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The Spurs’ second unit should be much better next season

Victor Wembanyama and the starting lineup are rightfully getting most of the attention leading up to the season, but the Spurs have built some nice depth behind them.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs didn’t have a lot of strengths last season. It was by design, as they were trying to bottom out, but it’s still a reality. This year they should be a lot better, unless they decide to tank again, with Victor Wembanyama likely playing the biggest factor in that improvement.

There is an area that is less reliant on Wembanyama’s arrival, however, that should also become a strength or at least not a huge weakness this year: depth. After struggling when the bench checked in last season, San Antonio should not only have a decent starting unit but also a capable second unit behind it in the 2023/24 season. Here’s why.

A former starter will become a sixth man

A great way to improve a bench is to have someone who showed they can hold their own as a starter become a reserve. It’s bound to happen for the Spurs, as Wembanyama is expected to start at power forward from Day 1, which means someone will have to give him their spot. Devin Vassell and Zach Collins seem safe, but one of Jeremy Sochan, Keldon Johnson or even Tre Jones will not be on the court at tip-off next season.

Regardless of who is actually designated for a bench role, any of those players could help the second unit greatly. Jones would bring the ability to organize the offense and push the pace, which were not strengths of the subs last season, while also upping the pressure at the point of attack on defense in a way Devonte’ Graham can’t. If Sochan is the one tasked with coming off the bench, his sheer versatility on both ends could make any lineup work better and his defense would help set the tone for a unit that really struggled to hold its own when attacked. He’d basically be an upgrade over Keita Bates-Diop.

The most intriguing option, however, is Johnson. It would seem counterintuitive to send a guy who scored 22 points per game last season to the bench while replacing him with a rookie who might take a while to get going on offense, but the idea of having Johnson run the show with the second unit while also getting plenty of minutes with the starters makes sense. Johnson was one of the starters Gregg Popovich often left out there when most of the bench checked in, so he’s familiar with the role and he would be surrounded by shooters and one traditional big who could screen for him. Provided he doesn’t regress, he would have a serious shot at Sixth Man of the Year.

Johnson could be a great super sub but no matter which former starter comes off the bench, the Spurs will have a quality piece that can come in a change a game.

The young players will improve

The Spurs had two young guys getting rotation minutes off the bench last season, Malaki Branham and Charles Bassey. Those two should get even more playing time next season and should be ready for the added responsibility.

Branham improved greatly as the season progressed, becoming a lot more assertive as he started to figure out the NBA. It helped that the Spurs were in full tank mode after a surprisingly decent start when he truly became a rotation guy, so he could play through his mistakes, but the young shooting guard deserves credit for not trying to do too much. He just handled the ball when needed and focused on launching mid-range jumpers he knew he could make. After a full offseason worth of work, he should have some more weapons on his offensive arsenal, hopefully including a three-point shot, and his body should be better suited for the rigors of NBA defense. He finished last season strong and should start the next one even stronger.

As for Bassey, an injury derailed his progress but the main thing that was holding him back was simply not knowing what to do. He was picked up on a two-way contract and after he dominated in the G League, he was just given some minutes to show what he could do. He had his good times, using his athleticism and energy to make an impact on both ends, but there were stretches where he looked completely lost, which was understandable. After having months on the sidelines following his patella injury, he should have a better understanding of how the Spurs play.

Even other young guys who didn’t get as many minutes last season like Blake Wesley, Sandro Mamukelashvili and Dominick Barlow should be more ready to contribute this year if they are called into action, which will bolster the team’s depth greatly.

The Spurs will still have some quality veterans to rely on

Right now the Spurs have Graham, Khem Brich, Doug McDermott, Cedi Osman and Reggie Bullock on their roster. They will likely waive one or possibly two of them to get under the roster cap for the regular season, but unless there’s a huge trade before opening night, some should still be around to guide the young guys and provide reliable production, at least for a few months.

They all bring some unique skills but there’s one overlapping one that four share that should be extremely helpful: shooting. The biggest question mark with the starters and the young bench players is whether they’ll be able to hit enough outside shots to punish defenses and stretch the floor. Any of the four veterans should be able to immediately step in and help in that area. They are different types of shooters as well, with some being better pulling up and others on the move or spotting up, which should allow for mixing and matching. McDermott also has two years of experience in San Antonio under his belt while the others have managed to have long careers by accepting their roles, so they shouldn’t create issues in the locker room.

Whoever stays will probably be trade bait as next season’s trade deadline approaches, but at least for a while, Gregg Popovich should have a couple of guys to turn to when he needs shooting and leadership off the bench, which should make the Spurs’ second unit well-rounded outside of the main two or three usual subs. giving San Antonio plenty of options to match up with opponents.