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What We Learned from the Spurs’ win over the Hornets

19 efficient minutes of no mid-range Wemby sees the Spurs past the Hornets, and then some.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a good 2024 so far for the San Antonio Spurs. They lost by eight to the star-studded and DPOY-fortified Memphis Grizzlies, then they lost by four to the superstar-studded Milwaukee Bucks, then they lost by only two to the short-handed Cleveland Cavaliers. They even halved the points they lost by on that three-game stretch.

Then, after a rather tough schedule over the first three months, the Spurs finally got to play their fellow bottom-dwellers. First, they blew out the Detroit Pistons, who were missing their best player in Cade Cunningham. But, then again, you can only beat the guys you’re playing against. The Spurs did that. And then they did it again Friday night against the team with the fourth-worst record. In a power ranking among the teams with less than ten wins, the Spurs would definitely come in at number one right now. It’s just a pity they play the Bulls on Saturday and not the six-win Wizards.

Can the Spurs beat the Bulls without Wemby? Stranger things have happened. The Bulls are also on a Segababa, they had no garbage time in their loss to the Warriors last night, and they have to travel. If the Spurs manage to win, they’ll be a .500 team in 2024 with a positive net rating. And that would be the strongest indication yet that the youngest team in the league, which flat-out sucked some weeks ago, has at least turned things around, and at most … maybe done a lot more. The Spurs might indeed be better than their awful record suggests.

Let’s have a look first at what happened last night.

Takeaways:

  • It’s been a rough season for Jeremy Sochan. Running the point must have felt like punishment for something he wasn’t guilty of. And it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing since he’s been reinstated at the four. With his frontcourt partner Wembanyama holding the carte blanche and using it frequently, it’s been difficult for Jeremy to contribute. But last night was maybe the first time we witnessed what the Spurs’ present and future frontcourt pairing could and should look like. Wemby and Sochan were a model of efficiency, going for a combined 14 of 21 from the field, 8 of 9 from the charity stripe, they grabbed 17 boards, blocked four shots, and dished out more assists than they had turnovers.
  • Notably, Wemby largely kept from taking his usual rushed mid-range jumpers. With his percentage from between 10 feet and the arc at below 30 percent, it’s probably a shot he shouldn’t be taking. A guy with his catch radius who isn’t making the nets sing from midrange must live around the rim — and that’s what Vic did last night, a number of times set up beautifully by Jeremy. The two didn’t even combine for 48 minutes, but in their limited time together they played more to each other’s strengths than before. Seeing how they connected was extremely encouraging, and it’s something I want to see frequently from now on.
  • Even when he has a low-scoring game, it’s quite clear Devin Vassell is the second-best basketball player on the roster. And there’s maybe no other Spur whose skills are so highly developed. One thing Devin has become very good at is using screens – and when he does, he has options. For one, he’s beginning to make a habit out of getting to the rim, using all sorts of shifty moves to even go through double-teams. But he doesn’t necessarily have to go that route, because pretty much any Vassell mid-range shot is a good shot, almost no matter how difficult. Every game brings fresh evidence: Devin is very good at taking and making difficult shots. And that’s a skill that will be extremely valuable once the Spurs make it to the playoffs: The reason the Bucks were champions some seasons ago was Giannis. But Giannis wouldn’t have a ring without Kris Middleton making difficult shots when it mattered. It’s great to know Wemby has such a shot maker next to him. Any talk about putting Devin on the table in trade talks is futile. What he brings to the Spurs is extremely difficult to replace. Devin is a lock in the Spurs’ future.
  • The Spurs would probably have won the game even without Doug McDermott torching the Hornets from deep, but his hot stretch in the second quarter went to show how important a true deadeye shooter can be. McDermott doesn’t play many minutes, and his impact on the Spurs winning or losing has been limited this season. However, the Spurs should leave no stone unturned to replace his shooting. Malaki has slightly improved his percentage from deep to just shy of 32 percent from a little more than three attempts per game, but he’s only taking open threes and has a rather unusual shooting motion with a low release point. And there are no other long-range snipers on the roster.
  • Dominick Barlow appears to me a bit like a big man version of Tre Jones: he’s undersized, he doesn’t shoot, but he’s a sound contributor, a useful no-nonsense player. And despite being undersized, Barlow looks like he’s one of the few Spurs you can trust to get a contested rebound. Like you can trust Tre’s hand to steadily rock the cradle. Both could have a long future with the Spurs since both excel in limited roles. But both will be required to contribute maybe a bit more tonight if the Spurs want to beat the Bulls.