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How Khem Birch and Devonte Graham fit with the Spurs

The two additions are not household names, but they could carve out roles for themselves in the Spurs’ rotation.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs have two new faces. Khem Birch and Devonte’ Graham will be a part of the roster after being shipped to San Antonio in the deals that sent Jakob Poeltl to Toronto and Josh Richardson to New Orleans.

The picks that were involved in those transactions have gotten most of the attention for understandable reasons, but the Silver and Black will look different on the floor for the rest of the season as well. So let’s take a look at what the trades mean for the Spurs’ rotation.

Graham is not a traditional point guard, but that’s not a problem

The biggest name of the two newcomers is Devonte’ Graham. The 6’1” five-year veteran is categorized as a point guard, but anyone expecting him to be a floor general would be mistaken, as Graham’s main skill is his shooting. Graham is a volume three-point gunner who has averaged over eight outside shots per game in the three seasons he was a high-minute rotation player. He will let it fly from deep with no hesitation and while he’s more streaky than consistent, his skillset is valuable in the modern NBA. He will need to convert on more than 35 percent of the long-range attempts he’s averaged so far this season to be an asset for the Spurs, but he could provide some spacing to a second unit that needs it, with Richardson gone.

Now, Graham can also handle the ball and set up others and will likely rack up some assists in the Spurs’ pass and movement-heavy system if he gets minutes, but it’s unlikely that he’ll hold the ball as much as he did when he logged a career-high 7.5 assists per game in 2019/20. He’ll likely get the role of second unit ball handler that Richardson had, but Gregg Popovich normally likes to have at least one starter with the second unit or a couple of other secondary ball handlers like Malaki Branham and Stanley Johnson. The offense often runs through the bigs, as well. Graham should get plenty of touches, just like Tre Jones does with the starters, but he probably won’t play the part of a traditional point guard. In all likelihood, if he is in the rotation, he’ll be more of a Patty Mills type than anything else.

Fortunately, that’s what the Spurs need. Bringing in a dominant ball handler would have resulted in fewer opportunities for Branham and Point Sochan to get the touches they need to develop. If Graham gets back to being a useful shooter who can dribble the ball up court, get the team into its sets and run a few pick and rolls a game, he could be a good fit.

Khem Birch and Charles Bassey will bring energy off the bench, but can Zach Collins stay healthy?

If you haven’t heard about Khem Birch until now, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed. Birch, a slightly undersized energy big, spent a couple of years trying to carve up a role for himself in the crowded Magic frontcourt before going back to his native Canada to try to help the Raptors' disastrous center rotation. He’s always been a solid per minute contributor but he hasn’t had the chance to get big minutes, and that’s unlikely to change in San Antonio.

Birch is similar to the player he’ll likely have to beat for rotation minutes, Charles Bassey. Both will crash the offensive board, protect the rim and put pressure on the defense as the dive man in the pick and roll using their athleticism. Birch should have an edge on defense and has flashed some ability to space the floor, but the difference between the two won’t be significant. While it might seem that having two backups with overlapping skill sets would be detrimental, as the team could use a shooting big who can pass instead, there’s a case to be made for how it will be a positive for the second unit to know there will always be an athletic rim-runner available. The main issue after the Poeltl trade is not really who will play with the bench than whether Zach Collins is ready to move to the starting lineup, if that’s what Gregg Popovich decides to do.

Labeling Collins as injury prone can be a little unfair since it was mostly a big ankle injury that caused him to miss a year and nearly derailed his career, but it would be foolish not to be a little concerned about his durability and stamina. He’s already played more minutes and games this year than in the last two seasons he was available and will have to battle bigger and better centers if he becomes a starter. He’s also dealt with foul trouble for a long time and is currently averaging over five personal fouls per 36 minutes. To his credit, in the seven games he was a starter this season he’s averaged a solid 10 points and over seven rebounds in 27.6 minutes a game, but he also averaged almost five personal fouls. Will Collins be able to stay on the court for the minutes the Spurs will need him for, or will injuries or foul trouble force Pop to play one of the energy bigs more than planned? It’s a fair question.

Of course, as has been repeated ad nauseam at this point, this season is all about development and discovery. Finding out if Collins can play a bigger role is a good thing, especially considering his contract for next season is not guaranteed. Hopefully he’ll impress and will become either a great trade chip or a medium-term answer at center for the Spurs.