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Determining if Devin Vassell was the right pick for the Spurs in 2020

There will always be debate about the player who went after Vassell in the draft, but that doesn’t mean he was the wrong pick for the Spurs.

Utah Jazz v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

A recent article asked whether the Golden State Warriors made a mistake by not taking Tyrese Haliburton when the Warriors had the second pick in the 2020 NBA draft. In hindsight, the answer seems clear — Haliburton has become a star and will likely be an All-Star this year, averaging over 24 points and 12 assists per game for the Pacers. The player the Warriors did select with the number 2 pick, James Wiseman, simply did not work out, and is now out of the league altogether. (Checking notes — Wiseman is playing for the Pistons. Yup, he is out of the league altogether.)

However, despite the Warriors’ interest in Haliburton in 2020, no one had him going as high as 2 or 3 in the draft. As a reminder, the consensus top pick in 2020 was Anthony Edwards, who went to the Timberwolves and is living up to that selection. Once Edwards went first as expected, the Warriors’ actual choice was between Wiseman, a post player, and LaMelo Ball, a ball dominant point guard. The Warriors already had a fairly talented point guard who is also the best shooter ever. They did not want to take the ball out of Steph Curry’s hands in favor of a rookie — even one as talented as Ball, or Haliburton for that matter.

No, the actual teams who realistically could have, and should have, taken Haliburton were a bit lower in the lottery. Most prominently, the San Antonio Spurs, who had the 11th pick — the last pick before the Sacramento Kings took Haliburton with the 12th pick. Remarkably, even the team that selected Haliburton, the Kings, may not have known how good he was going to become. The Kings traded him in February of his second season to the Pacers for Domantas Sabonis. At the time of the trade, Haliburton had good but not great numbers — 14 points, 7 assists per game. Of course, the Kings already had a pretty good point guard of their own in De’Aaron Fox, who has thrived alongside Sabonis.

Interestingly, the Spurs had some of the same issues as the Warriors and Kings. The difference was that the 2020 Spurs had two point guards “in the way”, not just one, and both of the Spurs’ guard were young. The Spurs had just signed Dejounte Murray to a four-year contract in 2019, and he would eventually become an All-Star with the Spurs, while Derrick White was still just 25. Both averaged in double figures and also showed great promise on the defensive end. In 2020, it was easy to envision both guards as Spurs’ mainstays for years to come.

Devin Vassell was seen as the perfect compliment to the two point guards — a rangy defender with a good shot, and importantly, comfortable playing off the ball. And while he has not yet become an all-star, as Haliburton surely will this year, Vassell has become the Spurs’ second-best player. Of course, the two players who may have blocked Haliburton’s path have since been traded, with White going to the Celtics and Murray to the Hawks — perhaps proof that teams should just take the best player available and not worry too much about the players “in the way”. (That may even include the Warriors, who instead of Haliburton took Wiseman, and also kept Jordan Poole, who they had picked late in the first round in 2019.)

We can also evaluate the Spurs’ selection of Vassel by seeing how other teams’ picks in that draft have worked out. A recent Sporting News article said that if the 2020 draft was re-done today, Haliburton would go number 2 and Vassel would jump up to number 7:

”Vassell was thought of as a safe pick in this draft. He was a great college defender with a nice 7-foot wingspan who shot it well from 3. Those types of wings are extremely valuable in today’s NBA.

Vassell has brought that defense and shooting to the NBA. He’s also added some shot creation that may have come as a bit of a surprise. He was second on the Spurs in scoring at 18.5 points per game in his third year in the league, getting to a midrange shot that has been automatic.”

Of the ten players picked before Vassel in 2020, the Sporting News has SIX of those ten players completely out of the re-draft lottery: Wiseman (2), Patrick Williams (4), Isaac Okoro (5), Killian Hayes (7), Deni Avdija (9) and Jalen Smith (10). The article has another top-ten draft pick, Obi Toppin (8), dropped behind Vassel to the 14th and last pick in the lottery. (Remember that teams had much less access to the players in the run-up to the 2020 draft because of the pandemic.) In light of the fact that 60% of the top ten picks in the 2020 draft would not even be in the lottery in this imaginary re-draft, and another player moved from ahead of Vassel to behind, it appears the Spurs did very well with the 11th pick — even if they missed on Haliburton. They certainly did not miss as badly as six other teams.

Ironically, the Sporting News re-draft has Vassel going to ... the Detroit Pistons, meaning that he, like Wiseman, would be effectively out of the league.