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Devin Vassell on hitting his stride and breaking the mold

An exclusive interview with San Antonio’s second-year swingman, whose growing two-way game is tailor-made for the Spurs’ new direction.

Devin Vassell snaps his fingers as he thinks back on his rookie season, one that began with his selection by San Antonio at 11th in mid-November and dropped him into NBA competition just weeks later — no Summer League, or summer for that matter, no cup of coffee in the G League before adjusting to the pace of the league and an accelerated pandemic schedule.

“It was honestly crazy,” Vassell said in a sitdown before the team’s Friday night win over the Bulls. “You’re drafted; a week later, you’re in San Antonio; a week later, you’re in practice. It was a quick turnaround trying to learn plays, trying to learn the system, trying to learn my teammates, coaches — you’re two weeks in and you’re already playing your first game against LeBron and some of the people that you looked up to. So, of course it was an adjustment but I think that we handled it well... there was almost no time to think that this was too fast, because this is what you signed up for, and it was time to get to it.”

San Antonio Spurs v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Life off the court was its own transition after a quick move to South Texas:

“I don’t think I really settled in until after the season,” he says. “I didn’t know too many areas of San Antonio because it’s either a game, or we’re traveling, or I’m just tired. I didn’t know any places to eat. I didn’t know any places in San Antonio until after the season and I sat and asked some of my teammates and coaches, ‘Can I get some directions to somewhere? Can I figure out what San Antonio is about?’ It literally took me the whole season.”

Somewhere in between, Vassell showed why he was deserving of a lottery pick, holding his own on both ends of the floor as the rare Spurs rookie to have a first-year rotation spot. The stats don’t jump off the screen — 5.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 34.7% from three in 17 minutes a night — but they mostly reflect San Antonio’s depth on the perimeter and Vassell’s simplified offensive role, which translated to roughly one touch a minute and a usage rate of 13.8%.

It’s noteworthy for rookies to produce at all in San Antonio: the list of players in the Popovich Era to eclipse 1,000 minutes in their first season ran 8 deep going into 2020 and included 4 future Hall of Famers, 2 guys who already had professional experience overseas and, to round it out, George Hill and Dejuan Blair. Vassell became the 9th.

Playing high-level defense is one way to immediately get minutes, and Vassell’s length and savvy off-ball activity immediately translated to the next level. His awareness and timing make him one of the more entertaining defenders to watch on the weakside, a strength he credits to instincts, studying the game, and his time playing under Leonard Hamilton at Florida State.

“I watch players like Jrue Holiday, a lot of great defenders, Tony Allen — people like that who are very disruptive and cause havoc. I got another player on the team who’s really good at getting steals in Dejounte. But I mean it’s also instinct. Playing at Florida State, it’s a big program when it comes to defense and having your brother’s back and having your teammate’s back. And that’s kind of the biggest thing I focus on is, if I’m at help side, then I gotta make sure I have his back, and if I have his back then I know somebody else will have my back.”

Vassell says those two years in Tallahassee helped sharpen his focus on that side of the ball:

“When I got to Florida State, I realized I had to play defense because playing for Coach Hamilton you’re not gonna play if you don’t play defense. Once I really bought in on that on the defensive end, that’s kind of what stuck with me. He told me you can’t control makes and misses, but you can control what you do on the defensive end.”

The toughest guy for him to guard, when pressed for an answer: “It’s the NBA; there’s a lot of tough opponents. If I could just name one, Paul George. It’s a tough, tough matchup for sure. He just plays at his own pace, he’s strong, he’s a 3-level scorer. He’s pretty much seen every defense so he knows how to score the ball, and that’s tough. When you can shoot the three, get to the basket, get to the midrange, and you’re playing at your own pace. That’s tough.”

Just as life slowed down for Vassell once his rookie year was over, so too did the NBA game, thanks in part to getting his first proper offseason under his belt.

“[Last Summer] I was able to have an offseason, a training camp, a summer league. I was able to play five on five with some of the guys, get some good work in,” he says. “Really focusing on some of the stuff I know I needed to work on this offseason, whether it was getting stronger, being consistent with my shooting, ball-handling or whatever it was — I just made sure I really honed in on it. With my coaches and teammates that I have they put a lot of confidence in me as well, and they told me to just go out there and be aggressive and that’s what I tried to do.”

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Summer League in 2021 allowed Vassell to assume a featured role, getting all the touches he could handle and being asked to make quick decisions on ball, which has served as a springboard for a larger role in year 2. Vassell’s touches per minute are up, his scoring has more than doubled (11.4 points per game in over 25 minutes), and his usage rate has jumped to 19%; all welcome on a Spurs team lacking in offensive punch.

“I got the ball in my hands the majority of the time [in Summer League], whether it was coming off a ball screen and into a pull up or going off a ball screen and seeing all my options or just playing off of Tre. Me and Tre being able to make reads and stuff, like I think it really helped me this year, whether it’s getting to the basket, spotting an open man in the corner, seeing Jak on a roll. This year, I feel like it’s slowed down a little bit, just kind of making the right plays, the right reads... I know I can get to my spots here, I know I can see this pass here.”

Those reps have helped round out a diverse skillset and made Vassell especially well-suited to the identity of a young Spurs team still taking shape. He blends into the fabric of their attack by being able to do a bit of everything on the ball and off, and his active, switchable defense helps elevate a defense that’s moved towards being more active and switchable.

“I think what we’re doing now is a lot of what we were doing at Florida State. We switched a lot and got out in transition a lot. Being able to switch 1 through 4, that’s all stuff we were doing at Florida State.”

When asked about his player’s improvement from year 1 to year 2, Gregg Popovich responded: “I would say his shooting has really improved, his confidence in shooting, looking for the three-point shot. His defense is getting better month by month. Just understanding how to play in general, understanding the league and what it takes. His IQ has risen consistently.”

Draft discourse is rife with player comparisons and archetypes, a sort of shorthand that fans and teams alike seem to lean on to bridge the imagination gap. For those of us who weren’t cramming an FSU-Clemson game in the hour before the Spurs tip off, when a prospect is called a 3 and D player, it’s at least a reference point we didn’t have before, even if it does speak in some certain terms to floors, ceilings, and limitations. So it wasn’t surprising that Vassell, whose college profile touted defensive chops and off-ball scoring and whose physical profile skews long and lean, fell into that paradigm.

Those comps can help speak to a few of the prospect’s selling points but, as Vassell notes, they can also be unwelcome, if ultimately shortsighted:

“I think when I first got drafted, [3 and D] was a big label around me. I think that’s not really my label. I think that I’m more than just a 3 and D player. But people throw labels around, and it’s fine with me. At the end of the day, I just try and hoop and prove people wrong.”

The Spurs, for what it’s worth, also saw more in Vassell when selecting him. Here’s what GM Brian Wright said on draft night:

“He’s someone that we’ve been evaluating a long time, a couple of years at Florida State... [He] impacts the game in so many different ways. [He has the] ability to create, make plays, score at all 3 levels, and obviously shoot the ball, as well.”

As Wright and Co. would’ve attested, Vassell’s college tape already teased a broader offensive skillset than what fits the 3 and D profile, showing aggressiveness off the dribble and an ability to pull up from various spots on the floor. That alone speaks to more offensive utility than, say, someone who’s best parked in the corner. So, too, does the fact that his efficiency has gone up with more touches and shot attempts this season. Vassell’s three-point shooting has cooled off in the last few weeks but hovers above league average, while he’s improved upon his percentages inside the arc, including the maligned midrange.

The latter has been part of Vassell’s game for a while. This season he’s shown he can get to his spots through an array of pump fakes and spin moves, using his length, footwork, and touch to finish over defenders, currently shooting over 48% on non-paint twos on just under 2 attempts per game. And yes, he’s heard all about why he shouldn’t take them:

“At Florida State, they didn’t say too much but as I was coming into the draft, they said it’s either shoot a 3 or get to the basket, shoot a 3 or get to the basket, but my game is at all 3 levels — I excel at all 3. My bread and butter is getting to the midrange. It’s not much I think coaches or people can say when I knock it down consistently. They can’t say you can’t shoot that shot. And I pride myself on it so I work on it all the time.”

Vassell’s esteem for the in-between game isn’t dissimilar to that of a former teammate, now in Chicago and set to start in this year’s All-Star Game.

“I’m watching somebody go out and score almost 25 a game; he’s shooting nothing but midrangers, and you can’t tell me it doesn’t work,” Vassell says of DeMar DeRozan. “You might look at Steph and maybe they don’t shoot that many midrangers, but when you get down to crunch time you see that midrange is very much alive. You look at Chris Paul, Devin Booker — there’s a lot of people still shooting that shot.”

San Antonio Spurs v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

The DeRozan similarities don’t go far, of course, with nearly half of Vassell’s attempts still coming from beyond the arc. And for the restive mind still looking for reference points and parallels to other players to project where he goes from here, it’s hard to find any single analogue. His length and defense courted plenty of comparisons to the Suns’ Mikal Bridges; when defenders overplay his drive he can spin into a stepback that has shades of Penny Hardaway. He has a growing bag of tricks to finish around the basket. The star he name-dropped as one of the toughest guards in the league? You can see some of him in there, too, if you want.

“I’m just trying to be the best player that I can be,” Vassell says. “I watch basketball, so I watch a whole bunch of people and put a bit of everything in my game.”

He adds, when asked about his immediate goals as a Spur:

“I want to excel at the defensive end, in particular. Get more steals, be more disruptive, I think I’ve been doing an OK job of that but I can do even better. Offensively, I just want to keep showing that, if there is still that 3 and D label around, it’s more than just a 3 and D ... I can keep showing that I’m an efficient scorer and a willing passer.”

Midway through his second season, Vassell has shown there’s more to his two-way game than fits in a mold. If his efficiency, volume and shot creation keep trending the right way, even the most rigid imagination could run wild. That makes now a fun time to reset expectations and see what role he plays on the next great Spurs team.