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Spurs mid-season awards: Part I

A look at which Spur has improved the most, and who still has the most to prove.

San Antonio Spurs v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

At the halfway mark of the 2021-22 season, the San Antonio Spurs currently sit at 16-28, good enough for only 12th in the Western Conference. With under 41 games left, anything can still happen, with the Spurs 2.5 games out of the final play-in place but also just 3.5 games in front of the last place Houston Rockets.

However, for this piece some writers here Pounding the Rock will be looking at the first 41 games of the season and giving out awards in a number of different categories. This is Part I of a three part mini-series. So let’s get started!


Most Improved

Zachary Colwell: As good as he was last season, and as much as we all expected a jump, the leap Dejounte Murray has taken is absurd. It isn’t just two or three skills that he has gotten better at, he has legitimately improved his all-round game. Coming out of the NBA bubble two seasons ago, most people around the organisation believed Derrick White was the best of the two guards, while also having more two-way potential. Even coming into this year, without DeMar, people believed it would be White who would take the mantle as the Spurs #1 guy. And as much as the Colorado Native has improved throughout the season, there is simply no comparison to the leap DJ has taken. Statistically he is up 2.7 points per game, 1.1 rebounds, and the most impressive of all, up 3.5 assists with only a 0.8 turnover increase. Lastly, after the previous three seasons where he has sat between a score of a 15 and 16 in Player Efficiency Rating, Dejounte, has improved up to a score of 20.3, good enough for 17th in the league. Ahead of Chris Paul, LaMelo Ball, Fred VanVleet, Jayson Tatum, Damian Lillard and a whole lot more.

Noah Magaro-George: Most of my fellow Pounders have said Dejounte Murray is without a doubt the most improved player on the roster, and the 25-year-old floor general has made unmistakable strides as the de facto go-to option for the Silver & Black. With that said, Murray has been the biggest beneficiary of all the opportunities left in the wake of DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and Patty Mills. Dejounte deserves credit for making the most of his newfound ball-handling responsibilities. But the per-game numbers were always going to rise when you touch the rock more than anyone not named Luka Doncic, LeBron James, James Harden, or Nikola Jokic. Again, there is a more than justifiable argument for Murray, but Devin Vassell has been the Spur who has taken the most noticeable developmental leap. Not only has Vassell seen an increased volume of midrange jumpers, shots off the dribble, and three-point attempts, but he has improved his efficiency in each category. And while Devin was already one of the best team defenders in the NBA from the moment he stepped into the professional spotlight, Vassell has become a dependable on-ball stopper. Believe it or not, the Florida State product has held Luka Doncic, Anthony Davis, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jayson Tatum, and Fred VanVleet to a combined 14 points on 6-of-24 shooting across the 78 possession he spent guarding them man-to-man this season.

Devon Birdsong: There’s no question that it’s Dejounte Murray. He has improved all across the board in almost every category while handling an increase in usage and serving as the team leader and number-one option...I think that’s more than anyone could honestly claim to have anticipated. However, I’d be willing to place Devin Vassell in the conversation since he’s almost doubled his offensive output as a critical part of the Lonnie/Vassell bench duo while continuing to shine defensively. (His per-36 numbers are particularly interesting)

August Bembel: Dejounte would be the obvious answer. But which skill of an individual player has improved more than any other’s since last season? I would say it’s Keldon Johnson’s three-point shooting. As I write this, I’m listening to the Alamo City Limits podcast, where Noah mentioned that he doesn’t think that Keldon’s three-point shooting is going to hold up. Fair enough. But Keldon’s shot mechanics look improved, and that high arch is gone. And 45% from 3.7 attempts per game is just so much better than the 33% from 2.6 APG that the third year wing averaged last season.

Casey Coggins: This is honestly tricky, because Dejounte is the easy answer, but he’s doing what I thought he could do once given the keys to the car. He could easily sweep these Spurs awards because of how great he has been for the team. But when it comes to who has shown the most improvement, I feel like Jakob Poeltl holds that title. He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists, and while his blocks per game has decreased from last year, he’s still anchoring the defense in the paint. It’s evident how pivotal a piece he has become to this Spurs team — to the point that his name has popped up in trade rumors. The Spurs have an offensive rating of 117 (8 points better than Dejounte’s) and defensive rating of 108 with him on the court. He’s 2nd in the league in screen assists per game and leads the league in contested shots. He may not be somebody you look at the stats and say, “Wow! He’s really improved,” but he has, and the Spurs are all the better because of it.

Jeje Gomez: The right answer is probably Dejounte Murray, who has basically improved across the board, but it’s also probably the most boring answer (sorry, Devon!). So I’ll go with someone who has improved in one specific area, and no, it’s not Keldon Johnson. Lonnie Walker IV can pass now! Walker has seen his assist percentage jump from single to double digits while his turnover percentage has declined. He’s becoming more of a combo guard instead of just a scorer, which is what he needed to do to up his value. Now if his outside shot could return to normal, he’d be exactly the type of sixth man that the Spurs could use going forward.

Tally:

Dejounte Murray - II

Devin Vassell - I

Keldon Johnson - I

Jakob Poeltl - I

Lonnie Walker IV - I

Winner: Dejounte Murray


Most to Prove

Zach: The obvious answer is Lonnie Walker IV, considering he is in a contract year and is going to want to be well compensated in the summer, but I’m going outside of the box and picking Zach Collins. In the summer the Spurs gave Collins a 3/yr 22 million dollar deal. The first year was fully guaranteed, the second 50% guaranteed and the last year 0%. The 6’11 Center has yet to play this season as he recovers from ankle surgery. This means that once he comes back he will have less than 41 games to prove to PATFO that he has a future in this franchise and that he could be a possible cornerstone, with him still being just 24 years old.

Noah: Lonnie Walker IV is the clear choice for this midseason award because he is easily the player with the most to prove on this roster. The 23-year-old swingman is in the middle of a contract year after San Antonio didn’t hand him an extension this summer, and he likely hasn’t done much to convince PATFO he deserves a payday next offseason. Lonnie owns the fifth-worst three-point percentage out of the 99 players who shoot at least five long-range attempts per game. He also ranks in the bottom 30th percentile in rim-finishers in the NBA through the first half of the season. His efficiency has plummeted across the board, but there is still plenty of time for the promising two-guard to turn things around. Consistency is the key for Walker, and head coach Gregg Popovich looks willing to give him a longer leash as the Spurs navigate the first year of a rebuild.

Devon: Lonnie Walker should definitely be the popular choice here, as he’s still having trouble stringing quality performances together. But Lonnie’s actually been great on the defensive end and that other shoe might still drop in a good way. Worst case scenario, San Antonio lets him go, or resigns him on the cheap. Instead, I think I have to pick on Derrick White a little, who’s really been scuffling offensively for the last year-and-a-half, and seems to get dinged up any time he finally get into a rhythm. I love White as a player but with Dejounte making a major leap he’ll need to showcase his value or risk potentially ending up as part of a trade equation later on down the line.

August: I refuse to be disappointed in any of the guys currently on the roster. Considering where they were picked (if at all), there’s flat-out no one to be disappointed in. So I’m turning this question around. Who’s got the widest margin of development? I have high expectations on Devin Vassell, but I want to believe that Josh Primo can be anything he wants to be. As Jesus pointed out, the kid is showing serious flashes of two-way potential. He’s got length already, and he’s likely to grow even longer. Most of all, he strikes me as the kind of guy who has the right mindset and the talent to be great.

Casey: It has to be Lonnie Walker, even though he’s been my ride-or-die Spur for a while, as I feel like he’s the Spur most likely to have a 40-plus point game. He has the handle, the athleticism, and shooting form that would lead you to believe he’s the best scorer on the team. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case, as he’s only shooting 30% on 5.1 threes per game. Out of all the main rotation players, Lonnie holds the worst offensive rating and is only beat out by Bryn Forbes for worst defensive rating on the team. It has looked like he’s figured some things out over the past couple of weeks, but he’s going to need a strong second half of the season to wind up with the kind of quality contract he is most likely after from the Spurs, or any team other team wanting to acquire him this summer.

Jeje: I think international players who make the leap always have to prove they belong, so I’m going with Jock Landale. The Aussie center is an international veteran, but the NBA is new to him and there are moments, especially on defense, when he looks a little lost. So far he’s still the best option at backup center, but with Zach Collins’ return looming, Jock will need to show that his energy on the boards and his outside shot are valuable enough for him to hold on to his rotation spot.

Tally:

Zach Collins - I

Lonnie Walker IV: II

Derrick White - I

Josh Primo - I

Jock Landale - I

Winner: Lonnie Walker IV


Thank you all for reading Part I of our mid-season awards, the second part will be out soon. In the mean time, let us know below who you would have given the two aforementioned awards too!