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Jeremy Sochan is already the wild card the Spurs were looking for

San Antonio’s still just scratching the surface on how to leverage the rookie forward’s IQ and unique versatility.

San Antonio Spurs v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Praise from coach Gregg Popovich can come in various forms, and while a comment that rookie forward Jeremy Sochan “isn’t impressed with the NBA or anything like that” may not come across as overly effusive, it does capture the unflappable spirit with which the 19-year-old has begun his career in San Antonio, and what’s fueled the coach’s confidence in deploying him in so many ways.

Even before getting the rare nod as a day-one starter, Sochan seemed due for an eventful rookie season. If the hair, physique and playful demeanor weren't enough to court comparisons to another dynamic forward who played in San Antonio, the number 10 jersey selection all but sealed it. Even Pop had to jump on board: “Dennis Rodman light,” he said in a presser a few weeks back. “Emphasis on the light, for now.” It’s a comp that the Grizzlies Steven Adams wouldn’t likely quibble with.

Sochan is doing a bit more than Rodman cosplay, though, even in a relatively low-usage (14%) capacity. He’s a key piece to the switching scheme the Spurs have increasingly moved towards since the Orlando Bubble, even picking up opposing ball-handlers full court. He’s been empowered to push the ball immediately off rebounds, and the season’s low stakes allow him to make all the errors (and miss all the threes he’s dared to take) within the flow of the half-court offense. On Monday night, injuries led to Pop playing his Joker card in a new eyebrow-raising way, meaning Sochan has played both the 1 and the 5 positions a month into his NBA career.

Unsurprisingly, it’s on defense where Sochan is the most captivating right now. Billed in the draft as a versatile, high-IQ defender, he’s looked unbothered taking on primary assignments against opposing stars and playing aggressively when switching onto guards. That ability took center stage in the closing minute of the Spurs’ loss in Portland, in which Sochan first calls to switch back onto Damian Lillard (whom Sochan defended regularly in the 4th), collapses well on the initial drive by Anfernee Simons, then closes out and extends to block a side-step three that Lillard has gotten off cleanly hundreds of times.

Sochan still has room to improve off the ball and on the defensive glass, but these flashes are part of what’s made the gap year in San Antonio so fun, as well as lent more excitement for the future. According to Synergy, he’s allowing under 0.82 points per possession when defending a ball-handler, putting him in the 89th percentile around the league.

The length, instincts, mobility, and ability to absorb contact from ball-handlers combine to make Sochan a weapon on the perimeter as much as against traditional 4s. It’s been exciting to see Pop implement him in so many different ways, so early, including as a point of attack defender in both zone and man schemes.

The Spurs aren’t the first team to experiment with a rangy forward defending at the point of attack — the Pelicans’ implementation of Herb Jones got the Mike Prada treatment last year — but they still seem early on the trend. Pop has repeatedly said the Spurs view Sochan as someone capable of defending 1 through 5, and they’ve put their money where their mouth is. That’s an exciting development in of itself when you consider criticisms of the Spurs have often centered around their reluctance to get with the times.

Offensively, Sochan has been more of a mixed bag. His poor three-point shooting will continue to get attention as teams keep daring him to shoot and, I assume, as the coaching staff encourages him to fire away. The latter is important for a variety of reasons this season, even if his percentage (now south of 20% on 2.8 tries) doesn’t shoot up, as it allows the pass-heavy offense to keep humming and as the team collectively finds ways to make defenses pay when they sag off.

Despite humble counting stats (7.4 points, 4 rebounds, don’t ask about the shooting splits), no rotation player on the team has a better net rating than Sochan’s -0.1 through 15 games. That’s promising, even in a small sample size, and it’s especially surprising that his spacing deficiencies haven’t compounded while sharing the floor with Jakob Poeltl, another known non-flamethrower. Part of that has been mitigated by Sochan’s activity in the half-court, where he’s constantly cutting and resetting. Per Synergy, over 14% of Sochan’s offense has come on cuts where he’s averaging 1.38 points per possession, fitting in seamlessly in a system reliant on movement and smart reads.

Sochan’s ceiling will be determined by how well he shores up his outside shot, which may take time and likely a reworking of his funky mechanics. Luckily he's in a program that's had success in that area. In the interim, he's making an impact through his feel, hustle and savvy passing. Here he js getting the team into a set, then curling back to run a pick and roll with Charles Bassey, hitting Bassey with a nice feed for an easy finish.

There’s no shortage of ways for Sochan to explore the studio space in a season low on expectations. Much like his dome, he's something of a blank canvas, able to operate as a ball-handler or roller in the pick and roll, and facilitate at the elbow much like Jakob Poeltl and the other bigs have so well this year. While the three-point shot has not been pretty, he’s shown a credible touch in the mid range and is a quiet 5-for-5 in attempts between 8 and 24 feet. Here's the most audacious of those buckets, a turnaround off the catch over Karl Anthony Towns.

The Spurs have had a long-term need at the 4 for a while, unable to play both bigger and the switchable, point-five scheme they’ve transitioned more towards in recent years. On draft night, I asked Brian Wright if they'd threaded the needle with their selection of Sochan at 9 by assessing a positional gap while still targeting the best player available for a roster needing talent. The short version of his answer: yes.

In the start to Sochan’s career, we’ve seen what guided that decision in a player with room to grow but who can already serve as a rising tide through his versatility and intangibles at one of the game’s most valued positions. That may be enough to make this swing a success; with continued development, and continued experimentation on the part of the coaching staff, it could be a home run.