Gregg Popovich was transparent when he took the podium at media day back in late September, making it unmistakable that player development would be the main objective for the San Antonio Spurs this season. Fast forward three-and-half months later, and the grey-bearded head coach has mostly followed through on that assertion during the first year of an inevitable rebuild.
Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell have been the irrefutable go-to scoring options when healthy. Jeremy Sochan has been a starter from the second he set foot on an NBA court. Even Malaki Branham has become a vital cog for the second unit. Aside from all the losses, there isn’t much to complain about, but nothing is perfect, and the youth movement is missing one key component, Blake Wesley.
A perfect opportunity presented itself to the 19-year-old point guard after San Antonio released Josh Primo. But an untimely MCL strain prematurely ended his audition for a genuine role off the bench just eight minutes into his second game with the club. Wesley rehabbed and returned for a brief stint in the G League, though he found himself buried on the depth chart once promoted to the NBA.
As San Antonio’s third and final first-round pick from the 2022 NBA Draft, it isn’t surprising that Wesley will become the last of the trio to break into the rotation, especially with Josh Richardson sitting comfortably ahead of him on the depth chart. Nevertheless, the Spurs are 18 games under .500 for the first time in nearly three decades, which should mark a calculated shift in their approach.
If player development is the fundamental pursuit of this season, then the Silver and Black shouldn’t be afraid to usher Wesley into a substantial role as soon as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean becoming the leading scorer or a starter, but it should entail more ball-handling responsibilities with the reserves. That might be a bit challenging for him to come by with Richardson still in town.
Wesley has played 16 total minutes in his last two games, with almost half of them being of the garbage time variety. As long as Gregg Popovich can continue using Richardson as a backcourt security blanket, Blake might as well rest inside a red box tagged “break glass in case of emergency.” That might not be the case as the Spurs drop further in the standings, but why wait around when a trade could expedite the process?
Every rebuilding organization needs veterans around to offer youngsters a steadying presence that can show them the ropes on and off the court. Although Richardson has done that to a tee since landing in San Antonio, the Spurs are home to several experienced players capable of occupying that role, including Doug McDermott, Gorgui Dieng, Stanley Johnson, and their do-it-all anchor Jakob Poeltl.
So what makes Wesley so exceptional that PATFO should feel compelled to move on from one of their valuable bench pieces? One word, potential. The Notre Dame alumnus is easily the least polished prospect from San Antonio’s talented 2022 rookie class. With that said, Blake has the most intriguing package of god-given physical tools and offensive skills among the teenagers on this roster.
Wesley has a blinding first step, unique shiftiness with the basketball, and the inexhaustible self-confidence to pull up off the bounce from anywhere on the court. All of those traits were front and center when he dominated the Stockton Kings for 29 points, three boards, and three steals on 10-of-18 shooting on Monday night, and that performance was enough for San Antonio to recall him from the G League this morning.
As mentioned earlier, Wesley is years away from being a finished product, and like any individual navigating early adulthood, he is imperfect and has plenty to learn. Even against G League competition, Wesley has averaged 17.5 points per game on subpar .389/.289/.750 shooting splits. He is prone to turnovers and ineffective from the field, though his flashes of brilliance are enticing for someone adjusting to a new position.
Will Wesley make mistakes and take shots that compromise San Antonio’s chances of winning games? Yes, but the Spurs shouldn’t be fixated on the fleeting happiness of a victory during year one of a rebuild. Most of these players won’t be here by the time this roster is competing for a spot in the postseason, but Wesley could be one of the building blocks that help this team get back to where they want to be.
Tonight is a chance for head coach Gregg Popovich to signal a full-blown commitment to prioritizing the next generation of Spurs basketball. While handing over the reins to their youngsters might not result in an appealing outcome on most nights, getting Wesley on-ball repetitions, touches, and minutes against NBA opponents is an invaluable conduit for promoting the success of his long-term developmental track.