clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tall Ball gives Spurs an identity, path to defensive competitiveness

The Spurs are poised to start the season with a jumbo starting five that brings some trade-offs as well as clear upside.

San Antonio Spurs All Access Practice Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The Spurs began Wednesday’s preseason game versus Houston with a new and much-anticipated look, starting Jeremy Sochan (listed at 6-8 in this year’s media guide) at the nominal point guard position alongside Devin Vassell (6-5), Keldon Johnson (6-5), Victor Wembanyama (7-3) and Zach Collins (6-11). As Gregg Popovich confirmed afterwards, it’s a starting five we can expect to see as the real basketball gets underway:

“They better play well or we are in trouble. Those are the big guys. They are tall, they are big, they are going to start.”

The odd man out is last year’s floor general, Tre Jones, who’s easily outplayed his second-round draft stock and proven to be a bona fide rotation player in the league but who is also 6-1 and not yet a shooting threat. Despite Jones’ strides and steady play last season, his archetype (undersized, not strong shooters) has felt the squeeze as the league becomes less positional. He’ll still see time in rotations mixed in with the starters, and who knows how Pop will close games out each night.

You inevitably lose a bit of table-setting and play creation in the trade-off of Jones to Sochan, and he’s also a non-threat from deep, but it’s a bet the Spurs appear willing to make. While Sochan’s offensive game remains a work in progress, last year’s 9th overall pick has unteachable size and a willingness to seek out teammates, and he can do enough off the ball to be dangerous. Don’t expect much out of him individually breaking a defense down, but he can get the team into its sets, which almost exclusively develop from the sides, and either cut hard or look for a deep post touch against a smaller defender, equal parts point guard and chaos agent.

And it’s on defense where the more immediate payoff should be. The Tall Ball Spurs can switch 1 through 4 and are better able to man up on live-ball situations when opponents push the pace and seek out mismatches. Wembanyama’s length and presence around the basket will send ball-handlers away, while Sochan assumes the same role he had last season defending the point of attack and Collins gets the assignments against the Jokics and Embiids of the league. The Spurs can afford to have their huge rookie occasionally leak out instead of crash the defensive glass. Johnson spent much of the last two years as the starting five’s second-biggest body — now he’s likely the fourth, with the bulked up Vassell giving him a run for his money.

Better defense should fuel better offense, and as the Spurs get stops and push the pace, they should almost always have a size mismatch between Sochan, Wembanyama and Collins. Against a shorthanded Houston team on Wednesday, the Spurs raced out to a 17-1 lead, holding the Rockets to 0 field goals over 5 minutes, the kind of stretch you’d be hard-pressed to see in recent years.

Last season’s defensive struggles aren’t lost on Pop, who won’t let you tiptoe around how bad the 2022-23 Spurs were:

“We were 30th in the league. You want me to try to hide from that – ‘Well, we had room for improvement, I think.’.. Anything we do shores up the defense because it couldn’t get any worse. I’m serious. I am not trying to be a wise guy. I tell you, we sucked.”

The Spurs indeed sucked in nearly every aspect of containing opponents, which led to not only the last-placed defensive rating on the season but the worst mark in the history of the league. Part of that historical feat is just the way the game’s been trending — the NBA’s best defense last year (the Cavs at 109.9 defensive rating) would’ve finished 29th in the 2015-16 season, just ahead of the Lakers (110.3), whose defense was statistically more efficient than the 2022-23 Celtics — and part of that was the tank. But it still leaves the team starting from scratch in how to compete and improve its standing in that category in respect to the other 29 teams.

That aforementioned tank delivered Wembanyama and his 8-foot wingspan, which makes the job of cobbling together a functional defense a bit easier. By surrounding him with positional length, the Spurs can lean that much further into an identity that amplifies many of his strengths.

“Size can translate into blocked shots, more rebounding, that sort of thing,” said Pop. “That overall helps your defense, that’s for sure. Length helps you with deflections, that sort of thing, keeping people out of the paint. So, it’s been the emphasis since the beginning of training camp that it would behoove ourselves to improve defensively.”

Continuity should prove just as impactful this season. Last year’s team cycled through 40 different starting lineups and had only two 5-man units play together for more than 60 minutes. They weren’t undone by a handful of groupings that didn’t work, but moreso a dearth of talent and a seemingly purposeful lack of familiarity and chemistry. If the Point Sochan experiment shows promise, if his current shortcomings are offset by the upside he could bring in the aggregate, the Spurs should have something to build on in the months to come.

“Of course,” said Wembanyama when asked about liking what he’s seen from Sochan so far. “All of us got a long way to go, but he’s already pretty wise on the court and efficient, and the ball is safe in his hands, so he’s got 100 percent of my trust.”