The moves the Spurs made before the trade deadline didn’t bring aboard anyone who immediately made an impact, but it did cause one huge change to the rotation. Devin Vassell is the starting shooting guard now, and barring injury, he’ll hold on to the spot at least until the end of the season.
He’s only had the job for a handful of games, but Vassell has looked comfortable and his promotion has had mostly positive effects. There have been some negative ripples elsewhere in the rotation, but any short-term issues pale in comparison to the future benefits the Spurs may reap from giving the young wing a chance at a bigger role now.
At the team level, Vassell is a natural fit on offense next to Dejounte Murray in a way Derrick White never was. The idea of a Murray-White backcourt was interesting, but it hinged on the ability of both guys to develop as off-ball threats, which didn’t really happen to the extent that was needed. By slotting in Vassell at shooting guard, the Spurs simply solved a problem that was related to an overlap of skills. The second-year wing doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective, and while he’s not the most consistent three-point shooter yet, he’s been better than White was and should continue to improve. The extra spacing should help the already deadly Murray-Poeltl pick-and-roll while Vassell’s less ball-dominant game will give a few more touches to Keldon Johnson, who has gotten to the line consistently since White was moved.
In the process, the Spurs have seemingly lost some shot creation, but Vassell flashes the type of off-ball prowess that helps him generate good looks for himself simply by moving with purpose, and he does have the ability to use ball screens to create separation to pull up off the dribble. His passing is not a strength at this point, but he’s selfless and has seen an uptick in assists since joining the starters in a role in which he’s not expected to just be a finisher. What he can’t really do is offer a lot of ball handling, since at this point his dribble is too loose to be reliable. The Spurs could trust White to take some pressure off Murray not only by creating for others, but also by taking care of the ball and getting the team into its sets, which is not something Vassell can do right now.
Similarly, Vassell can offer things that are really important on defense, but not the type of point of attack pressure that White used to provide. Despite handling really tough assignments often, White was a fantastic defender against isolations. Vassell is great at off-ball defense but not yet at White’s level on the ball. The only reason this is not a bigger issue is because the Spurs switch almost constantly, and having Vassell around playing heavy minutes with the starters allows them to trot out three big wings that almost never find themselves at a size disadvantage. In general, the Spurs need to improve the execution of their switch-heavy scheme, but Vassell does seem to be a better fit for it than White was, despite White at this point being a better individual defender.
There have been some issues with the bench now that Vassell is not a part of it, but even those can be spun into positives if the focus is on the future. The Spurs’ second unit has struggled to score, but Lonnie Walker IV seems to be thriving now that he’s the clear-cut sixth man, averaging 18 points in the last three games. It’s imperative for the Spurs to have a closer look at what Lonnie can do before he enters free agency, so seeing if he can thrive as a primary scorer is a good thing. As for the void in ball handling, Tre Jones will get a shot to prove that he should be the backup point guard next season, while Josh Primo also gets a crack at running the offense for stretches. If worse comes to worse and a lack of scoring remains a problem while the play-in remains a possibility, there’s also the option of simply giving Josh Richardson more minutes.
As for what becoming a starter means for Vassell’s individual development, there’s a lot to be excited about. Vassell insists he’s not just a 3-and-D player, and it’s good the Spurs seem to share that belief. After becoming a full-time starter, his usage remained around the same, which means he’s not being marginalized on offense despite playing more often with a unit that has more weapons. His scoring and assists numbers have gone up along with his minutes. Despite not having the ability to get past defenders off the dribble, he has shown that he can create good looks from mid-range for himself, so he’s not just a floor-spacer. In fact, there’s a case to be made for the Spurs to just give him an even bigger role now, either with the starters or with some bench units that lack offensive firepower. The upside is there, so why not figure out now whether Vassell can become a legitimate second option instead of just a reliable role player?
Even if he’s not given a bigger offensive load right away, simply having Vassell playing starter minutes should help speed up his development while also helping the team figure out what it has in other young players. As painful as it was, the Derrick White trade made a lot of sense in every way.
Now it will be up to Vassell to show that he can be the long term answer at one of the wing spots. If he does, the Spurs will be in a really good place going into next offseason.