The purpose on the court this season is player development, and one of the best development stories is the increased performance of Devin Vassell. By clearing out the backcourt, via the trading of Derrick White and Dejounte Murray (and the letting go of Lonnie Walker), the Spurs sent a clear signal they were ready to emphasize the development of Keldon Johnson and Vassell. The purpose of this article is to focus on the latter because there’s something significant happening here. So, lace up your NBA tracking data boots because it’s time for another edition of The Professors Corner.
One of the most critical components of an NBA offense is to have a ball handler that efficiently scores out of the pick-and-roll. The exceptional players of this ilk often exhibit a combination of solid ball handling and accurate shooting from beyond the arc, the mid-range, or both. Those that are elite at scoring efficiently as pick-and-roll ball handlers include Steph Curry (astronomical), DeMar DeRozan, Donovan Mitchell, and Luka Doncic. Of course, having one of these players doesn’t promise a trip to the conference finals (see Giannis, Lebron, and Durant), but it helps!
The chart below shows the 50 individuals with at least 90 possessions as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. The horizontal axis shows the overall number of touches per game. The vertical axis plots the points per possession in the pick-and-roll possessions, specifically. The Spurs average 37.7 pick-and-roll possessions per game (13th highest in the league—Hawks are highest with 43.7, and Nets are lowest with 23.9). The Spurs also rank 22nd in pick-and-roll scoring efficiency.
Three Spurs are on this chart: Johnson (0.75 points per possession) and Tre Jones (0.74 per possession) are notably below the league median in scoring efficiency. The other Spur, Vassell (1.02 points per possession), is notably NOT below the league median. In contrast, he’s the 5th most efficient scorer in the league amongst these 50 pick-and-roll players!
This development is new, and I have included Devin’s last season averages to illustrate the improvement. Last season, Vassell was in the bottom 25% in pick-and-roll efficiency and the bottom 1/3rd in frequency (low volume). This year he has increased to 50% in frequency and top 14% in efficiency across the entire league. The pink arrow on the graphic illustrates his drastic improvement to becoming one of the league’s better pick-and-roll scorers. So what puts him up there?
Devin is an outstanding shooter. He’s in the league’s top 17% as a jump shooter. Furthermore, Devin is nearly in the top 10% when taking guarded jumpers off the catch. Off the dribble, he’s in the top third of the 110 upper-volume shooters. Currently, he ranks above such notables as Kyle Lowry, Brandon Ingram, and Darius Garland. Vassell has also been fantastic from behind the arc. Of those that have taken at least 50 3-pointers this season, Devin is in the top 12%. Overall, if compared to 100 randomly selected shooters in the league, he would currently be better than 80 of them. This is all fantastic, but can he get even better?
Off-the-Dribble Jump Shooters
The ideal offensive basketball player in the NBA can score off-the-dribble efficiently from all three levels (behind the arc, mid-range, and around the basket) in the half-court set. The incredible off-the-dribble, three-level, scorers include Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Donovan Mitchell (see the chart below for top 50 highest volume off-the-dribble shooters). All three are above average in scoring attempts at the rim to behind the arc. Thus, defenses must ALWAYS be concerned when they have the ball. Several other players are good in two of the three areas. DeRozan is a classic (fantastic) 2-level scorer—solid near the rim and excellent from mid-range. Devin Booker is another outstanding 2-level scorer, but he succeeds further from the basket than DeRozan.
Vassell is currently a 1-level scorer off the dribble. He matches DeRozan from 2-point range off the dribble (top 12%), but unfortunately, Devin RARELY gets to the rim in the half-court set and shoots 24.1% from 3-point range.
Devin from 3pt range
- Catch & Shoot (no dribble): 47.9%
- Off the Dribble 24.1%
Another significant gap in Devin’s game is that he’s too proud to accept charity. Translation, he never gets to the free throw line! Of the 190 players with >160 offensive possessions, Devin ranks 120th in free throw frequency. Across various analytics websites, he’s around the 40th percentile in free throw rate. Fortunately, learning to initiate contact near the basket and extending his off-the-dribble shooting range are attainable goals for a player displaying this level of promise (my guess is the latter is more probable).
What we Vassell “truthers” pontificated has happened, and the rest of the NBA is noticing. I watch Spurs games on League Pass and always choose the opposing team’s broadcast. Currently, it’s common to hear phrases such as, “hey, this kid is good,” or “...might be the Spur’s best player,” and things of that nature. It’s fun to hear. Of course, Vassell will not be an all-star this year, and the draft-tied Tyrese Haliburton comparisons will always surface, but a “leap” has occurred—which is precisely the point in a season of development.