I got three basketball gifts for Christmas. First one’s very good: A GOAT card game produced by a German group of guys who call themselves “Basketballnerds”. Instead of photos of the 32 greatest of all time players, it features caricatures of their faces. As for the categories, my wife is starting to learn how many rings Larry Bird has, how many MVPs Tim Duncan won, or how many seasons Michael Jordan played in the NBA. Great stuff. In a couple of weeks I’ll have her watch basketball games with me. Maybe. Or maybe not.
Last year, Nick Greene’s “How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius” was a big hit as a Christmas gift to me: I swallowed it in a couple of gulps, and I learned a lot. Which is why I got another basketball book this year. One I had mentioned a couple of times as one “you can’t go wrong with, because the author is a Spurs fan.” Turns out, I’m probably not part of the target audience of Shea Serrano’s “Basketball (And Other Things).” (No, I’m not saying it’s a poor book, it’s just not for me.) Maybe next year I’ll (finally) get the book Ben Taylor wrote. I’ll just keep mentioning his name throughout the year around our home. And occasionally put on his podcast when we’re in the car. (I’ll let you know right here one year from now whether my quest for “Thinking Basketball” was successful.)
Third basketball gift I got was the most emotional one. I opened it just this morning over here in Germany – and it took about two hours to open it! And once it was almost fully opened, it felt like some evil seven-foot Viking was going to take it away from me. But then came a lovely fella, three inches shorter than myself, and made sure I was going to have my third present. Of course, I’m talking about the Spurs home win over the Jazz, about Lauri Markannen, and about Tre “Santa Cl[utch]” Jones.
- After Friday’s loss to the Magic, I wrote that for the Spurs to win at least one of either Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson needed to score efficiently, and that the Spurs needed Jakob Poeltl to ramp it back up and get more involved. It’s exactly what happened last night. Keldon went 9-14 and he looked wicked attacking the basket. And I absolutely loved it that they gave him a slow motion when he let out one of his signature screams after scoring. I’ve deeply felt for Keldon over the past couple of weeks. And though he’s not back to his all-starish best, his performance last night felt like he’s getting closer to the best version of himself. Frankly, the hard drives to the basket feel like his most natural offensive weapon. He shot only twice from beyond the arch, and both attempts didn’t look good at all. (The highest-arching shots of last night’s game may well have been Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s free-throw attempts, though.)
- Jakob Poeltl is back! 6-6 from the field, 4-5 from the charity stripe, some excellent passes, and four f****** blocks! Boy, did he make his presence felt on both ends of the court! It’s performances like these that make me afraid of the thought he could be playing for another team next year – when I so want him to be part of the next contending Spurs team. Of course, questions about his ability to be on the court in clutch situations in the playoffs remain. But how about Jeremy Sochan as a future small-ball five? Shootingwise, he had another stinker. But what’s important is that he keeps shooting it, and that he looks very promising in almost every other aspect of the game.
- Devin had another inefficient scoring night, but you know what? I find that completely not worrying. In terms of mechanics, he is the purest shooter on the roster. And he’s probably not just the purest shooter. It might be a premature statement, but to me he more and more looks like the best basketballer currently contracted to the San Antonio Spurs. His ball-handling and self-creation appears to get better with each game, as does his playmaking, both offensively and defensively. If someone were to conclusively determine that “the Devin Vassell we’re seeing right now is the finished product”, I’d take Devin as my starting shooting guard of the future in an instant. But the great thing is that no one can legitimately say that about him for another one and a half seasons. Because he’ll only turn 24 in the 2024 off-season – yeah!
- Another guy who has a clear future in Silver & Black is Tre Jones. Maybe not a starting point guard on a contender, but potentially an elite back-up. Zero turnovers last night, less than two turnovers in 30 minutes on average so far this season, a +5.9 on-off plusminus per bb-ref, cleverness in bags, and last night also clutchness. His successful drive to the basket to put the Spurs’ scoring total to 125 seconds before the game was over is a strong contender for the best basket I have seen this season from a Spur.
- Speaking of “what role could Spur X play in the future?”: Malaki Branham last night made a strong argument – the first one, in my opinion – that he could thrive as a microwave scorer. Though I refuse to doubt any first-year rookie on the Spurs for what he does wrong or doesn’t do, Branham had so far given little evidence of what he can do. That changed last night. He could be a player you can give the ball to and expect to score. A bit like a guy who was also on the court last night, Jordan Clakson.
- Finally, I would like to give some love to a guy who was a major problem for the Spurs last night. A guy who had been – maybe thee – default target for the NBA’s analysts elite in recent years. That guy is Lauri Markkannen. He looks every bit of a major offensive contributor from the four position in the NBA. And he doesn’t look to me as what he has often been portrayed as – a defensive pushover. Certainly not a stopper, certainly not switchable (Devin toyed with him in one instance in the fourth quarter), but he has really grown into his body. A Spur or not a Spur, I just love it when a guy proves analysts wrong.