With over half of the season over, what’s your impression of the two rookies who have played, Sochan and Branham?
Marilyn Dubinski: Sochan is my favorite rookie the Spurs have had in while, and not just because we’re actually getting to see him play. It feels like the first time in forever that the Spurs actually drafted at a position of need, and even if his game still needs some work, watching him look completely comfortable as an NBA starter at age 19 while improving so much in-season has been pretty satisfying. Not to mention, he brings a ton of personality and can actually finish lobs: something the Spurs have seemingly lacked for years.
As for Branham, I was a little surprised at how much he struggled early since he was advertised as NBA-ready, but once he got comfortable, he has really started coming along. He’s not a completely reliable shooter yet, but he definitely has the potential. It’s too early to say if he has long-term potential with the club, but if he does it will probably as a steady sixth man.
Mark Barrington: Sochan is more than just a good basketball player, he’s charismatic. He’s an instigator on the court, and you can tell by watching him that he’s learning and enjoying every minute he’s on the court, and just soaking up the experience. It’s wonderful to watch his game grow by leaps and bounds almost every time he steps on the court.
Malaki Branham is a natural scorer, and he knows how to shoot and how to get open. His release looks funky, but the trajectory of the ball is pure, so I doubt the Spurs coaches will mess with it. I don’t ever see him as a full-time starter, but he could be great as a bench scorer, a la Vinnie Johnson. And his defense is improving, and you can see that he’s working on the schemes that Pop is setting him up for.
Bruno Passos: I was fairly high on Sochan pre-draft because of the billing as a versatile, high-character player at a position the Spurs have desperately needed to fill. While there have been clear and expected growing pains with the shooting and experimentation as a playmaker, I’ve still come away impressed with the flashes, growth and his ability to already credibly switch between guarding bigs and defending at the point of attack. Combine that with the fact that he’s fun, seemingly well-liked by teammates and unflappable on the floor, and there’s plenty to get excited about — the Spurs got a good one with him.
It’s funny that with as much as we might fret about Sochan’s jumper deciding his ceiling, few other rookies are currently setting the world on fire from deep. Branham happens to be one of them, although he’s shown some craft in getting to his spots in the mid-range, and the locker room has always seemed high on him. I’m not worried about his jumper coming around but I’m also waiting to see more of his game round out before getting a feel for what he’ll project as.
Jesus Gomez: Sochan has been as good as expected. He has naturally struggled to have the defensive impact he projects to have in the future because of a lack of familiarity with the league and being a part of a team that really struggles on that end, but has done more on offense as the games have passed. The potential is there for him to become an elite role player, the type of connective piece that every good tea needs. His personality also seems to mesh well with the other young pieces, so there’s really not much to complain about.
Branham took a while to adjust to the league but has shown enough flashes of potential as a scorer that made him a first-rounder. His lack of elite athleticism has been noticeable but he’s made up for it with his skill. It’s hard to predict what type of player he will become this early in his career, but he should be able to provide offense off the bench as he figures out the role that suits him best.
The Spurs have a few under-25 role players like Collins, Langford and Roby. Do you see any of them as a legitimate piece for the future?
Dubinski: Of the three, Collins seems like the most likely if only because he fills a position of need at backup center. Of course, there are more of those to be found, but his three-point shooting makes him intriguing, he just needs to work his defense and stay out of foul trouble. I like Langford a lot, but he plays a position the Spurs are already pretty deep at, and they might be more interested in seeing what they can get out of Branham and Blake Wesley. I like Roby’s game, but he just hasn’t been able to prove himself in the limited chances he’s gotten and probably won’t unless Sochan is out for an extended period of time.
Barrington: Langford is interesting. He’s got skills, but unless he improves his shooting from beyond the arc, he’s going to have trouble making his career in the NBA. I think he’s in the right place to develop, and he has a shot at becoming a long term contributor in San Antonio. Zach Collins is having a terrific year, and while he’s not a very good defender, he’s improving and he’s got a lot of unrealized offensive potential, which you can see flashes of from time to time. He’s another player who could end up being a solid piece in a contending team, but he’s not there yet. Mostly, he needs to stay healthy, which isn’t something he’s been able to do much in his career.
I was really excited when Isaiah Roby joined the Spurs, but I no longer feel that way. Some players are just instinctual in how they play the game, they know which way to go, when not to go for the ball fake, and when to attempt a risky block. Manu Ginobili had that quality in abundance, and he almost always took risks at just the right time. Roby is the opposite of that, he’s always making the wrong moves on the court, and sometimes he just looks lost out there on the court. Maybe it’s coaching, but he’s 24 and in his third full NBA season, and if he hasn’t figured it out yet, he may never do it. I’d like the Spurs to keep him around this season, but unless he shows a lot of improvement, he’s likely to be gone next season.
Passos: Langford and Collins have had their moments, and Roby still feels like a guy who belongs on an NBA roster, but I’m not sure any move the needle long-term. That said, who knows how long it may take for the Spurs to set their sights on contention, so it could be that one or more continue to carve their career out in San Antonio. Given their age, that could come with them pushing their upside and returning some additional value.
Gomez: Not really. I expect Collins to be back next season because he’s on a good contract but if his defense doesn’t improve substantially, at some point San Antonio will have to move on. Langford is an interesting case because he’s literally a reliable three-pointer away from being the type of young veteran the Spurs could use off the bench since he defends well and doesn’t use a lot of possessions, but they might decide he’s not worth investing in. Roby has simply made no impact in the minutes he’s gotten and it feels like the idea of him — a versatile, athletic forward with range — was more appealing than the reality.
Do you think any of the older veterans, Richardson, McDermott, Stanley Johnson and Keita Bates-Diop, are going to be on the roster next season?
Dubinski: McDermott stands the best chance if only because he’s still under contract, not to mention he brings desperately needed outside shooting (without actually creating too many wins), but he’s also a good bargaining chip. The Spurs seem to really respect KBD’s game, so similar this season, I could see them re-signing him if he’s available and they have the open roster spot, and the same could be said for Stanley Johnson. That being said, I would probably give everyone except McDermott a less than 50% chance of returning just because it’s impossible to know what direction they’ll be going next season, and McDermott is still very close to that 50% mark.
Barrington: I’m a sucker for a story like Stanley Johnson, a veteran who finally breaks out when he finally gets some run on a bad team in a rebuilding year, and becomes a solid rotation player. He’s the hardest working player on the court, and I hope he can find himself a home in the NBA, even if it isn’t with the Spurs.
I really respect what KBD has done with his game, and he will probably be able to be on NBA rosters for a while, but while he’s good he’s not great enough at anything to be a starter. He can be a bench utility player who can take up minutes when the main rotation players are in foul trouble.
Richardson and McDermott are fine players, but I’d be very surprised if they aren’t traded this season. There are going to be some contending teams that need their talents, and neither one of them fit in the Spurs’ long term plans.
Passos: As with the guys above, and we can probably throw Jakob Poeltl in the mix, too, I think anything can happen. The Spurs will take calls on the vets, but there’s an argument to make against selling low and in favor of keeping players who are not only quality in the locker room but nice structural pieces to develop your younger projects around. It could also be that one of the vets has voiced a desire to play for a contender, or maybe the Spurs want to fast-track minutes to Blake Wesley in the second half of the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some or most of the names hang around past the trade deadline and longer.
Gomez: What happens to Richardson and McDermott will depend on what other teams are willing to trade for them since they have reportedly been on the block all year. I can see Pop liking having Richardson around the locker room, so it’s hard to completely rule out a return but some contender will probably part with a low first-rounder or a couple of second-rounders to get him. The same will probably happen with McDermott. Bringing back Bates-Diop would make no sense, since he’s had plenty of chances of proving himself and hasn’t. Johnson is an interesting case because he might be worth keeping around for another year but will be an unrestricted free agent and might decide to go elsewhere. If he’s happy in San Antonio, he could take KBD’s place as the veteran defensive-minded combo forward while also providing a bit of ball handling.