spacing than percentage, so as long as Vassell’s shooting prowess proves to have some level of scalability, he’ll fit on a starting unit that has ball handlers but desperately needs floor spacers.
As mentioned, Walker could also fit on offense in that role, but on the other end is where Vassell can have a bigger impact than any other option, White was not only the Spurs’ best wing defender, but also one of their most disruptive. While Vassell’s ability as an individual stopper is still in question, he’s already a a terror when it comes to getting steals and deflections, barely lagging behind team leader Dejounte Murray in both categories per minute. No one on the roster can match White’s elite ability as a shot blocker or offensive foul magnet, but Vassell’s advanced for his age acumen as a team defender, his ability to disrupt plays off the ball and on and, potentially, his individual defense on small forwards, could combine to allow him to approximate the impact White had on the defensive end for the Spurs.
There are some concerns, of course. It’s possible Vassell is simply not ready for a big role. Despite showing some flashes of off the dribble scoring potential, at this point he’s almost exclusively an outside and transition threat, which means that if he has a shooting slump and the team runs less — something that has been happening for a while, by the way — Vassell won’t offer much on offense. Defensively, he might have great instincts but is also really inexperienced, and asking him to take on elite wing scorers could be setting him up for disappointment. Additionally, the Spurs will face an insanely tough schedule, and every win will count towards making the play-in and securing seeding, and the rookie might not deal well with that pressure.
Overall, however, the decision to have Vassell replace White as a starter seems sound. While there might be some risk involve, there was no perfect solution, and this option at least offers some serious upside while not demanding huge changes. In hindsight, it might have been something the Spurs should have tried earlier.
Beyond pure basketball reasons, the move also makes sense in terms of giving the fans something to ease the pain of losing White just as he was rounding into his borderline All-Star form. At least for a few games, Spurs Nation will get what it’s wanted for a while: to see what the highest draft pick since Tim Duncan can do in a rotation role as a rookie.
If nothing else, it should be fun, and after the grim news about White and with a scary schedule ahead, fun is definitely welcomed.