We are 16 games into the season, and the Spurs are at the bottom of the Western Conference and losers of 11 straight. It’s not that surprising for the youngest team in the league to struggle but when the losses pile up, the scrutiny increases.
In San Antonio, the biggest lightning rod for criticism so far has been the Jeremy Sochan at point guard experiment. The second-year forward's play has by no means been the main reason for the lack of success but there has been more to dislike than be thrilled about with the results of Gregg Popovich’s decision to change Sochan’s position.
Let’s break down the two main issues.
Sochan is just not a good pick-and-roll ball handler
The Spurs’ system doesn’t ask too much from the point guard, since the playmaking duties are split with the center and a lot of possessions consist of cuts, handoffs and post-ups. The biggest responsibility of the point guard is to create for others mainly out of the pick and roll, which is a problem.
Sochan is a good passer and has good vision, but he’s also one of the worst pick-and-roll ball handlers in the league in terms of points per possession generated as a scorer, according to Synergy Sports. The numbers can’t possibly come as a surprise to anyone who has watched him in his two years in the league. Sochan is not a threat to pull up that opponents respect and simply doesn’t have the ball-handling ability, the quick first step or the know-how to put opponents in a bad position while using a ball screen. There’s the occasional strong drive, especially when he rejects the screen, and sometimes he gets close enough to the rim to hit a short pull-up but in general, he simply can't generate points for himself consistently. The tools are just not there, at least at this point.
The signs were there last season when Sochan had to run fewer pick-and-rolls, so it’s hard to see why the coaching staff thought his limited skills had any scalability, even as a passer. In the entire 2022/23 season, Sochan found the dive man on the pick-and-roll for a bucket six times, with Zach Collins, Jakob Poeltl and Charles Bassey all finishing two each. There was also a pass to Bassey that made the defense collapse and resulted in an open three and a chippy that Poeltl missed after a good pass. That’s it, at least according to Synergy Sports archives. The amount of corner threes he generated was negligible and his main target for outside shots was Zach Collins on the pick-and-pop. When he got the opportunity to be the engine of the offense, he was simply bad.
The same has happened this season. Sochan is shooting 30 percent on plays he finishes as the pick-and-roll ball handler. He has found the dive man for buckets four times directly, with Collins being the beneficiary three times and Wembanyama once. He also threw a decent lob to Wemby that he couldn’t finish and had an extended pick and roll that ended in a bucket. He hasn’t generated corner threes and the threes he generates are often contested, since he doesn’t make the defense collapse, or pick-and-pops to bigs who are not consistent shooters, which at least partially explains why the Spurs shoot so poorly from outside when he’s on the floor. One of the most concerning examples of his general troubles is when picks up his dribble seemingly for no reason and often faces away from the basket, which forces him to make the simplest pass to the perimeter that the defense concedes.
To be clear, Sochan is doing his best. He’s just been asked to do more of something he never showed the ability to do. That’s what makes it an experiment, but, at this point, the upside seems limited. Unless Zach Collins hits most of those pick-and-pop threes Sochan sets up for him, having the second-year forward as a main pick-and-roll ball handler is just not going to work in the short term.
Sochan could be developing in other areas instead
If Sochan spends the entire season running pick and rolls and getting the team into its sets, he will improve at both. The question is, will he actually become someone who can do that full-time at a high level for a good team? And is giving him reps in that role the best use of this season? There is an opportunity cost with the Point Sochan experiment and it’s hard to be confident about the 20-year-old’s long-term future as a point guard when he doesn’t seem to have the tools to be one. Time spent trying to get him to learn a new position is time that can’t be spent trying to accentuate his strengths, which are significant, and working on his weaknesses.
The whole experiment is obfuscating how interesting a player Sochan could be. He’s already a good passer for a forward and someone who can defend multiple positions and score within the flow of the offense. Last season he showed a budding post-game along with the ability to find spaces to cut, and that has carried over. This season he’s been hitting open threes at a high rate, albeit at a small volume. The tools for him to be an elite complementary player are there. Sochan is in all likelihood not going to be a go-to scorer or primary creator, but he could be a fantastic Swiss army knife elite role player with enough shot creation to punish mismatches and the ability to facilitate on the break and as a secondary ball handler or connective piece.
The problem is there’s no room for that version of Sochan in the starting lineup unless Victor Wembanyama plays center full-time, which is not going to happen any time soon. The whole point Sochan experiment is likely motivated at least partially by the desire to have the team’s five best players on the floor at the same time as much as possible and not about maximizing Sochan’s development. In an ideal world, the franchise player the Spurs selected a year after drafting Sochan would have been a point guard or a center, but it turned out to be a power forward. Because Wembanyama can’t play any other position full-time, Sochan had to. Moving him to the wing meant benching one of Vassell or Johnson, so that couldn’t happen. So here we are, with the choices being to play out of position or come off the bench.
It’s too early to call the experiment a failure
Is Sochan to blame for the Spurs’ struggles? Not really. Should Pop get flak for trying something intriguing that is probably going to fail? No. The reality is this season should be about experimentation for the Spurs. They are not trying to lose but they didn’t really go all in on trying to win, so the standings shouldn’t be what determines what they do.
As for Sochan, he’s clearly learning some things. Whether he ends up becoming a full-time point guard or not, the skills he’s picking up by getting to run pick-and-rolls and setting the table on offense are transferable. Pop himself said he didn’t know what Sochan was going to be before the season. Maybe in two years he’ll be a matchup nightmare who can do whatever the team needs, including running the offense in a pinch, and this season will be the reason why.
The Spurs’ offensive struggles can be exasperating to watch and taking it out on Sochan or Pop for putting him in the position he is now is tempting. The reality is it’s only Year 2 of the rebuild in San Antonio and some growing pains are inevitable, so some more patience will be required.