Tre Jones has turned heads with his recent performance in Summer League, opening up a debate over whether the Spurs’ 2020 second round pick should be in the rotation this upcoming season. Having a more traditional floor general around for a few minutes with the second unit could make sense.
Of course, so could having a combo guard with range, like Bryn Forbes.
The situation San Antonio’s coaching staff currently faces — whether to choose a scorer or prototypical point guard as the backup — is one fans should be familiar with, as the Spurs have seen it play out several times before, to the point where it’s fair to think it’s not a coincidence that they keep finding themselves here.
We could go as far back as Beno Udrih vs. Jacque Vaughn in this discussion, but it might be better to focus on more recent examples. The first that comes to mind is T.J. Ford vs. Gary Neal. After the departure of George Hill in the Kawhi Leonard trade, the Spurs found themselves with available minutes at the backup point guard slot. They brought in Ford, even though the year before a rookie Neal did enough to justify a rotation slot and seemed like a good fit next to primary playmaker Manu Ginobili in the second unit. Ford won the role and sent Neal to the inactive list, but once he had to retire shortly into the season because of health concerns, Neal took over, with three of the five most used lineups featuring him having no natural lead guard.
After Ford and Neal, Cory Joseph and Patty Mills fought for minutes behind Tony Parker. Joseph had been groomed for the role in Austin for most of the first two years of his career and seemed ready to take over backup duties mostly as a defensive specialist and caretaker after Nando De Colo disappointed. Instead, he ended up losing the spot to Mills, who secured it largely on the back of his shooting ability. Just like Neal before him, Mills mostly contributed in an off-ball role next to Ginobili, who was the actual engine of the second unit’s offense, assisting on 29 percent of the team’s buckets when he was on the court, compared to Mills’ 15.3 percent. In the following years, the trend of Patty being more of a scorer than a playmaker only intensified.
Now that Mills’ tenure is done, Jones vs. Forbes looks like it will be the latest battle between the two archetypes for a role as the Spurs’ second unit point guard. Jones is more similar to Joseph than the more creative Ford, but he’s a lead guard not just because of his size, but also because of his skill set. He can defend other point guards and is at his best with the rock in his hands — not necessarily creating at a high level yet but at least getting the team into its sets and taking care of the ball. Forbes, on the other hand, is a tweener who has off-guard qualities but lacks the length to excel at that position. But next to a bigger guard or a wing that can initiate the offense, his size matters less, his shooting becomes a great weapon, and his ability to play off the ball becomes an asset.
Whether Jones will actually make the choice difficult is unclear. Forbes seems like a better option right now for two main reasons. First, outside shooting — particularly on the move — will be in short supply for the Spurs, and he’s one of the only players who can provide it. Second, just like they did with Parker and Ginobili, San Antonio has two guards in White and Murray who play their best with the ball in their hands. Staggering them and pairing them with an off-ball threat feels like the best way to maximize their strengths. Jones doesn’t offer much as a shooter, so he’ll have to make his case by excelling at shot creation and defense. He’s probably the underdog for now, but we’ve seen dark horses win the race before.
Regardless of who ends up getting the minutes, it’s interesting to note how curious it is that the Spurs keep finding themselves facing the question of point guard vs. combo guard in the second unit, especially in times of uncertainty. The easiest explanation for the recurrence is that they like having options. Different rosters have different needs, and if they don’t know yet what type of player suits their rotation best, it’s wise to cover their bases. They really have no preferences, so whoever wins out, wins out.
Yet there’s something all these situations have in common: one of the players often becomes a real option mostly out of the blue. The undrafted Neal came out of nowhere and became a backup point guard by necessity when Ford retired. Mills got in better shape and turned his career around, having a terrific run in San Antonio after being a fringe NBA player. Now, Jones has emerged as a potential rotation player only thanks to a good G-League bubble and a couple of impressive Summer League showings. Normally it seems the Spurs have a plan in place and are simply open to adjusting it. Maybe instead of praising their preparation, we should commend their flexibility.
Jones and Forbes are just the latest in a long line of battles between style for backup point guard. It will be interesting to see who prevails, not only as a fun subplot, but potentially as a clue to how the Spurs will be looking to build their next winner.