Until the Spurs make their selection in the upcoming draft, Devin Vassell will be their highest draft pick since Tim Duncan. That small piece of trivia is meaningless, but it inevitably brought with it some pressure. Vassell was never seen as a savior, but he was expected to be a major piece of the puzzle for San Antonio for years to come.
In the past season, he showed that he has what it takes to get there. Despite not breaking out as a star, the second-year wing made enough progress to quiet down the loudest criticisms about his selection and gain plenty of fans. Vassell is good, that much is clear. What’s left to be determined is exactly how good he can be.
Traits, expected role and stats
Devin Vassell is a 6’5” wing who entered his sophomore season with many eyes on him after a quiet first year in the league.
He was expected to get a bigger role in his second season, initially as a two-way presence off the bench, pairing up at the wing with Lonnie Walker IV.
In 71 appearances, he averaged 12.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists on 27.3 minutes a game.
Vassell had a good start to the season. In the first 17 games, he was shooting the three extremely well and seemed to be acclimating seamlessly to a sizable role as one of the key bench players. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury sidelined him for five games in late November, and he struggled upon his return, as his outside shot — his biggest tool to help on offense — abandoned him for a while. Another short absence in January didn’t help him regain his stroke from outside, but he was doing enough on defense and inside the arc to remain an asset to the second unit. His ability to hit shots from the mid-range when chased off the three-point line in particular did a lot to mitigate his intermittent struggles as a marksman, while his team defense allowed him to be a plus even when individual matchups didn’t go his way.
The good work Vassell did as a sixth man earned him the starting spot vacated by the Derrick White trade. In the new role, Vassell continued to be a good defender and solid outside shooter who thrived in transition and could put the ball on the floor on occasion, even if shot creation didn’t come naturally to him. He simply was a very useful role player who could space the floor and handle switches better than his predecessor because of his superior size. There were not a lot of moments (outside of the play-in game) in which Vassell looked like a future go-to option, and his individual defense didn’t take the leap forward that was expected, but in his first season as a big-minutes player Vassell showed that at the very least, he’ll be a dependable rotation piece for a long time.
Season grade: A-
Vassell needed to show that he could produce at a high level after an unimpressive rookie season, and he did just that. There were not many flashes of potential greatness in his sophomore campaign, but considering he’s still just 21-years-old and has already shown the ability to be a two-way force even as a starter, it was a successful year for him. There were some moments of inconsistency as a shooter that would be more concerning under different circumstances, but his youth and the up-and-down nature of the Spurs’ overall performance can explain those. Similarly, Vassell has not yet turned into the defensive monster that his off-ball instincts and physical tools suggest he can be, but it’s hard to make that leap on a team that struggled on that end. Overall, it was not a perfect year for Vassell but a really good on in which he showed adaptability.
Vassell will enter the third year of his rookie contract, presumably as the incumbent starter at shooting guard for the Spurs, which should provide him with enough continuity to build on his good 2021/22 campaign. It’s a big season for Vassell, as he will be eligible for an extension in the summer of 2023.
There are two big questions that still need to be answered. The first is simple and revolves around what position he’ll be asked to play going forward. If the Spurs go with a more traditional power forward next to two wings, Vassell will likely stay at shooting guard for the foreseeable future, as long as he starts, and would only be asked to occasionally move up a spot to small forward. If they instead decide to fully embrace positionless small ball, Vassell might occasionally be asked to play alongside smaller perimeter players and guard power forwards, like he did last season off the bench. Neither option should be dismissed outright, but if the idea is to maximize Vassell, having him at the wing next to bigger players would probably be smart, since his length is an asset there and his relatively slim frame not an issue.
The second question is arguably even more important, as it pertains to his potential. Vassell has already shown that he can be a solid role player, but can he be elite on either end, or at least very good on both? Defensively he has the tools, but his offensive ceiling remains unclear. He’s talked about wanting to be more than a 3-and-D wing, but his iffy ball handling and a lack of a killer first step might make it hard for him to develop into a Paul George type on offense. Khris Middleton seems like a more attainable goal, as Vassell already has a reliable mid-range pull-up jumper that he can use after a dribble or two. If he can extend his range on those type of shots to the three-point line, he might get more room to drive, as the defense would have to play him closer. It might take a while before Vassell is actually able to create for himself, much less others, at a high rate, but it would be great if he at least showed progress in that area next season.
With a more defined role and a little more freedom on offense, Vassell could definitely make a leap. Even if he doesn’t become a go-to scorer any time soon, bringing more consistent three-point shooting from all over the floor — he shot much better from the right side last year — and continuing to develop on the defensive end would be enough to keep the fanbase excited in his third year.
Vassell was considered a safe pick when he was drafted, and he’s proved to have the high floor that everyone projected him to have. The question now is how high his ceiling is, but figuring that out could take some time and patience, which fortunately the rebuilding Spurs should have.