While the playoffs are still on, most San Antonio Spurs fans are already thinking about the offseason. It’s too early to know who truly will be available and who won’t, but free agency could be hugely important in San Antonio for the first time in years.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like this is the best class, but the lack of elite talent attainable on the market doesn’t mean that the Spurs can’t try to find a future cornerstone. Just like the Knicks did with Julius Randle, signing undervalued players with untapped potential can be a good way to get a core player.
The question is, are there any hidden gems to be unearthed? Not young players who are clearly good, like John Collins or Jarrett Allen, but misfit toys who could suddenly blossom into more? Let’s try to find out.
Lauri Markkanen could turn into Karl-Anthony Towns-lite
The case for Markkanen as an intriguing target for the Spurs rests almost exclusively in the belief that all he needs is a change of scenery. Just like Randle earlier on, Markkanen has had several head coaches in his short career and has been a part of a high profile franchise in a time of disarray. Arguably the biggest criticism about Markkanen is that he doesn’t always play hard or contribute much outside of shooting, but it’s possible that he simply hasn’t learned to play defense and has seen his role change too much to become a more confident scorer.
If Markkanen can in fact thrive on a bigger role, like he seems to believe, he could be a great fit in San Antonio. The Spurs need outside shooting and size, and Markkanen — fresh of a season shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc — brings both. The question is, can he do more? The three main improvements Randle made were three-point shooting, free throw attempts and assists. Markkanen has already seemingly made the leap as a shooter, but could he, with more touches, actually become a more well-rounded offensive threat who can attack the rim consistently instead of floating around the perimeter? It might be possible.
The problem with Markkanen is that there are too many ifs for a player who probably will still command a big salary despite a mediocre season. Paying an underachieving specialist, which is what Markkanen currently is, eight figures a year on a long contract is not smart. Unless the Spurs know more than the public about what went wrong in Chicago and are convinced a change of scenery will transform him, they should probably stay away if the asking price is high. But if he turns out to be cheaper than expected, he could be worth a shot.
Kelly Oubre could turn into Mikal Bridges
Will the Spurs be the fourth team to convince themselves that Oubre can actually be a core player? It feels unlikely, but with a potential need at small forward if DeRozan leaves and if Keldon Johnson remains at the power forward spot, they might buy into the the perpetually disappointing wing’s upside, just like others before them.
To be fair, Oubre does have the tools to be really good. It’s just that he’s never developed the skills to maximize them. His otherworldly athleticism should make him a good scorer, but his handle is too poor to allow him to be a featured option. His shooting mechanics are fluid and likely improvable, but he has not fixed them. Defensively he should be more disruptive, but he hasn’t figured out how to use his length and explosiveness to be a real stopper. To say that he’s failed to put it all together would be an understatement, but then again that’s the appeal of Oubre: what if he eventually does?
The idea of a motivated Oubre tweaking his shot, developing a tighter handle and locking down on defense is tantalizing. There are just not a lot of wings with his athletic tools. It’s all about focus and a better mindset in general with him. He won’t likely be a traditional star even at his best, but he could affect the game in a lot of different ways if he could be more consistent. Since the same could be said of Lonnie Walker IV, going after Oubre might feel unnecessary for the Spurs, unless they don’t mind having two mercurial wings with athleticism and potential.
Jarred Vanderbilt could turn into Draymond Green
We could talk about Lonzo Ball or Talen Horton-Tucker, but that would be boring. Dream with me instead, friends. Imagine a defensive-minded, switchable, athletic 6’9 power forward who moves the ball on next year’s roster. He’s also just 22-years-old and not too expensive on his second contract. That dream could be a reality if the Spurs pry Jarred Vanderbilt away from the Timberwolves.
For those who understandably know little about Vanderbilt, he was once a highly-touted prospect out of Kentucky whose early career got derailed by foot injuries. He barely played in his first two seasons in the league and averaged under 20 minutes a game for the awful Timberwolves last year. But when he was on the floor, he stood out. Vanderbilt can guard both guards and perimeter bigs well, rebounds like a madman and plays with insane energy on every possession. Teammate Karl-Anthony Towns has referred to him as “young Dennis Rodman,” which is obviously an exaggeration but also a good way to easily describe what he brings to the table.
Unfortunately, Vanderbilt also shoots like Rodman. In his entire NBA career he’s taken five three-pointers and made one, and his average at the free throw line is under 60 percent, which indicates he won’t likely develop into a good shooter. The fit with Jakob Poeltl would be terrible in the frontcourt, because neither could step outside and drag an opposing big out of the paint.
But as stated earlier, we are dreaming here. Maybe Chip Engelland performs another miracle and turns Vanderbilt into a decent corner shooter. Maybe Vanderbilt develops a Thad Young-esque knack for scoring inside and moving without the ball. Maybe his passing, which was part of why he was so promising coming out of high school, becomes elite. He’s still so raw that he could be more of a blank canvas than other players entering their fourth season. It’s not likely at all that Vanderbilt turns into Draymond Green-lite, but if there’s even a tiny chance it happens, he could be worth a look.
Outside of the established stars and already productive young players, there are no certainties in free agency. For every success story like Randle and Jerami Grant, there are 10 gambles that don’t pay off. No one should blame San Antonio’s front office for playing it a little safe with their cap space and avoiding these type of players.
If they want to take a wild swing and the big names are off the board, however, it’s good to know that they will have some intriguing options.