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The Spurs, Victor Wembanyama and the Jeremy Sochan conundrum

With Wembanyama taking over as the starting power forward, Sochan’s role next year is up in the air despite a promising rookie season.

NBA: Orlando Magic at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The arrival of Victor Wembanyama will not only provide the Spurs with a huge talent surge but it will also give them direction. If the No. 1 overall pick of the 2023 draft is as good as everyone expects him to be, Gregg Popovich and Brian Wright will build around him with pieces that fit him.

The first step in that process is to find a starting lineup that suits him. It’s no secret that Wembanyama will play power forward, which means someone from last year’s unit other than Zach Collins will be pushed out. The obvious answer would be the guy who manned that position last season but Jeremy Sochan’s uniqueness complicates things, in a good way.

What is Sochan? Is he actually a power forward? Nominally he is, but some players defy outdated positional definitions and he’s one of them, in part because of his game and in part because of how the Spurs used him. Because they were rebuilding without really caring about wins, the organization gave the rookie a surprising amount of freedom to find his way in the league while also experimenting with his role. Sochan defended a lot of forwards and other players his size but he also spent essentially an equal amount of time on guards, and not only because the team’s switch-heavy system forced him to. The same happened on offense, where at times Sochan initiated and at times played closer to the basket. Pop clearly wanted to see whether Sochan had the versatility to be more than a traditional four.

To his credit, Sochan did a good job in most areas, especially considering his lack of experience. The question is, will he be a Swiss army knife type of player who defies categorization his whole career or will he need to stop doing things he can perform well enough to focus on the tasks he can excel at in order to reach his potential? Normally there would be no huge urgency in finding out, but with Wembanyama around and penciled in at power forward as a starter and closer for the foreseeable future it becomes important to figure out if Sochan can be a small forward or an apositional guy who fits anywhere. Versatility is great until specialized skills are needed and the latter could be the case for whoever mans the second forward spot for the Spurs going forward.

Through the prism of playing next to Wembanyama, can Sochan complement the would-be centerpiece? He should be fine on defense because, as mentioned, he can defend wings and guards and he could also take on the toughest assignment at forward to allow Victor to roam and provide help defense. As for his rebounding, even if his numbers take a hit while playing next to two bigs, he should be of help on the boards, which could allow him to kickstart fastbreaks. There is, however, a huge question mark about the fit: Sochan’s complete lack of reliable shooting and how it could complicate things in the half-court.

Sochan had to adopt a completely unconventional one-hand form on his free throws to get to 70 percent for the year after shooting 59 percent in college. He only connected on 24 percent of his outside shots, a worse mark than the 29 percent he logged at Baylor. Worse bricklayers have turned into marksmen, but it’s fair to say Sochan is not a natural shooter, which could be a problem since Wembanyama is not consistent from range at this point and will need room to operate when trying to get his own shot.

Hyperfocusing on what Sochan can’t do would be unfair, of course. Even as a rookie, he showed that he could punish smaller players in the mid-post and outrun bigger ones on the break. No matter which forward opponents decide to assign to Wembanyama duty, Sochan could create an advantage or a mismatch elsewhere. It should also be easy for Sochan to continue playing a complementary role in general since he has a role player/glue guy mindset already. There could be some advantages to playing Sochan and Wembanyama together.

Do those advantages outweigh the ones that would come from playing a more traditional unit with Keldon Johnson at small forward? Johnson’s scoring, budding playmaking and streaky but improving outside shooting simply fit more seamlessly next to this young version of Victor. The counterpoint is that it doesn’t really matter what’s best for the team in the short term and that Sochan, despite starting his career at power forward, could move to the perimeter with time, just like Johnson did. But there is a real risk that it simply won’t happen.

The arrival of Wembanyama is undeniably great for the Spurs. It just creates a minor issue in trying to figure out how to use a power forward who had a strong rookie season, showing significant two-way potential. There will be minutes for Sochan next season at both forward spots (and if Pop is feeling particularly experimental, at guard too), so there’s no need to make any drastic decisions now, but Sochan will have to show sooner rather than later that he can play next to Victor or thrive on a sixth-man role.

After a year in which they had all the freedom in the world to figure out who they were as players, the Spurs’ young core in general and Sochan in particular will need to figure out who they can be in relation to Wembanyama. It will be a challenge but it’s one that every rebuilding team has to face once they accomplish the feat of actually getting a true centerpiece.