The San Antonio Spurs will have a good problem as they try to set a starting lineup. They have too many young players that deserve a spot. As we covered recently, the fact that Victor Wembanyama, the would-be franchise star, plays power forward could mean that last year’s prized rookie Jeremy Sochan might need to move to the bench.
But what if the Spurs didn’t care about positions and simply went big without Tre Jones at the point? A huge lineup featuring both Keldon Johnson and Sochan alongside Devin Vassell, Wembanyama and Zach Collins would be a lot of fun and should get some run. The issue is that it’s likely not the best idea to play it too much if the goal is to help Victor adapt to the NBA.
The importance of traditional point guards alongside superstars has always been overstated. As long as at least a couple of guys can create for themselves and there’s a system in place that makes sure others get some touches, an offense can thrive. In recent years, we’ve seen the success of some truly heliocentric offenses based on the talent of a singular star, with James Harden’s Rockets and Luka Doncic’s Mavericks as perfect examples. Those two dominated the ball more than most pass-first floor generals often do but still managed to rack up points and assists at a high enough level to power great attacks that carried their teams to the conference finals. There are plenty of other examples of superstars who didn’t need someone setting them up in order to be an absolute force on offense, including, of course, LeBron James.
What you’ll notice in most of those examples is that those superstars were almost exclusively perimeter players with fantastic passing and ball-handling abilities. Victor Wembanyama, for all his immense talent, doesn’t fit that description. The 7’3.5” behemoth has more fluidity to his game than anyone ever has at his size, and he does have some guard skills, but he’s still raw on offense. He’s also not a traditional post threat who only needs an entry pass that most NBA players should be able to execute in order to go to work. Since he escapes easy categorization, it can be tempting to declare him a wing early in his career, but that’s not his position, and attempts to slot young, highly touted seven-footers down one position have not produced good results (see PJ Carlesimo using Kevin Durant at shooting guard, and the sporadic experiments the Raptors made with Andrea Bargnani at small forward.)
So the best path of action is to simplify things as much as possible for Wembanyama, at least early in his career, by having someone alongside him who can get him the ball in a position to score as often as possible. Assuming that’s the plan, best option is to simply make sure that Victor and Tre Jones share the floor a lot. Jones is a selfless floor general who will simply push the pace when needed and run the offense in the half-court. He has good vision and can work the pick-and-roll well enough to cause troubles for defenses even without a reliable pull-up jumper. Whatever game plan Gregg Popovich devises in order to get Wembanyama a variety of different touches, Jones looks like the best man to execute it simply based on his skill set.
There are two main counters to that argument. The first is that Jeremy Sochan is a good passer who showed some vision even as a rookie, so he could fill that role. Gregg Popovich went as far as essentially giving him backup point guard duties at times last season, so why can’t he be the one to set up the offense and get the ball to Wemby? The answer is that he’s not too good at that role, at least yet. Sochan showed surprisingly good ball-handling and passing ability for a rookie forward. That last part is key. Sochan finished the season with an assist percentage of 13.6, almost identical to the one Keldon Johnson posted. Per 100 possessions, he logged just 4.6 dimes. Now, that figure climbed to 6.4 when he was not sharing the court with Jones, but then his turnovers went from 2.2 to 4.4 per 100 possessions, according to PBP Stats. Those numbers are not great and anyone who watched knows that Sochan was getting the team into sets but not breaking down defenses or running a ton of pick-and-rolls.
This brings us to the second counter-argument: the Spurs' offense didn’t over-rely on a point guard to create. A lot of the work in that area was made by the centers, who facilitated from the top of the key or top of the arc. If the team leans more into that identity, they won’t need Jones, in theory. But in practice, it’s not that simple. First, the Spurs already ranked third in the league on passes coming from the top of the key, with only Domantas Sabonis’ Kings and Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets logging more, so scaling up from there would be difficult leaning toward improbable. Second — and this deserves its own discussion — that identity might not work as well with Wembanyama around. Wemby is not going to benefit from hand-offs from Zach Collins, and while having him come off screens for some quick jumpers should be on the menu, it probably shouldn’t be the main way he’s used. Ideally, Victor would eventually be the one with the ball at the top of the key or in the high post, just like Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant before him.
The closer anyone looks, the harder it is to justify going all in on an admittedly exciting mega-ball lineup with no point guard and three bigs for long periods of time, if the idea is to maximize Wembanyama from the start. Jones would likely just make Victor’s life a lot easier by setting him up on pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops and whichever other plays Pop designs for the French rookie.
Things can change, of course. If either of the wings shows up to training camp with better handles and improved vision, they could be the ones tasked with setting up Wemby. The same applies to Sochan. Maybe Pop has spent the last few months completely redesigning the offense and will surprise us all with a new game plan that allows him to play his five best players without having to worry much about individual playmaking.
For now, though, it’s just hard to make the case for not starting Jones or not playing him much alongside Wembanyama, unless the Spurs decide to be more experimental than they have ever been.