When I was coaching, one of our favorite times was the end of training camp — the cusp of the season. We had installed the offense, the defense, in-bounds plays, press break, and both players and coaches wanted to know if all the hard work we had put in would work in the real world. Along with that general curiosity, we also had specific questions that would define our season.
The San Antonio Spurs are at that inflection point right now, and I am sure Pop and his crew have specific questions that the season will answer. Here are ten of mine. Not surprisingly, several involve the new guy.
1. How much will Victor Wembanyama play?
Several of my more pessimistic friends have asked whether Victor can stay healthy over the pounding of an NBA 82-game season. I reminded them that the Spurs practically invented what is now call “load management”. That load management started when the Spurs’ Big Three were young, and contributed to their ability to have long and successful careers, generally avoiding serious injury. The Spurs will do the same with their newest star. Assuming he remains relatively healthy for his rookie season, I expect Victor to play about 30 minutes per game and play in about 70 games.
2. How good will he be this season?
That first summer league game in which Victor seemed overwhelmed feels like a long time ago. As does the second game which allowed all Spurs fans to breathe a giant sigh of relief. And then we had the preseason in which one could legitimately ask if Victor may be an All-Star this season. I believe the answer to that question is likely no, but the answer to whether he will be Rookie of the Year is probably yes. The only part of his game that has been disappointing so far has been defensive rebounding — but if he plays 30 minutes a game, he can probably get 8 - 10 boards just from being long with good hands. So how about 18 points, 9 boards, 3 assists and 3 blocks?
3. Will he be a media sensation?
We already know this answer: Yes. For instance, best sportswriter in the world Joe Posnanski dropped this Victor reference in his description of a late home run in the Astros - Rangers playoff game — a baseball game — Friday night:
“Carter did make a mighty effort, but there was no way to catch that ball unless you had Elastigirl stretchy arms (or are Victor Wembanyama) and the Astros led 5-4”
4. How will Keldon Johnson react to being the third option?
For the past several seasons, Keldon Johnson has been top dog on the Spurs. Especially with Devin Vassell missing so many games last season, Keldon became used to getting the ball when he wanted, and being the primary option in the last five minutes of games (if the Spurs had managed to keep it close). This year, all the attention is rightfully on Victor, and Vassell seems to have taken a big step forward towards being the top returning veteran. Johnson may not even start some nights. I believe he is driven enough to use Vassel’s ascendance as a good thing and an incentive for Johnson to continue to improve himself. He surely will enjoy winning more games too, something that should follow if he reacts well to his reduced status in the pecking order on a better team.
5. Can Tre Jones become a viable threat from three?
Before the three-point line was added (and saved my post-college career), Jones would have been the quintessential point guard. Crafty with the ball, a good driver and finisher, tough on defense, a pass-first mentality. All of that is still important, but in today’s game perimeter players must also “stretch the floor” by being a threat from the three-point line. Last season, Jones shot under 29% from three — that shrinks the floor and does not stretch it. I would be more confident about Tre Jones becoming a viable threat from three if Chip Engelland was still with the Spurs and not in OKC.
6. Can the Spurs improve their defense?
Easiest question of all of them. The Spurs were 30th out of the 30 NBA teams last season. I suppose the real question is how much the Spurs can improve their defense. Clearly, adding a 7’3” mobile guy with great instincts and Elastgirl stretchy arms will help. As will having Vassell, their best perimeter defender, playing more than the 38 games he played last year. It will also help to have a more stable rotation — last season the Spurs were often introducing themselves to each other as they walked out for the opening tip.
7. Will the Spurs veterans still be on the team after the trade deadline?
I do not believe the Spurs will be making a run at the playoffs this year. That also means that they may be willing to stockpile assets if they can get some value by trading one of their veterans. Most prominently, a contender looking for a Shooter may cast their eyes, and future draft picks, towards San Antonio for Doug McDermott. He can still shoot the ball, and his movement off the ball is exquisite.
8. How will the Toronto Raptors do this season?
Wait, what? I thought this was about the Spurs. Well, it is. The Spurs have the Raptors’ top-6 protected first round pick next year as part of the Jacob Poeltl trade. As a result, the Spurs want the Raptors to be moderately bad this season, but not one of the six worst teams in the NBA. A pick around 9th or 10th would be just fine.
9. Can Jeremy Sochan improve his offensive game?
Sochan averaged only 11 points per game, shot 45% from the field and under 25% from three. And he was still a revelation and one of the top rookies in the league, making All-Rookie second team. He will be a very good player for years to come, and could be a valuable member of a contending team if he improves his offense. I bet he will.
10. Will this be a fascinating season for the Spurs?