If Devin Vassell’s eventual star turn catches anyone by surprise, don’t blame him. On the court and off, the fourth-year wing has indicated every intent to lead the new-look Spurs, with an appetite for tough shots and a swagger to match.
“I think the game’s definitely slowed down for me,” he said after a 25-point night early in the season. “I’ve been patient, I’ve been working all summer. I’ve been in the gym. That's what I wanna show this season is that I wanna take over. I wanna be the leader of this team.”
Despite averaging 18.3 points and a career-best 47.1% from the field, it’s fair to say Vassell is still trying to hit that new lofty standard. On a team devoid of advantage creation, his game has floated further from the basket, favoring (and proficiently hitting) a higher rate of contested shots both off the catch and off the dribble. Per Basketball Reference, his average shot distance is over 18 feet, a new highest mark for his career. He averages fewer paint touches per game than Malaki Branham and Tre Jones. His drives per game as tracked by NBA Stats is down from 8.8 to 5.9, and his assists and attempts near the rim are down from last year, etching a profile of someone who has deferred more than taken over and imposed his will. And the San Antonio Spurs sure needed the latter often through 18 straight losses in which the they were one of the league’s worst offenses.
Injuries haven’t helped. Vassell has missed 5 games total so far, and he has come off the bench in others as he ramped up his fitness. While he’s asserted that he came into this season at 100%, could there be any lingering effects to his willingness to seek out contact after missing much of last season to another lower-body injury? Add to the mix that the team experimentations at point guard and integration of a new foundational piece in rookie Victor Wembanyama, which could also disrupt a perimeter player’s approach. Of course, you could also flip this and say that a better suited scoring option could’ve facilitated those changes.
In Friday’s sneak-snapping win over the Lakers, Vassell posted a career-high 36 points on 12 of 19 shooting, making 5 of 10 threes and all 7 free throws. It’s the 10th time in his career he’s made 5 or more three-pointers but, incredibly, the first time he’s eclipsed the 30-point mark. That can be attributed to a more all-around scoring night in which he doubled his totals at the charity stripe and looked more aggressive off the dribble.
fun sequence from the Lakers win pic.twitter.com/jUfJw5l7eK— Bruno Passos (@bouncepassos) December 17, 2023
He doesn’t need to be Keldon Johnson barreling towards the rim, but smart, aggressive reads, like this one to beat the Lakers’ all-night zone, can give life to a Spurs offense that’s sputtered through much of the year.
nice dribble drive to a floater to beat the zone pic.twitter.com/UckwBVtm9n— Bruno Passos (@bouncepassos) December 17, 2023
In Sunday’s followup blowout loss to the Pels, it was back to the old Dev line: 13 points on 5 of 13 from the field, two FGAs in the paint (both makes), 1 free throw attempt.
Vassell has made strides in each of his three past seasons as a pro, adding to his offensive game and improving his scoring from 5.5 points per game as a rookie to 12.3 and 18.5 last season. He’s steadily moved up the pecking order while adding to his on-ball repertoire and on any given play can knock down contested jumpers with a high degree of difficulty. There are few shooting metrics in which he doesn’t rate out as good or better. Already his game is a far cry from the 3-and-D label that followed him into the league, not to mention how he was first used upon arrival in San Antonio:
“Two totally different roles, I can tell you that... My rookie year I was running to the corner, playing with DeMar and Rudy and Patty, LaMarcus. DJ, Derrick, I can go down the line — our team was stacked.... at the end of the day, there’s times where I’ve gotta be more aggressive, that leader on the floor, and I take that with a bunch of pride, a bunch of confidence. That’s a big step for me, that’s the next step for me.”
The team’s need for that next step from Vassell is accentuated by the hefty contract extension they just gave him, as well as the need for a nightly leader alongside Wembanyama. Notably, the Spurs made no major moves this past offseason as they evaluate the fit of Wembanyama and all of the pieces around him. Near the top of that list must have been the re-inked Vassell, tabbed as the Spurs’ most viable go-to option in the half-court this season and someone who could be asked to get a bucket or three in crunch time. Said Pop in October:
“Devin is starting to figure out that I want him to be a bit selfish, I want him to score. And he can score, and he has a lot of confidence in his three-point shot and his ability to be a bit of a one-on-one player when I need it, a go-to guy.”
Below is one of my favorites for this season, in which we see Vassell make a read while off the ball and communicate it to a teammate to set up a strong take and finish.
here's that possession. can see he notices the opportunity, gets them to reset and Zach into position. glimpses of growth for a guy who's relishing an even bigger role this season pic.twitter.com/6DzuuRWKrn— Bruno Passos (@bouncepassos) October 28, 2023
His post-game explanation on the play above is a snapshot of how far Vassell has come from a 4th or 5th option waiting in the corner, not only seeing opportunities before they develop but having the voice and trust from his teammates to execute:
”Me getting downhill, especially a lot in the 4th quarter and overtime, I was seeing the big man stepping up. So I knew that as soon as I got downhill that he was gonna step up and Zach was gonna have that lob. So we just executed it, and that’s gonna be there. We gotta see Zach and Vic in those lobs. if they step up, I’m gonna throw it. If they don’t step up I got my shot. Pick and choose which one you wanna do.”
The Spurs need more of this as opponents continue to hone in on Wembanyama, both in the short term and as Brian Wright and Co. conceive what a great team may look like around the French rookie. No one else on the roster possesses Vassell’s ability to score at all three levels, which can ease the pressure off the big man and provide much-needed structure to the offense. Nothing should be off the table as the front office brings that vision to life, especially when it comes to finding that ideal complement to Wembanyama at the top of the pecking order, but the more direct paths to that goal involve Vassell making good on the standard he himself has laid out and ascending one more level.