Playoff basketball is a whole different monster than regular-season hoops. The game slows down, weaknesses are amplified, and only the strongest survive. The (presumed) arrival of transcendent prospect Victor Wembanyama to San Antonio means a return to the postseason is approaching for the Spurs. With that in mind, there is a lot that current Spurs can learn from this year’s playoff performers that will help them succeed when they reappear in the big dance.
Devin Vassell: Using handoffs to create offense (Inspired by Kevin Huerter)
The Sacramento Kings created an all-time offense this season. Their dynamic attack was fueled by pick-and-rolls, split actions, and deep post-ups, but their signature weapon of choice was the handoff. The Kings generated 1.06 points per possession off handoffs, grading in the 90th percentile. The pairing of Kevin Huerter, their starting shooting guard, and All-NBA big man Domantas Sabonis was especially effective. Sabonis’ passing and strength at the rim combined with Huerter’s movement shooting and decision-making resulted in a handoff action that kept defenses guessing with a multitude of looks.
Using handoffs as a staple action can help create a quality motion-based offense, and the Spurs have the personnel to execute them, specifically in Devin Vassell. Vassell has already shown flashes in the action and has the skillset to match some of what Huerter brings to the table, so increasing the number of handoffs he’s involved in seems like a no-brainer.
For one, Vassell shot 41.7% on three-point attempts off handoffs this season. The sample size was small, however, as he launched just 24 treys of that variety. He’s proven to be a very capable shooter on the move, so getting him more handoffs would intensify the damage he does from behind the arc. Additionally, he’s shown hints of passing ability as a P&R ball-handler and would make good decisions with the advantage generated by the handoff.
For the handoff to become a common and productive action for Vassell, he could benefit from speeding up his jumper a little. His high-release point already makes his shot virtually unblockable, but getting it off a little quicker could ensure he has a window to shoot cleanly when flying off a handoff. It will also take reps for Vassell to fully materialize and iron out his passing, but he could have plenty of opportunities to do so next year (assuming San Antonio remains in a rebuild). Those are just minor tweaks, though, and it’s easy to imagine Vassell-Zach Collins (or Vassell-Victor Wembanyama!) handoffs being a regular play for the Spurs in 2023-24.
Jeremy Sochan: The art of the short roll (Inspired by Draymond Green)
From a play-style standpoint, there’s a lot incoming sophomore Jeremy Sochan can learn from Warriors forward Draymond Green. Green is one of the greatest defenders of all time because of his impeccable help instincts and switchability, and Sochan’s frame (especially as he continues to add muscle) and competitiveness suggest he could do similar things. Offensively, while Green isn’t a talented scorer, he makes his mark with excellent passing and decision-making. He’s mastered the art of the short roll, and Sochan should work to do the same.
For those unfamiliar with the term “short roll”, it refers to when the screener in a pick-and-roll stops his roll around the free throw line and receives the ball there, allowing him to survey the floor and dish the rock or attack the rim. Green and Stephen Curry are a dominant P&R pair because even when Curry isn’t scoring, his gravity forces defenders to guard higher, which opens up short roll opportunities for Green. Once Green gets to that position, he’s one of the best in basketball at making the right play. Even though he’s a pass-first player, he knows when to pressure the rim and make it look like he’s going to score, which draws defenders in and therefore frees up teammates.
Sochan could excel at this technique not only because of his high feel for connective passing, but also because of his athleticism. He projects to be a better finisher than Green ever was, which would inflate the attention he receives at the rim and make his short roll possessions lethal. While he doesn’t have a Steph Curry to open up more space for him to operate, Sochan would still be effective in the short roll and should get a lot of looks at it next year.
Keldon Johnson: Stampeding drives (Inspired by R.J. Barrett & Jaylen Brown)
Keldon Johnson isn’t called “The Mustang” for nothing. He’s a ferocious and powerful slasher who uses his big body to carve out driving lanes. His explosiveness and tenacity are marvelous. To take his finishing to the next level, a strategy he should employ is fittingly called “stampeding”, which refers to when a player spots up a few feet further back than usual, then begins darting to the hoop as a pass is thrown to them. This allows the player to catch the ball in stride and get downhill quicker than if they began stationary. It also gives help defenders less time to react because the driver reaches top speed and gets to the rack faster. Stampeding is perfect for strong wings with more strength than quickness. Guys like Jaylen Brown of the Celtics and R.J. Barrett of the Knicks have been using it all playoffs to enhance the effectiveness of their drives.
Johnson fits into the same mold of player as Brown and Barrett, which is why stampeding would be a great weapon to add to his arsenal. It would help him bend the defense and create more advantages, raising him to another tier as a slasher.
In any setting of life, one thing holds true about improvement: if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. Real pros are always working on their game, and the young Spurs are undoubtedly doing so this offseason. It will be very exciting to see the steps Devin, Jeremy, Keldon, and company take next year as the team rides towards an incredibly bright future.