Devin Vassell seems ready for a leap. After spending the better part of his two years in the NBA coming off the bench, the young wing got an opportunity to start after the trade deadline last season, and he looked comfortable in a bigger role.
Now, with Dejounte Murray gone, the team is likely going to ask more of the former No. 10 overall pick. Fortunately, Vassell should be ready to handle the added responsibility, provided he makes a few improvements to his game, which we’ll cover in the second edition of the You Can Do Better series.
Vassell is already a great team defender, but his individual defense could still improve
Vassell is a fantastic team defender who can cover ground and anticipate plays, but his great instincts haven’t translated as seamlessly to individual defense yet. He’s by no means bad in that area, but he’s not the type of stopper the Spurs need in the perimeter. Defensive stats need to always be taken with a grain of salt, but opponents shot better than average when he was the closest defender last season, and stars were really effective against him, for the most part. Synergy has him ranked as a very good pick and roll defender but only average on isolation, and it’s in the situations when he’s left on an island with an opponent in which some of his issues become clear.
Vassell struggles with decelerating and changing directions when attacked. Part of it has to do with often having to defend quicker guards that can blow past him instead of forwards, but he also does seem to get off balance easily after his first burst. He sometimes gets caught on his heels, which makes it hard for him to keep up, and he sometimes uses his arms instead of simply moving his feet.
Those problems seem solvable. Vassell has seemingly gotten stronger, and having a better base should allow him to be quicker laterally and react faster. His technique seems mostly fine and will surely improve with time. The one habit that he could change quickly is using his left arm more when contesting to make full use of his length. He tries to bump players when they drive to their right, but he doesn’t bother them much and occasionally has to jump backwards to avoid fouling them when he contests with his right arm.
It might take Vassell a little while to feel comfortable with his body control to figure out how to contest better without fouling, but he should be able to get there, which could make him a much better individual defender.
Vassell’s jumper could unlock his potential as a self creator
In his first two years in the league, Vassell has been a role player on offense, someone who mostly takes open shots created by others. In fact, in his second year, even fewer of his makes were created by him than in his rookie season, with almost 80 percent being assisted. For reference, that was on par with players like Matisse Thybull and DeAndre Jordan.
The good news is Vassell’s role might have been determined more by the personnel around him than his actual limitations. The Spurs had several ball handlers last season and ran part of their offense through Jakob Poeltl, so there should be room for growth with Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV gone. The key will be to find the best way for Vassell to stick to his strengths — a solid jumper — in a bigger role.
A good blueprint for Vassell is Khris Middleton. Just like the Spurs’ wing, the Bucks star doesn’t have a killer first step or fancy handles to get him past players and to the rim, but he does a great job of leveraging his size and elite jump shot to create for himself. Vassell can do all of that, albeit not at the same volume as an All-Star like Middleton yet.
The first thing Vassell will need before he can do a decent Middleton impression is screeners that demand attention. Middleton has Giannis Antetokounmpo or a stretch big setting picks for him, which really put the defense in a predicament while guarding him. It will be on Jakob Poeltl and especially Zach Collins to step up and put opponents in a tough position when screening for Vassell by putting pressure on the rim as a roll man and hitting enough shots from outside, respectively.
The second thing he’ll need is to get stronger and shiftier with his dribble. Vassell has already put on some muscle, so he should see results immediately in terms of being in control after bumps. As for Vassell’s ball handling, it has been too basic so far, so asking him to isolate as much as Middleton or any other wing star would not be the best idea, but if he makes quick decisions using ball screens, he won’t need to shake defenders off the bounce.
Vassell will arguably be the most important player on the roster this upcoming season. If he takes the leap his talent and tools suggest he can make, the Spurs could add him to the list of cornerstones alongside Keldon Johnson and be only one superstar away from being competitive again.
He has put in the work to prepare his body, and he has said all the right things about being ready for the challenge of taking on more responsibility, so it seems fair to be bullish about his future.