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What Is the Future of San Antonio’s Young Core?

The San Antonio Spurs, a metronomic franchise synonymous with excellence, have struggled to find a direction since trading away Kawhi Leonard in 2018. The Spurs started 7-13 across their first 20 games for the second time in three seasons, on track to miss the playoffs entirely for the third straight year. 

Through all of this, the greatness of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker loomed large, much like the Argonath in The Fellowship of the Ring, as the Gandalf-less Fellowship drift down the Anduin river. The Argonath stand as a bastion at the Northern border of Gondor, warding off enemies of the men of Gondor.

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This is the year that the Spurs find direction, for better or worse. There are no high usage veterans to prop up the team, although Thad Young is there to help facilitate the young talent’s offensive development. The young Spurs are fully leading the charge—they’re crossing into the Kingdom of Gondor in essence, plotting the course and starting the storyline of the next era of the San Antonio Spurs.

Dejounte Murray, the team’s nominal point guard, has been given the thankless task this season of taking the helm of the Spurs’ offense. Even if Murray lacks the handle and potency as a scorer to be the primary creator for an effective NBA attack as a primary ball-handler, his efforts to assume that mantle have been admirable, as he’s strained to reach the absolute limit of his creation ability. 

Namely, Murray has made strides as a facilitator out of pick and roll, although his process reading the court is sometimes mechanical and rigid. 

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Call for the ball screen, receive the screen, drive the lane, snake middle, find the opening or take the shot. Rinse and repeat. Murray consistently makes the right plays, but doesn’t quite have the vision and juice as a creator to fully bend a defense.

While his pacing and more methodical process in the halfcourt has allowed him to operate more in the mid-range and find some of those simple reads with regularity, it has curbed his aggression as a penetrator. Despite career high efficiency at the rim (68 percent) Murray is getting to the rim the least he has in his career, per Cleaning the Glass, which plays into an underwhelming free throw rate. He used to attack the rim with breakneck downhill drives, albeit with lesser efficiency; there has to be a happy medium somewhere between 46 percent of his shots at the rim (in 2017-18) and 22 percent (in 2021-22).

He’s increased his three point attempt rate every season to attempt to maximize spacing and his playmaking ability in pick and roll. However, his on-ball potential is undermined by his tendency to hesitate on shots and opt out of open looks. Defenses still don’t totally respect his shooting ability, daring Murray to beat them from the perimeter.

In a recent game against the Celtics, Boston routinely switched on Murray’s pick and roll reps or allowed him an open mid-range opportunity.

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A more ball-dominant role has overtaxed his abilities and defenses have schemed for his strengths; he’s a fantastic player, just not in this role. With opposition routinely loading the paint, ignoring ball screens, and crowding his driving lanes, Murray’s most useful tool has been diminished.

Derrick White, Murray’s backcourt partner, has surpassed the “young player” moniker and had a rocky start to the season. There were fleeting entering hopes this year of the fabled Derrick White Most Improved Player Campaign with DeMar DeRozan now in Chicago (I purchased a first class ticket for that train), which have quickly disappeared.  Everytime it seems that White is finding a groove, an unfortunate injury pops up. A toe injury caused him to miss the start of last season and an ankle injury ruled him out for its close; plantar fascia has flared up in seasons prior. 

White still finishes well around the rim, but has seemingly lost some pop in the restricted area. 

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White shot 41 percent on floaters from the 2018-19 season through 2020-21 and 46.9 percent from 4-14 feet in his career per Cleaning the Glass; this season he’s at 34 percent from 4-14 and 23 percent on floaters, a stark drop. This apparent loss of touch has trickled out to his jumper as well (30.4 percent from three) and his shot has seemed flat; I’m not sure I’ve seen a player with so many rim-outs on clean looks. So while it’s hopefully just a lengthy cold stretch and the last three games are a positive indicator, it does stand to reason that the physical toll of White’s litany of injuries has hampered his scoring. However, White is an elite defense guard—he is fantastic at the point of attack, one of the best at reattaching in screen navigation, and the best pure guard shot-blocker since prime John Wall (Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle are wings!). In White and Murray, the Spurs have perhaps the best defensive guard tandem in the league.

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Similar to Murray and White, Keldon Johnson has struggled to find his ideal role. Last year, Johnson was a pleasant surprise for the Spurs, taking over as a full-time starter after minimal rotation play in his rookie year. During his first year as a major contributor, Johnson resembled a new-age Gerald Wallce, playing with a reckless abandon and physicality in spite of being undersized for his position. Accordingly, he entered the 2021-22 season as one of the betting favorites for Most Improved Player; he has not met those expectations. 

This year, Johnson has displayed an uncharacteristic timidness attacking the rim, an odd departure from the ferocious slashing that catalyzed his previous success. Granted, Keldon still drives (and actually drives the ball more this season on average than last, according to Basketball Index), but does so without the same consistent pop.

He’s been more measured in his approach, tending more to probe than to piledrive, which has paid some dividends in his intermediate game where he’s finishing moderately higher on touch finishes and floaters in the paint (38 percent last year compared to 43 percent). 

The deceleration he’s shown to get defenders off-base and finish through contact or in traffic has been a pleasure.

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Too often, though, he’s still seemingly attacking without a plan, which plays a part in a lower efficiency this season at the rim (55 percent).

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He’s taking 18 percent fewer shots at the rim, with almost all of those shots redistributed as less-efficient floaters and runners. To be fair, San Antonio’s spacing doesn’t make matters easier (30th in 3-point attempts and 16th in accuracy, insert *not great Bob!* gif), but getting to the rim and drawing fouls are vital parts of his game; this transformation is akin to training a knockout puncher to strictly box and avoid wholesale power shots. Developing counters on the way to the rim is a must for top-tier drivers; to be a top-tier driver, though, you have to get to the rim in the first place!

As such, Johnson’s utility could be maximized by using him more as a screener and roller, deploying him as a forward or big rather than a wing. Operating as a screener on dribble handoffs and short roller in pick and roll could give Johnson easier reads to make as a decision-maker while getting the most out of his rim gravity.

This isn’t an indictment of Johnson; rather, it’s the frustration of wanting more from him. He’s an incredibly talented player with a great deal of potential, yet there’s so much low-hanging fruit that would allow him to take another step simply by altering his approach. Simply changing his shot diet isn’t a panacea, yet it would create an easier basis for him to build upon his game. 

Much of this Spurs season has been a process of “no yes no” in watching. Progress has been made, but it’s been halting and disjointed. Devin Vassell has been the exception.

Vassell is a burgeoning creator who succeeds through non-traditional means; he doesn’t possess the burst or handle to be a consistent downhill rim threat and only takes about one shot per game at the rim as a result. Much like I wrote about with Cole Anthony, shooting has started to warp the court in Vassell’s favor.

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Already a fantastic shooter in a variety of contexts, Vassell has steadily been incorporated as a secondary pick and roll operator (When I saw the first Iverson into a ball screen at Salt Like Summer League, my eyes went cartoon wide). The threat of Vassell as a shooter from behind screens in tandem with his quick and efficient movement has forced defenses to reevaluate how he’s defended.

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Now that he’s routinely chased over screens, he’s seeing more driving lanes open up for him. Enter the Pull-Up Mid-Range (Like 36 Chambers), where Vassell’s court vision and awareness along with his sweet stroke allow him to get to his spots and make these shots at a 49 percent clip off the dribble, per NBA.com/stats.

Weaving his way into the teeth of the defense, Vassell has started to wade into deeper waters as a playmaker as well. 

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He’s finding the roller, making slick interior passes, and learning how to handle pressure as a ball-handler. His physical limitations likely prevent primary upside, but Vassell has shown the framework of an elite secondary creator and is rapidly honing his craft. 

Despite only being 21 years-old, Vassell is already one of the better team defenders in the league, adding to one of the most stable and athletic defensive units. The Spurs are 11th in defensive efficiency this season and are up to 6th since Jakob Poeltl rejoined the starting lineup. This team has largely been in every game they’ve played (we won’t talk about what happened in Minnesota), maintaining a neutral net rating despite a losing record. 

In this sense, the Spurs are evidence of the perils of team-building in the modern NBA. Since losing Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs have managed to stay afloat because of their blunder-free decision-making; they’ve found productive players in free agency and the draft almost without fail. But still, the Spurs are stuck in the NBA’s uneasy middle because they lack the transcendence or badness to escape it. With Murray, White, Johnson and Vassell, the Spurs have everything except the All-NBA lodestar they desperately need. 

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