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Devin Vassell’s rookie season should have Spurs fans excited

Even in a small role and in the strangest of seasons, Vassell showed enough upside to inspire optimism about his future.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike other members of the Spurs’ young core. Devin Vassell joined the team facing significant expectations. As the highest draft selection the franchise made since Tim Duncan and picked ahead of other intriguing players, he had pressure to show right off the bat that he was worthy of the choice.

At the same time, Vassell was a rookie in arguably the strangest NBA season in years. From a compressed schedule due to COVID, to a lack of Summer League and a normal G-League season, there was every obstacle in his path. The fact that the team had few minutes to give him even in ideal circumstances didn’t help, either.

Somehow, despite all those factors, Vassell managed to have enough good moments for the fanbase to remain excited about the future, which is frankly impressive. While not having the flashiest of rookie seasons, Vassell has shown that he belongs.

Vassell’s 3-and-D ability translated to the NBA

Aside from his physical tools, there were two skills that catapulted Vassell to the lottery: three-point shooting and defense. At the college level he was an elite off-ball defender and very good on the ball while also connecting on 42 percent of his 168 total outside attempts at Florida State. There were some concerns about how both skills would translate to the pros, since he has an unorthodox release on his shot and there was a chance he’d struggle defending more athletic players, but in his time on the court, there were enough flashes to assure everyone that he definitely has the tools to be a fantastic 3-and-D wing, despite a lack of flashy defensive metrics and a 34 percent conversion rate from beyond the arc.

As a shooter, Vassell was actually having a great year until the end of March, connecting on a tidy 40 percent of his outside shots. Then he hit the rookie wall hard. Since April until the end of the season, he shot 26 percent on threes. Those last 26 games count just as much as the others, but considering they were played over 47 days, and Vassell had played more games than he did in any season in college by that point, it’s not surprising that he didn’t have his legs under him. As for his form, it didn’t seem to be a problem. Vassell hit 35 percent of his threes with a defender four feet or closer to him, a very solid number. There’s really no reason to believe that with better conditioning and a normal schedule Vassell won’t be an above average outside shooter at the very least.

On defense, Vassell had rookie moments, but he also had eye-popping ones. The bad stretches often came on the ball, where NBA scorers proved to be too crafty for Vassell at times, while the better plays mostly came off the ball, where Vassell showed off the awareness that made him such an intriguing prospect. Opponents shot better than they normally do when he was guarding them, and he really struggled in isolation, according to Synergy Sports, but he also averaged over two stocks (steals + blocks) per 36 minutes despite his steal numbers going down late in the season. More impressive than that, his instincts as a help defender were elite for the most part.

More experience and a little added muscle should help Vassell get better at individual defense, but the flashes of playmaking potential on that end are already tantalizing, especially when imagining lineups that also include the similarly disruptive Dejounte Murray and Derrick White.

The shot creation is not there yet, but there’s still hope

It’s comforting to know that the 3-and-D potential that was so highly touted about Vassell is there, but there was supposed to be more to him than that. In his second season in college, Vassell become more of an off the dribble scorer, and that upside as a secondary weapon made him more desirable. In that area, his rookie season was more of a mixed bag, but there was still enough good moments to be hopeful about his development.

Only 32 percent of Vassell’s buckets were unassisted, and he took only 41 shots at the rim: an insanely low number that would have been even lower if we were to exclude transition buckets. Part of why he struggled to get shots up by himself and get to the rim can be explained away by his role as a floor-spacer and being low in the pecking order. Vassell’s touches per game, average seconds and dribbles per touch, and time of possession were all the lowest of all Spurs perimeter players and in some cases even lower than the bigs. At the same time, it was obvious in the few possessions he did control that he doesn’t have the explosive first step or the crafty ball handling necessary to get to his spots at the moment, despite some good plays in the pick and roll.

The good news is that he’ll have time to develop his handle, starting with a proper summer to prepare and a real training camp to hone in on his weaknesses. Even if it takes him a while to get there, his work on handoffs should allow him to be able to create some shots for himself in the short term. When he gets the ball already on the move, Vassell seems more comfortable and able to create separation.

While he’ll likely never be a bonafide first or even second option, Vassell should be able to play well off others while also creating his own shot occasionally, especially when he can use a screen to get to his spots.

Vassell’s rookie numbers are rather underwhelming, especially for a lottery pick, but considering the circumstances and the role the Spurs asked him to play, they are not unexpected. In order to figure out if he was good or not, there needs to be a more nuanced examination his play, and fortunately the more anyone zooms in, the more obvious the promising aspects of his game become.

One season, even a normal one, is not enough to determine how good a young player will be, but when it comes to Vassell, there’s definitely been enough good to keep fans optimistic about his future.