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Devin Vassell’s top end, and Wembanyama Fever

A look at what preseason has revealed about the new-look Spurs, and whether fans should just be focusing about the 2023 draft.

NBA: Preseason-San Antonio Spurs at Utah Jazz Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Vassell has been getting some hype from the media and his teammates going into the season. How big of a leap do you think he could make?

Marilyn Dubinski: I’ll readily admit that I’ve been on the Devin Vassell hype train for quite a while now, seeing great potential by early last season. It’s easy to see his numbers taking another leap this season, with his scoring likely creeping up into the high teens or near 20 points as he becomes either the second option or shares the top option responsibilities with Keldon Johnson. While that potential leap in his stats likely won’t translate to many wins, the hope is the individual improvement in other areas, such as defense, is something he can carry over into the future seasons and be part of the new Spurs era.

Mark Barrington: It’s really hard to evaluate anyone in preseason when Pop is playing a bunch of mismatched lineups. Like Fox Mulder in the X-Files, I want to believe, and all of the indirect evidence points toward Vassell getting better. His body definitely looks like an elite player’s body now. Does his play look like that? We’ll find out in the first month of the regular season, when Pop is actually playing lineups that make a little bit of sense. I feel like Devin has already made impressive strides, and maybe even the leap, but it could be that’s just the UFO poster on the wall talking.

Bruno Passos: I think there are a few leaps between Vassell and his fully realized version, the latter being something in the vein of a supercharged Mikal Bridges or PG13-lite, wherein he becomes a problem at all 3 levels and the type of player who can consistently anchor possessions rather than play a secondary role. I think we see the first of those leaps this season, with him using a greener light and improved feel to score and attack off the catch and off cuts. 17 or 18 points per game doesn’t feel out of the question at all and that, paired with his strengths on the defensive end, make for a special player. If he can make the even tougher next leap and completely self-create and routinely set up others, look out.

Jesus Gomez: Vassell was an interesting player ever since he was drafted because the range of possible outcomes for his career was so wide. He could have turned out to be a Wesley Johnson-level mistake or a Paul George-type hit for the front office. A couple of seasons in, it seems he will probably land somewhere in between, which was always the most likely outcome and it’s perfectly fine for the Spurs. Nothing seems to suggest he’ll be a star anytime soon, if ever, but a leap into becoming a souped-up Robert Covington with a dash of shot creation is probably coming. For that to happen Vassell would have to be a little more disruptive at defense, a little more accurate with his jumper and a little better off the dribble, which all seem possible.

There have only been a couple of preseason games, but what are your early impressions of the new Spurs?

Dubinski: It’s hard to say when they’ve been without their top player in Johnson and another potential starter in Josh Primo, but so far the results haven’t been too surprising. There will be days like the preseason opener against the Rockets where they look thoroughly outmanned and less talented, and games like the Magic one, which probably reminded many fans of last season, when they played hard for 47 minutes and led most of the way but just didn’t have the cohesiveness and personnel to close the game strong. If anything, the preseason has made accepting that this won’t always be a fun season to watch a little easier.

Barrington: I haven’t learned anything useful from the preseason. I know that Tommy Kuhse is bad, Gorgui Dieng is slow, and Primo and Keldon haven’t played much. Kuhse is gone, Dieng is just there for late-game cleanup duty, so I think we just haven’t seen the Spurs yet. My feeling is that this is a team that’s going to lose a lot of games, but we should see some interesting leaps in talent. Vassell and Keldon are going to take leadership roles, and I think while there will be some growing pains, they’re both too committed to being positive leaders and hard workers to fail. The presence of Dieng in the locker room is also going to be great for the young guys.

Passos: I was worried a lack of talent and experienced ball-handlers may make this too long a season and potentially undermine the chances of developing the young guys within a functional ecosystem, but the preseason has suggested that these Spurs should be frisky most nights. Tre Jones has looked comfortable in a larger role, as have Johnson and Vassell as more featured scorers, and the bigs all seem capable of facilitating and haven’t been shy about threading the needle to teammates on the move. Everyone seems comfortable catching, driving and kicking out and playing within a read-and-react system built around no shortage of back cuts and dribble hand-offs. I don’t think any of that should have Team Tank worried about the lottery odds, but it should at least make for a better viewing experience.

Gomez: The two biggest questions coming into preseason were how Keldon Johnson was going to look as the first option and how Josh Primo was going to fare as the second lead ball handler on the team. We have not been able to answer either because of injury, so it’s hard to read too much into these games, which are always mostly meaningless. It’s good to have Spurs basketball back, but until the games start counting and everyone is back, it’s going to be hard to draw any big conclusions, in my eyes.

Were you caught up on the Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson hype or is the draft too far away into the future to focus on right now?

Dubinski: I’m usually not one to look to the draft until after the season is over, but since the odds are very low that the Spurs will even be competing for a play-in spot in five months, I’m allowing myself to get on the draft hype train. Will I regret it? Only time will tell.

Barrington: I’m completely aboard the Wembanyama train. After watching him play those two games against G League competition, I’m sold. This is the most unique talent I’ve seen in the 40+ years I’ve been watching basketball. If he takes care of his body and can play a long career, he has a good chance to be one of the foundational players of the sport. He hasn’t played a game yet in the NBA, but already I believe he will be an all-time great, if he can just maintain his present trajectory. I love Scoot Henderson also, he’s very good, and would be worthy of the first pick in any other year, but Victor is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. Maybe more than one generation. I’m preparing votive candles right now for the 2023 draft lottery. No reason to wait for next summer.

Passos: I’m not going out of my way to watch their clips this early in the year, but they definitely provide that light at the end of the tunnel. As do a handful of other players in that 2023 group whose names I’m yet to put to memory — for now, they’re “the kid at Villanova, that guy at Arkansas,” etc. The 14% (at best) chances at landing number one temper my hopes of landing Wembanyama, who still stands head and shoulders (literally) above everyone else in that class right now, but man would that make things exciting around here.

Gomez: I think it was almost impossible to avoid the hype since it’s not normal to have the consensus projected first and second overall pick go head-to-head so early in the year. And they didn’t disappoint. For fans of a rebuilding team, I think it’s completely fine to look more to the future than the now during the preseason. Once the regular season is underway the focus will shift to the team but for now, there’s nothing wrong with being more excited about the possibility of Scoot or Wemby in a Spurs uniform than some matchup against the Magic.