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Three players to watch during the final stretch of the Spurs’ season

How the team fairs over the last 23-games may depend on these players

San Antonio Spurs v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It used to be that the All Star break signaled a halfway point in the NBA calendar. A time to rest and reflect on the first half, and how to get better in the second. But to keep the NBA content machine pumping, the trade deadline was moved before the All Star Game, and the break happens with just a third of the season left.

Teams get the weekend to rest up before a rigorous 23-game stretch where many will be fighting for their playoff lives. The Spurs are not one of those teams. In fact, they may be headed for a stretch where they look to solidify their spot as a bottom 3 team, and secure the highest odds in the NBA draft.

That doesn’t mean that the team doesn’t have plenty to look forward to. There are some storylines to watch in the second half of the year, especially with the young, developing talent on the roster. Who will improve their game? Who will stay in the rotation when key contributors come back from injury? What will Jeremy Sochan’s hair look like? These will be the things that make the Spurs’ world go around until mid-April.

How does Devin Vassell look post-injury?

Prior to undergoing an arthroscopic procedure on his knee to deal with some soreness, Vassell looked like he had taken a leap. The 3rd year guard was averaging 19 ppg, 4 apg on 48/40/80 shooting splits. He looked extremely comfortable shooting off of the catch, hitting over 52% of his corner threes. Being respected as a knockdown shooter, he started to aggressively attack closeouts, showing off good finishing skills at the rim, and an impressive mid range game. He’s shown flashes of knocking down threes off of the bounce, which would open up a welcomed new aspect of the offense.

For a team shooting 34% from beyond-the-arc, Vassell’s shooting would be welcomed. With his return slated for sometime after the break, what can we expect from him coming back from knee surgery? Robert Williams III had a similar procedure this season, and has come back looking like a potential defensive player of the year candidate. On the other hand, Lonzo Ball had the procedure last fall, and still has not returned to the court. I expect Vassell to fall somewhere in the middle of these two.

It may be in the Spurs’ best interest to ease him back into the rotation, keeping their lottery chances high, while letting Vassell find his rhythm from earlier in the season. No matter what, his scoring ability will be fun to watch in the last 23 games.

Can Malaki Branham keep it up? Who is the lead guard?

Branham had an explosive February. Leading all rookie scorers with 18 ppg, and shooting 41% from 3-point range. While Tre Jones dealt with injuries, Branham stepped into the starting 5 as the lead guard. The Spurs haven’t really played with a traditional point guard during that stretch, and he profiles more as a combo-guard who is more of a threat as a scorer than a facilitator.

With Jones getting rest over the break, and likely returning to consistent playing time, who will be the lead guard? Jones is a better facilitator, dishing out 6 apg this season, and also defends better at the point of attack. When both were available to play on February 11th, Keita Bates-Diop went to the bench, and Keldon Johnson slid to the 3, while Branham and Jones took the guard spots. But if Vassell comes back ready to play starters’ minutes, where does that leave Branham?

The rookie struggled in his one game starting alongside Jones, but in theory, playing next to someone who can get him the ball in the right position to score should help continue his hot streak. The Spurs will have a decision to make on who to start at the 1, if Vassell can play. Will they go with the best playmaker in Jones, or the better scorer in Branham? You could argue that with other playmakers like Zach Collins and Jeremy Sochan in the lineup, they would be better off to go with the scoring punch Branham provides. At the same time, Jones could get scorers like Johnson and Vassell in positions to thrive.

Branham could still be a great weapon off of the bench where shooters like Doug McDermott and Devonte Graham will open up the floor for him to operate in the mid-range, where he’s been very successful this season.

Will they hand Jeremy Sochan the keys?

The 19-year-old rookie forward looked like a point guard at times in the Rising Stars game this past weekend, and has developed as a playmaker this season. He’s also looked more comfortable as a scorer in the last few months, despite some up and down three-point shooting. He’s still so young, but it is worth wondering what his role will be on the team going forward? Is he just a versatile, facilitating forward who defends at a high level? Or is he a full blown point forward?

I would love to see Popovich utilize Sochan in a similar way they use KJ. Get him downhill using screens and handoffs, then let him playmake from those positions. Where Johnson likes to use these opportunities to put his head down and get a hard basket at the rim, Sochan can get to the hoop for an athletic finish, or hit rollers or shooters flaring to the corners.

His usage rate has steadily risen month over month, getting up to 23 in his 4 February games, but those were nights with a depleted roster. With the full roster back, it will be interesting to see if Sochan will continue to be a focal point of the offense, or just a luxurious cog in the machine.

Which young guy will get pushed out of the rotation?

With injuries plaguing the roster lately, Spurs’ fans have gotten a good look at young players like Branham, Blake Wesley, Dominick Barlow, Charles Bassey and Isaiah Roby. With Jones getting healthy, Vassell slated to return, and Khem Birch joining the team, some of these guys will be on the outside looking in.

Branham has more than earned his spot, so it’s safe to say he will get playing time. Charles Bassey just signed his first full-time NBA contract, and took over back up center minutes from Gorgui Dieng in the game following. Will Birch infringe on Bassey’s minutes? It might be worth seeing what you have in Bassey before you move onto the veteran who had a hard time cracking the Raptors’ rotation.

Wesley has struggled with a bigger role, often times playing out of control, and looking lost on defense. With Branham excelling, and Jones and Vassell coming back, it’s hard to make a case for his rotation spot.

Despite clearly oozing potential, I expect to see Dominick Barlow spend more time in Austin than with San Antonio. This roster suddenly has a glut of big men, making the two-way player’s path to opportunity tougher. He and Wesley could benefit from some extended run with the G-League team, where they can play key roles, and build their skills to try to crack the rotation next season.

With the team seemingly getting healthier, it’s exciting to think about the potential lineups and personnel that the Silver and Black will go to down the stretch run. There is always the chance that they continue to rest guys, in hopes to lose enough games for higher lottery odds. Regardless of the strategy, there is enough talent and intrigue on this team to entertain fans through the end of the season.