Devin Vassell will undergo knee surgery and will be out indefinitely, the Spurs’ announced. The wing, who played through pain this year and missed eight games before this decision was made, will be sidelined for the foreseeable future as the team focuses on his long-term health.
It’s a tough blow for San Antonio, as Vassell was one of the team’s brightest spots this season thanks to his much-improved offensive play, but it’s hard to argue with the direction the franchise has picked. This year was never going to be about short-term success, so as unfortunate as this development is, it won’t derail any grand plans.
That said, not having Vassell around will have an impact on what the Spurs do on the floor and potentially off it too. So let’s take a look at what it could mean.
There should be no hesitance to tank now
The Spurs made it clear that their goal this season wasn’t to win as much as possible, but they also seemed to not fully embrace tanking. There were some absences from players that could have probably played through the pain, but the roster still had veterans getting regular minutes and the best performers were in the rotation. It wouldn’t be surprising to see that all change now.
Without Vassell for what could be weeks if not months, the team now only has arguably two starting-caliber NBA players on its roster in Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl. The rest is a collection of journeymen, young and old, and unproven young prospects. Without the team’s best player — and despite Johnson’s recent string of good performances, Vassell was the one — it’s extremely unlikely to imagine the Spurs being successful. Granted, it was tough to envision a big push up the standings even with Vassell around, but it made some sense to try to surround the two core wings with a competent supporting cast to facilitate their development and gauge their potential. There’s no need to do that anymore.
Johnson will continue to have his ups and downs with being a first option, but he’ll be in San Antonio for the long haul since he signed an extension. Poeltl is in the last year of his contract and is probably too old to be considered a core piece. The rest are role players right now, including the rookies. Everyone is interchangeable, but it makes a lot more sense to try to see what the younger guys can do than to go with reliable but lower-ceiling guys. Everyone on a non-rookie contract should be on the block. Would it be better for Jeremy Sochan’s development to have a proven shooter like Josh Richardson around him to space the floor? Probably, but Sochan is 19 years old, and has three more years left on his rookie contract after this season. There will be time to maximize his potential. Now is the time to maximize the chances of getting Victor Wembanyama.
With everyone healthy, there was a case to be made for the Spurs to simply play their best guys, mainly to see how Vassell and Johnson looked with a decent supporting cast. It’s hard to make that case now that Vassell is out, so it would be understandable to make some trades and be overly cautious with injuries to get the best lottery odds possible.
A lot of players will get an opportunity to shine
Vassell was averaging 31.3 minutes a game, and he earned every single one of them. In fact, it would be easy to argue that he should have played more if he could handle it. He was clearly the best alternative as the starting shooting guard and a good option 1b to Johnson’s 1a. The problem with that is that there were simply fewer minutes and shots for other interesting players. Now, there will be more of both available.
It’s likely Romeo Langford will start in Vassell’s place since he has done it in the past and as recently as Wednesday in the loss against the Knicks. Normally Langford sticks to a small role with an emphasis on defense, but now he might have a little more freedom to try to be the player who dazzled in high school and college. Rookie Malaki Branham has looked a lot more confident over the past few weeks and could find another gear if he gets more shots. Blake Wesley is getting back into game shape in Austin, but he might soon find a spot off the bench with the big team. Stanley Johnson has been a nice surprise and could bring some energy. Josh Richardson is likely the better player among all the alternatives and while he’s not in the future plans, he could actually up his trade value if he can prove to be a reliable creator on a bigger role between now and the trade deadline.
One of the issues the Spurs were starting to run into is that they didn’t have enough minutes for everyone as they got healthy. Having Vassell sidelined is not the solution anyone would have picked, but it is a solution. If the coaching staff wants to see if the rookie guards will sink or swim, they now have over 30 minutes to split between them. If they want to see what Stanely Johnson and Langford can do before their contracts are up, the playing time could be there. If the idea is to showcase Richardson and maybe even McDermott in some creative lineups, now’s the time. Maybe Tre Jones takes on a larger offensive role or Sochan gets more touches, too. Everything should be on the table.
It’s never good when a player has to miss extended time and it’s particularly painful for the fans of a rebuilding team when one of the most entertaining performers has to sit out, but there can be silver linings. If during the time Vassell is out San Antonio finds someone who can be a part of the future, accelerates the development of one of the young guys or ups the value of a veteran, the pain of watching a worse team won’t be in vain.