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What we learned from the Spurs’ Win over the Hawks

Thanks to hotter than hot shooting, the Spurs blew out the Hawks in the second game of the Rodeo Road Trip.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a strange task to learn something from the first game after what could turn out to be a watershed moment the history of the Spurs – ie. the 2022 trade deadline, in which San Antonio stocked their war chest for the upcoming draft from one to very likely three first-round picks. Despite the emphatic win last night, two questions are probably going to overshadow the remainder of the regular season.

  1. Where will the Spurs land in the lottery? Right now, they have the sixth worst record in the league. Which means their likeliest landing spot is sixth.
  2. Provided their own pick will be second or lower, which is likely: Will they package one or both of the acquired picks to move up?

Both the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics are in the playoff picture right now. And the fact both received players that should move into their respective rotations easily, and make them better, makes it very likely that both picks acquired by the Spurs will convey for the upcoming draft. This leads me to believe there is someone in the draft that the Spurs are absolutely in love with. And I believe the Spurs have neither blown it up, nor are they going into a full rebuild. Two reasons:

  1. They kept Dejounte Murray. And for the number of touches he gets this season, he’s in the top 10 league-wide, I can only find one rational reason: The Spurs have pretty much gifted this season to him, so he can develop as much and as freely as possible. (Which he’s doing an excellent job of.)
  2. Derrick White’s departure increases the roles of both Devin Vassell and Josh Primo. I have high hopes for Primo, but the next man up is clearly Devin. And though there will be times when we’re missing Derrick, it’a possible that the pain won’t last too long. Note what Sean Elliott said before the game: From his view, both Devin and Primo have a much higher ceiling than Derrick. Let’s hope they reach it. Soon.

Observations

  • As expected, Devin replaced Derrick in the starting line-up, but he appears to be playing a different role than Derrick, who was routinely utilized as the primary point-of-attack defender. From what happened last night, it’s unclear whether the Spurs will have a player who takes on that role as often as Derrick did. It kind of alternated between a number of perimeter guys, with Dejounte also more involved than before. Though it didn’t really matter last night, because the Spurs were hot as a frying pan from just about anywhere, no Spur seems as yet diligent and disciplined enough to fill that role as Derrick did. But two guys could.
  • One is Josh Primo, who made a classic Derrick White move when he was blown by Trae Young, but then blocked the Hawks’ superstar point guard from behind. The 19-year-old has a long way to go until he can become a defender as reliable as Derrick, but his eagerness on D stands out already. What makes me so comfortable about Primo is that he doesn’t have to be that guy yet. He can develop in the shadow of Devin.
  • Though Devin was rarely used as the primary perimeter defender last night, I have little doubt that he could be. There was one situation in the second quarter that I’d show to an English-learning person what the verb “to smother” means in a sports-related context: Devin defended Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was moving towards the rim from the corner, but whichever way he went: Devin made it impossible for him to break through. It’s something we’re seeing routinely from Devin. Guys who can do this are hard to find, and often aren’t worth that much on offense. But Devin is. He scores not only when stationary, but also off the dribble. He continues to be an explosive dunker, catch-and-shoot-wise, and there are no doubts about him whatsoever. Beginning next season, we could be seeing two of the Spurs’ next big three: Dejounte and Devin. The question is: Who will be the third one? An enticing question, considering Primo’s development, and the fact that the Spurs will likely have three picks in the upcoming draft.
  • If there was one true all-star performance last night, it was Dejounte Murray’s – who vastly outplayed his bona fide superstar opposite number, Trae Young. Though I refuse to be too impressed with triple doubles from do-it-all ballhandlers like Dejounte, I will always be impressed by a lead ballhandler going 11 of 17 from the field. That’s exactly what we need from Dejounte: Make more shots, and involve your teammtes even more. Dejounte took one less shot last night than his season average, but he made 12 points more than his season average. And though not all of his 15 assists qualify as made plays, he made some very good reads. Last night was likely one of the best games I have seen him play, maybe even the best. If he can be that efficient, that complete more often, there’s absolutely no question about his all-star credentials.
  • As for potential all-stars, we Pounders long had hopes Lonnie Walker could be one. I’m afraid that ship has sailed for good. It looks more and more likely that he’s on his way out. He might already be behind Primo in the pecking order. That’s tough for him, but it’s probably what’s best for the Spurs. Still, it makes me sad Lonnie will very likely not make it in Silver & Black. I like the guy very much.
  • The same cannot be said of Keldon Johnson. Though it’s frustrating to see that he can power his way to the rim so easily, but not make the ball go through the rim after doing so, he continues to absolutely kill it from beyond the arc, hitting six from eight last night. This isn’t just a hot stretch anymore. The guy has learned how to shoot. His future will be determined on what else he can bring to the floor.
  • As much of a surprise Keita Bates-Diop has been this season, there was a situation in the second quarter, the Hawks had just gone on a 10-2 run, which demonstrated what we all knew anyway: He’s not a point guard. Keita stole the ball after a poor throw-in from Trae Young, dribbled up the entire court, which I found extremely surprising, and then played a poor pass to Jakob Pöltl (in fact, to Bogdan Bogdanovic), which I didn’t find surprising at all. Nevertheless, what I liked about the sequence was that Keita had the confidence to do so. I hope he can continue to contribute for the Spurs.
  • Zach Collins still looks a bit detached, he’s clearly not yet connected to the flow of the team. But could it be that he has bulked up significantly since his playing days in Portland? He looks like he could enter into an arm-wrestling match with prime David Robinson – well, almost. Anyway, the fact that Zach seems to be ahead of Jock Landale in the pecking order, together with the report that the Spurs were in talks with the Hornets for a Jakob Pöltl trade, could mean they envision a role for Zach going forward. Still, I assume they envision an even larger role for a power forward or center who’s in the upcoming draft. I can’t wait for that event to happen.