We’re back with the “State of the Spurs’ Draft Picks” series, where with the Spurs now taking a full plunge into rebuilding mode, we are taking a look at the state of each of the Spurs former draft picks that are still on the roster and where they stand with the team (excluding rookies Josh Primo and Joe Wieskamp). We’ve already done Tre Jones (if you missed it be sure to go check it out), and next up is his 2020 draftmate:
Devin Vassell (2020, 11th overall)
2020-21 stats: 5.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.7 steals, 40.6% shooting (34.7% from three)
As the Spurs’ first lottery pick since Tim Duncan in 1997, Vassell entered his rookie season with the Spurs under unusual circumstances — and not just due to the delayed draft, no Summer League, and COVID-condensed training camp and preseason. While lottery picks often face pressure to perform right away, he had certain amount of freedom most don’t usually see thanks to the team that drafted him.
Not only is Gregg Popovich notorious for being extremely conservative with playing rookies, but initially there was not a clear rotation spot for Vassell. With the Spurs still trying to juggle wining behind a group of aging vets while also seeking out minutes for other young players who had already bided their time (specifically, Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson), not much was expected of Vassell, at least early on.
However, that changed when the Spurs opened the preseason without Johnson and Derrick White. While they weren’t going to overplay their veterans in the preseason anyway, the combination of White’s extended absence and Vassell showing enough promise and looking NBA-ready helped him earn a rotation spot for the rest of the season. While his playing time fluctuated as he went through rookie growing pains (and as White’s health went up and down), he still appeared in 62 of the 66 games he was available while averaging 17 minutes per game. That’s the most minutes any Spurs rookie has averaged since Kawhi Leonard played 24 mpg in the 2011-12 season.
While Vassell’s rookie numbers don’t stand out, he showed potential to be more than just a glorified 3-and-D player. While there’s plenty of room for improvement, he showed he can score from all levels of the floor and some ability to create for himself. Also, despite some rookie moments, the defensive prowess that made him so attractive to the Spurs was on full display, especially off the ball. While his 0.7 steals per game don’t jump off the page, it’s still good for 1.5 steals per 36 minutes, and his 6’10” wingspan helped him be a disrupter and nuisance for anyone he was guarding: something that stats don’t always show.
Finally, in 2021 Summer League, he was given the reigns to be the focal point of the offense, and he showed potential in two Salt Lake City games, where he averaged 20.5 points in 27 minutes before missing Las Vegas with a sore hamstring. Two games is a tiny sample size, and his stats outside of point total were far from glamourous — he shot just 36.2% from the field and a horrific 7.1% from three to get to those 20 ppg — but his 23.5 FG attempts per game (7 per game from three) showed he wasn’t afraid of the moment and didn’t back down when ask to take over despite struggling to hit shots. Not to mention, he stayed with the team in Vegas and took on a “player-coach” role from the bench once he was out, showing off his maturity level.
Vassell’s rookie stats were underwhelming, but he played a bigger role than expected and held his own under unusual circumstances. When he was first drafted, he was seen as player with a floor of Danny Green and ceiling of Kawhi Leonard, and that hasn’t changed. While no one should reasonably expect him become an eventual top 10 player, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism about his future with the Spurs. In fact, even when just holding him to 3-and-D player standards, he was shooting close 40% from three before hitting the rookie wall around March, so it’s not hard to assume he will become a permanently above-average outside shooter with time and practice to pair with his All-NBA defensive abilities.
Even so, despite all the potential, it’s hard to pin down an exact role for him going into the 2021-22 season. While Vassell can play positions ranging from shooting guard to a small ball power forward (theoretically, at least), what unit he plays with may largely come down what style the Spurs to choose to play. It’s safe to assume Walker remains ahead of him in the pecking order, so Vassell coming off the bench is the likeliest scenario to start the season, but that could change.
If Walker continues to struggle to find a level of consistency or finds his niche as the Spurs’ 6th man, maybe Vassell would have a chance to grab the starting small forward spot. (This would also be assuming Johnson is starting PF since the Spurs are reportedly shopping Thaddeus Young.) Or the could Spurs go for a bigger outside shooting threat that defenses would have to stay home on in Doug McDermott should that position be open, keeping Vassell with the second unit. Still, the fact that he could be so easily floated around and would theoretically fit well with any unit and combination of players is a testament to his versatility.
Reasonable expectations for him next season would be in a bench role while playing somewhere between 20-25 minutes, boosting his shooting numbers to closer to 50% from inside the arc and 37-40% from three, while averaging close to 10 points per game. He could eventually break into the starting line-up, but no matter what unit he plays in, he has a chance to cement himself as a Spur for the foreseeable future. Not many Spurs rookies have gotten the same chance he did in his first year under Pop, so hopefully he can take advantage of the head start he was given and take the next step in his second season.