It’s hard to find silver linings on massive COVID-related absences, but if there has been one for the Spurs it has been the opportunity to get a better look at rookie Josh Primo. The 12th pick of the 2021 NBA draft had been mostly getting limited minutes until cracking the starting lineup recently, with several players missing time.
The results, as it’s to be expected with the vast majority of 19-year-olds, have been mixed, but Primo has showed flashes of intriguing potential that go a long way towards reducing the concerns about whether he was a reach in the first round.
Primo’s good outside shooting is not surprising, but still impressive. He spent his time in Alabama as an off ball sniper, mostly because that’s simply what the team needed of him, and his time in that role paid off. For the season Primo is shooting 37.8 percent from outside, after connecting on 33 percent of his attempts in the G League. More important than those decent percentages, at least at this point in his career, has been Primo’s willingness to pull the trigger. He averaged over seven attempts per 36 minutes from beyond the arc in Austin and in his time in San Antonio, he’s at almost six attempts per 36. Unlike other guards recently drafted by the Spurs, primo doesn’t need to be convinced to let it fly. He’s more than willing to do that on his own, which is encouraging.
Being comfortable with taking threes right off the bat is more important than it might seem, but a college shooter seeing his skill translate to the pros is not the most exciting thing in the world. Fortunately, the potential to be a knockdown shooter down the line is not the only offensive skill Primo has flashed. His playmaking, while far from elite, has been a nice surprise after he only averaged under one dime per game in college. The reps he’s gotten at point guard in the G League have surely help speed up the process of turning Primo into a distributor, but he does seem to have an innate talent for it that makes him useful as a ball handler even at the NBA level. He’s not an advanced playmaker yet, but he does a good job of getting the defense moving when he’s the initiator on the pick and roll.
Similarly, Primo seems to be an instinctual defender, with a penchant for making plays. He’s averaging 2.5 stocks (steals + blocks) per 36 minutes, in large part because he’s been a fantastic shot blocker. It’s not just a low minutes fluke, either, since he averaged over a block per game in the G League. While so far the majority of Primo’s blocks come on the ball, ideally he’ll use his timing and length to provide weak side shot blocking from the wing spot in the future, which is huge in the modern NBA, since keeping the big man near the rim is sometimes impossible with all the spacing and switching. If Primo can offer some circumstantial rim protection, similarly to how Dwyane Wade did in Miami and Danny Green in San Antonio in the past, it would give the defense some extra bite.
So if Primo has showed the ability to help both on offense and defense, why wasn’t he getting 20 minutes a game when everyone was healthy? The answers is twofold. First, while the flashes are exciting, they are just that: flashes. It’s pretty much impossible to expect consistency from such a young player, so this is not a knock on Primo, but with him sometimes the goods turn to bad. It’s the little things — avoidable turnovers, small lapses on defense, unnecessary fouls, avoiding contact — that have made Pop often go away from young players. Primo sometimes looks like just a rookie who will need time to fully get his bearings, because that what he is.
It wouldn’t be a huge issue to give big minutes to an erratic young player if the Spurs weren’t clearly trying to compete, but they are, for now. That’s the second reason why it might not be Primo’s time yet. Despite essentially going young, San Antonio is not a typical rebuilding team. The three best players on the roster are 25, 26 and 27. They are entering or arguably already in their primes. What complicates things even further is that the West is bad this year. Normally a 15-25 team would be gearing up to focus solely on developing young talent, but the Spurs are currently a game back from last play-in spot and five games back from the eighth seed. With COVID hitting teams hard, it’s anyone’s guess who will be where in the standings a month for now.
If things keep going downhill for the Spurs, the decision to cut the minutes of some veterans to make room for Primo should be an easy one, but right now, making sure that Primo gets the playing time that would actually accelerate his development might not be at the top of San Antonio’s priorities. With the G League already back, the Austin affiliate scheduled to play soon, and the return of the players in the health and safety protocols getting closer by the day, we might be seeing the last of Primo as a key rotation player for a while. The Spurs normally prefer to develop their rookies away from the spotlight anyway, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they take it slow with their lottery pick. The question is, has Primo showed enough to be an exception? Have the good moments convinced Pop to at least let him fight for the ninth rotation spot?
There will be time for such discussions when the circumstances change. For now, enjoying Primo show flashes of some serious potential has been fun enough that even if this is the most we’ll see him play with the big team this year, we should be content. The Spurs took a chance by picking an unheralded player in the lottery last year, and it looks like the gamble will pay off.