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How the All-Star starters reveal the path forward for the Spurs

The Spurs will be looking for a superstar in the next draft, so figuring out what makes one in the modern NBA could give them a better idea of what to search for.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 NBA All-Star game starters have been announced. There were arguably some snubs but no huge surprises since most of the established names and emerging superstars are there. The All-NBA teams at the end of the season will probably look different, but this group of players is a good representation of what a star looks like in the NBA.

For a team like the Spurs, which is looking for one in the draft, it can give them an idea of the type of player that fits the bill in the modern era and help them figure out how to use them if they are lucky enough to get one. So let’s see the lessons the All-Star selection can teach San Antonio, thinking about the future.

Small guards need to be elite scorers

There are three players under 6’3” in the 10-player pool. Neither of them ranks in the top 20 in assists per game and in fact, three other players from the group average more assists per game than they do. What made Stephen Curry, Donovan Mitchell and Kyrie Irving All-Star starters was their scoring, as they rank ninth, 10th and 12th in the league, respectively, in points per game.

Now, they all dish out a solid amount of assists and other short All-Stars will probably have sterling assist numbers, but it’s clear that the era of the traditional floor general who sets up others first and foremost is long gone. Last season Chris Paul made it as a reserve while scoring just under 15 points per game and leading the league in dimes, but he feels more like an outlier or downright a relic of a different time than the norm. Nowadays, it seems that for any short guards to qualify as franchise players they need to be able to not only create for others but score in volume themselves.

The Spurs don’t have a short scorer by design, as they decided to go with bigger ball handlers to back up Tre Jones, but they do have a realistic way to get one. Scoot Henderson projects to be a dual threat on offense, as his explosive scoring ability forces opponents into rotations, which then result in open shots for others. Whether San Antonio will be able or willing to pick Henderson is impossible to know at this point, but he does seem to fit the new mold.

We are in the golden era of the athletic freaks

At one point, LeBron James and Kevin Durant seemed like huge physical outliers. James had the game of a point guard in the body of a power forward and Durant was a 7-foot-tall shooting guard. Not only were they generational talents but also athletic freaks with insane physical tools. Having two in the league at the same time seemed strange. And then Giannis Antetokounmpo came along to join them and now Zion Williamson is also around to pick up the mantle as the others age out.

The NBA has always had freak athletes, but what we are seeing now is probably unprecedented. Giannis is so quick, strong and athletic that there’s really no counter to him on defense. The same was true for LeBron in the past and for Williamson now, as they are simply a walking matchup nightmare. Durant doesn’t have the same kind of strength, but just like Antetokounmpo, he’s taller than any player who can match his skill level, so he can simply shoot over even great defense. All of these players would probably be great even if they didn’t have unique physiques to go with their amazing skill, but the fact that they have that extra physical edge makes them elite.

San Antonio made progress in terms of getting bigger and more athletic by drafting Jeremy Sochan, but they distinctly lack a player who is a physical outlier. That could easily change if the lottery goes their way and they can get their hands on Victor Wembanyama. The 7’2” French marvel has the fluidity of a perimeter player with the body of a center. He’s on the slender side, but as Durant proves, that doesn’t mean he won’t be able to use his height to his advantage. In a league brimming with Kaijus, the Spurs could potentially have their own if they get lucky.

Big primary playmakers are in

In contrast to what’s happening to small guards, who are transitioning from primary ball handlers and playmakers to bigger scoring roles, bigger players have been taking over the responsibility to set up others. LeBron has always been able to do that, but in Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic, the NBA is seeing more players that could never be confused with the traditional small point guard become assist machines.

Jokic is already arguably the best passing big man in league history and is unlikely any other center will contest that title any time soon, but there have been other bigs who have averaged assists numbers that were normally expected of perimeter players. Domantas Sabonis, who will surely make it as a reserve, is ranked 14th in the league in assists and Draymond Green is 17th. As for Doncic, he doesn’t seem as novel because of LeBron, but a 6’7” guy averaging over eight assists a game is still extremely impressive. Other potential reserves like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Pascal Siakam are in the top 20 in assists per game and are over 6’6”. Having guys with size who can pass is a huge advantage in the modern NBA.

The Spurs have seemingly realized it, which is why they went into the season with Josh Primo as their backup point guard and then turned to Josh Richardson to fill the role. Now they could get someone who fits the physical profile with star potential in the draft, though. Amen Thompson is a 6’7” hybrid guard who is averaging six assists per game in the G League and scouts seem to believe he could legitimately run an offense thanks to his basketball IQ and vision. Slotting him in the starting lineup could give the Spurs more defensive versatility that would fit their switching scheme without having to sacrifice shot creation, so he would immediately fill a need.

Comparing draft prospects to elite players is always tricky because the most likely scenario is that they’ll never reach those heights. Not every tall young guy with perimeter skills is going to even come close to being Kevin Durant and expecting them to do that is normally a recipe for disappointment.

It is interesting, however, to note that this draft class seems to have players ranked at the top that seem to fit perfectly into some of the roles that many of the brightest stars in the league fill. If the Spurs get lucky to select one of them, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out how to use them.