Devin Vassell recently signed a lucrative extension that will keep him in San Antonio for a long time. The Spurs have both Vassell and Keldon Johnson on long-term deals and two other potential cornerstones like Jeremy Sochan and Victor Wembanyama early on their rookie contracts. There’s a sense of continuity now.
What Vassell will find out soon is that with a big paycheck comes more scrutiny. Next season he will make $30 million, after all. With NBA contracts, though, it’s always better to zoom out and get as much context as possible before making any conclusions about whether they are good or bad, and Vassell’s seems like the former.
It’s a good value extension for a player of Vassell’s caliber
The contract numbers in the modern NBA can sometimes look absurd, so it’s understandable if someone scoffed at the 5-year, $146 million deal when it was first reported. Vassell is a wing with half of a good season under his belt and no elite skill. Despite those facts, what he got is actually a reasonable contract.
Vassell will get a lot of money, but not in NBA terms. He will rank 46th in the league in base salary last season, not counting anything that happens in free agency next summer. He’ll likely get pushed to the 50s by the time the next offseason ends. He’ll be in the Jerami Grant - Kristaps Porzingis - Jordan Poole range, which seems about right as long as he stays healthy. Are there better players who will be paid less? Probably, but that’s how things work in the NBA, as timing is everything. There are guys who are still under contracts that were signed when the cap was lower or when they hadn’t proved their worth yet. Looking at the bigger picture, Vassell seems adequately compensated in the current market.
Things could go badly, of course, as he could regress or get injured, but there’s also the chance that Vassell outperforms his contract. When Vassell was available and healthy last season he averaged 18 points, four rebounds and over three assists while making 39 of his threes. He showed some shot-creation ability as well and he still hasn’t been able to deliver on the tremendous promise he showed on defense as a prospect. If Vassell masters a pull-up three and uses the muscle he added to body up wings on defense and finish better at the rim, he could legitimately become a tremendous two-way player worth more than he’ll earn. It’s not unreasonable to think that a 23-year-old with skills and a good work ethic will continue to get better with more experience, which is why even the length of the contract makes sense.
The Spurs should still have plenty of cap space next season
Looking at Vasell’s contract alone is a little shortsighted. How it fits with the rest of the salaries on the books matters more. There’s always an opportunity cost when it comes to roster spots and salary, so it’s silly to look at things in a vacuum instead of the context of the entire cap sheet. Fortunately, things look good there as well.
Vassell’s extension will kick in next season and count on the books for significantly more than his cap hold would have counted for, so it has an effect on the Spurs’ cap space. The benefit of offering the extension instead of waiting is twofold. First, Vassell could have a career season if he stays healthy and could command more money in restricted free agency or simply sign an offer sheet for a shorter contract so that he could re-enter the pool earlier. Locking him down now prevents that risk. Second, signing him now serves as a sign that the Spurs are committed to Vassell, which should keep the relationship between team and player good. There have been reports of multiple up-and-coming players who were upset that they had to wait until restricted free agency to get paid, including Kawhi Leonard.
Now, waiting until restricted free agency even at the risk of potentially alienating a key player can be worthwhile if it’s necessary to create enough cap space to make a splash in free agency. Leonard had to wait because the Spurs were angling to get LaMarcus Aldridge. In this case, there are no issues with cap space. Even with Vassell’s deal on the books, San Antonio will have only around $102 million on active contracts, which is $40 million under the cap. Cap holds would put them over it, but the only one that will probably matter is Zach Collins’, which is around $15 million. The Spurs also have some guys on non-guaranteed or partially guaranteed contracts so they could easily get rid of $15 million by waiving Devonté Graham, Julian Champagnie and Charles Bassey. It’s unlikely they go all in on a major piece, but if they want to, they should have the cap space.
The numbers are estimates and we are a year away from having to actually worry about Vassell’s new contract counting against the cap. A lot can happen between now and then that changes the picture completely. For now, though, Vassell’s extension seems like a smart play that reduces risk without compromising cap flexibility, which is exactly what’s needed for a rebuilding team setting its foundations.