It's pretty much an axiomatic among many Spurs fans that Devin is one of our top team's two or three players (of course behind Wembanyama), and that he's going to own the shooting guard position. Yet is he?
Devin entered the NBA feted as one of the two best defensive players in college alongside Isaac Okoro. Publicised video of Devin showcased his outstanding help defense. Looking closer at the tapes, however, weaknesses in his one on one defense against guards were apparent. Those weaknesses become even more apparent during his three years in the NBA, and advance statistics back this up. Concentrating Devin's time on first line defensive duties against quick NBA guards around the perimeter has displaced Devin, robbing him of the opportunity to put his free range help defense in play. In summary, his purportedly vaunted defense coming out of college hasn't materialised in his three years with the Spurs. Just the opposite: he has been a below par defender.
Offsetting Devin's surprisingly weak defense is his outstanding offensive improvement, specifically the materializing of a superior scoring ability whether off the bounce at the perimeter or at midrange. His scoring at both levels is already bordering on elite. The height on his jumper, his release, his body position and form is impeccable and consistent. There is little reason to believe that these areas of his game will recede, rather they should continue to solidify into an elite standard.
Looking more closely at Devin's offensive game as a shooting guard, however, reveals his limitations. His ball handling skills and moves reveal a limited, rehearsed repertoire of moves -- curls to spot jumpers at the perimeter, incipient crossover moves to challenge and penetrate only the first line of defense to within 15 - 20 feet to get off a mid range jumper. His court vision is limited, as are his distribution skills. He has yet to display much of a threat to self-create the space to take it to the rim. Just 14% of his shots were taken around the rim; by sobering comparison, supposedly height and vertically challenged Tre Jones took 28% (and converted them at a good rate). One could point to elite shooting guards in the NBA with a relatively anemic % of shots being taken to the hoop, but those, such as Donovan Mitchell or Booker, are, importantly, a threat to do so at any moment. Just the threat spawns collapsing defenses and opens up spacing for others. In past years, Mitchell and Booker's assist percentages have ranged roughly between 27% - 30%. Devin's stood at 17% in his last (third) year. Which leads me to Malaki Branham.
We'll leave this review of Branham to his offense - his defense, like Devin's, is deficient, though Devin has two years experience on a still green Branham.
In his rookie season 19 year old Branham made impressive strides, evidencing maturity in his decision-making and ballhandling. Malaki's deft handle is already a level above Devin's. He's crafty, won't be hurried, can break down defenders, has slithery movement while already exhibiting the ability to weave through defenses. Though he only attempted 11% of his shots around the rim, he clearly has a greater ability to sneak through defenses (his usage was considerably lower than Devin's). 19 year old Malaki's conversion % at the rim was a robust 64%, equivalent to Devin's. However, Malaki's forays were typically self-created in condensed space, whilst Devin's were by and large made when lanes opened up.
Malaki sports a lightning, snake-like quicksilver release that enables him to get off his shot in traffic before a defense can react... and this despite his low shooting release. Malaki's low release, however, has led to an inauspicious tendency for his shot to get blocked, particularly at the perimeter where his spotting up motion momentarily delays his release and offers opportunities to defenders with length. However, given that Malaki looks like a 'natural' shooter, it's not unrealistic to believe he'll be able to make the slight adjustment to the height of his shooting release to eliminate this issue.
In summary, Malaki may sooner than later pose a threat to Devin's starting position at shooting guard. There is a win-win solution, however: move Devin to his more natural position at the wing where he can defensively operate in areas of the court that play to his strength, help defense, paired with his two level shooting. Below is an interesting take from a recent Sports Illustrated article:
"Malaki Branham, San Antonio Spurs
I'm going to honest here. What I'm about to write about Branham's areas of improvement has little to do with him as a player, and more so to do with the fact that he played on a Spurs team last season that provided him with very little opportunity to succeed in those areas.
Good efficiency is incredibly hard to come by when teams don't have a lot of talent. Defenses won't have to send as many double-teams, and especially young players are often left to their own devices in terms of having to create tough looks.
Branham is no exception. His 30.2% from downtown is not representative of his skills as a shooter, and it would come as a major surprise to me if he isn't hitting close to 40% this year, when the team finally has a primary player to take a ton of the attention away from him.
So why bring up his shooting? Right now, he's a theoretical shooter who has yet to bring the efficiency at the NBA level. We can talk about skills, setting and opportunities all day long, but fact of the matter is we need to see him convert on those shots this season to become the well-rounded scorer he has the potential to be.
It also wouldn't hurt Branham to become a better defender. At this stage of his career, his offense is clearly ahead of his defense, a trait that might remain for the rest of his career. But as he ages and develops, he'll need to close that gap.
Currently, Devin Vassell is ahead of him in the pecking order, in some part due to Vassell being more reliable as a two-way player. Branham is unquestionably the more talented offensive player with the higher offensive potential, but in order to get the minutes load he wants to have, off-ball defense in particular will need to become a major focus of his going into his second year."