In my first “What We Learned” post this season, I said I wasn’t sure how to approach a season for which the San Antonio Spurs have traded away their best player and are thus in de facto tanking mode. Is the chance of drafting Victor Wembanyana or Scoot Henderson more important than anything else? Well, draft rank is one thing, how good players actually become is quite another.
How many players out of the 2019 draft are right now legitimately better than number 29 pick Keldon Johnson? Ja Morant and Zion Williamson. And maybe Darius Garland, but that’s it. And where would Devin Vassell currently rank in a 2020 re-draft? No lower than sixth, behind Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, Desmond Bane, Tyrese Halliburton, and Tyrese Maxey.
At least half of the total of only nine players who would maybe go before Keldon and Devin are one-way players. Whereas Keldon and Devin are looking more and more like two-way wings with on-ball skills – ie. like the most important player type in the NBA right now when it comes to winning.
And so I’ve come up with an answer to how I approach this season: I want to see Keldon and Devin develop as much as possible, and I want to see the Spurs win as many games as possible. And if that means a mid-first round pick in the upcoming draft, then so be it.
What comes with that, of course, is feeling hurt when the Spurs lose winnable games – like last night’s against the Clippers.
- With the Silver & Black down 25-8 by mid-first quarter, thoughts of the second blowout loss in a row were spooking through my head. But the good guys had their developing “big three” – Keldon, Devin, and Jakob – back. And they fought back admirably! They spent most of the second quarter in touching distance, tying the game with one and a half minutes left in the second quarter, and going into halftime up four, after a Keldon Johnson three from the left corner went in Nephew-style (2019 ECSF, game 7 against Philly).
- Speaking of Kawhi, since becoming a Clipper, he could, theoretically, have played in 245 regular season games. He has missed 134 of those. That’s more than half. With no one knowing whether he’ll ever be as great again as he was in his final playoffs in Silver & Black. But, luckily, that’s not a question Pounders have to ask themselves. We can ask ourselves how good the Spurs’ already very good starting small forward is going to get! Since Keldon is only 23 and has no particular health concerns. Granted, Keldon was outshone last night by Devin Vassell, who went for 29 points from only 16 shots and in only 25 minutes. But he’s another guy we can legitimately ask ourselves about: How good is the 22-year-old going to get? And that’s lovely, isn’t it?
- Not everything can be lovely in a “What We Learned” post about a lost game, though. Turnovers continue to be a problem for the Spurs. They had some very avoidable ones in this game, particularly late on. That’s a problem, but I expect this to get better throughout the season. Because there’s two things I’ve learned in watching NBA basketball for 30 years now (hopefully, more than two things): One, young teams turn the ball over an awful lot. Two, there’s one coach in the NBA that can teach guys how not to turn the ball over better than anyone else, and his name is Gregg Popovich.
- With Devin eased back in from the bench, Malaki Branham got his first starting minutes. Could he be a starter some years into the future? I must admit that I have my doubts. He was, as they say, “dying on screens”, and his foot speed looks too slow to stay in front of defenders. It’s a different story on offense, though. He can run from coast to coast with the ball in his hands and score, and his advertised skill going into the draft was shot-making. And with Devin under team control for years to come (I fully expect him to be extended in the summer), the Spurs have their starting two-guard anyway. What they could do with in the future is a guy who provides reliable scoring from the bench. And that’s a role I can see Malaki thrive in. Frankly, the Spurs could have done with a guy who dared to shoot last night. Because there were a number of “no, not me” instances that resulted in scoreless possessions.
- Let’s end this on a good note, though. Tre Jones had a bounce-back game after a couple not-so-good performances. Scoring had been a problem for him in his first few seasons, but he has developed two solid ways of contributing points: his runner and his vastly improved shot from beyond the arch, going 3 from 5 last night. Another thing that continues to amaze me about him is how such a short guy can be so good on defense. He’s even able to make it difficult for much longer guys who try to shoot over him. A true Spur in the making.