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Prodigies: Devin Booker and Andrew Wiggins

Jake Rauchbach evaluates Devin Booker and Andrew Wiggins in Part Three of the Prodigies Series.

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In the third installment of the Prodigies Series, Basketball Insiders takes a look at two of the most exciting up and coming wings in the league, Devin Booker and Andrew Wiggins. Both of these players make their mark on the game from the wing slot, but in a slightly different manner. Nevertheless, their potential for greatness is quite clear.

Booker, who just turned 20 years old in October, is a silky-smooth scorer who impressed many around the league during his rookie campaign. In fact, in a poll of NBA general managers, Booker received 31 percent of the votes for the player most likely to have a breakout season in 2016-17. Booker has not disappointed.

Wiggins has improved each season since he came into the league three years ago. He combines supreme athleticism with great size and continues to increase the number of ways he can positively affect the game.

Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of both Booker and Wiggins.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

19.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 3.1 APG, 41 percent from the field, 34 percent from three (37 Games)

STRENGTHS

Transition – Booker is very effective in transition. This season he has recorded 186 points on 157 possessions, which ranks him in the 66th percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He sprints the floor hard and effectively maneuvers around defenders for finishes at the basket. Booker is leading the league in scoring efficiency from the middle of the floor in transition, averaging 2.18 points per possession. When leading the break, Booker has proven to be very effective, converting 60 points on 59 possessions.

Spot-ups – A knockdown shooter, Booker excels with spot-up play. He has scored 109 points on 96 possessions, ranking him in the 82nd percentile in the NBA. The Suns’ guard is posting 1.14 points per possession on such plays, and on pure catch and shoot opportunities, Booker is averaging 1.33 points per possessions (86th percentile). His great shot preparation, silky-smooth form and quick release allow him to get his shot off in various situations, especially on short clock possessions. On end of clock situations, Booker is excelling, averaging 1.19 points per possession (ranking him in the 84th percentile in the NBA).

Post-up Play – At 6’6, Booker has good size for an NBA wing and he uses this size and his strong post-up skill-set to excel with his back to the basket. He is averaging 1.0 point per possession in the post, good enough to be ranked in the 80th percentile in the league. From both blocks, Booker has the tendency to turn over his left shoulder but likes to mix up his production with drives to the basket, turnarounds and passes to open teammates for spots-ups and cuts to the basket.  Because of his high efficiency with his back to the basket, the Suns should look to get the ball to Booker in the post more frequently to act as a facilitator.

WEAKNESSES

Isolation Play – The Suns’ guard has recorded 90 points on 106 isolation possessions this season, ranking him in the bottom half of the league (48th percentile), according to Synergy. Isolation possessions make up 13.2 percent of Booker’s offensive production, according to Synergy.  Although a righty, Booker likes to drive it hard left from both sides of the floor. From the left side, he looks to get to the baseline, but struggles with his pull-ups and runners as he currently is averaging .53 and .75 points per possessions in these situations, according to Synergy.

When operating out of right side on isolations, Booker looks to his mid-range game, where he is adept at driving to the middle of the floor, getting to his spot and shooting or fading over his defender (1.66 points per possession going middle). However, in most other areas he struggles to create scoring opportunities from this side of the court. When driving baseline, he often allows himself to be funneled into the opposing shot blockers. So far this season, Booker has not scored the ball when driving baseline from the right side of the court.

Improving this part of his game will be a part of Booker’s development.

Handoff – Booker is clearly a wing who has a knack for putting the ball in the basket. That being said, the second-year man out of Kentucky has not yet shown that he can be effective scoring consistently off of handoff opportunities. He only ranks in the seventh percentile in the league, scoring 22 points on 41 possessions this season. Booker does not always do a great job of getting his footwork and body squared up to attack the rim off of the rub created from the dribble handoff (“DHO”), especially when coming off right. Because of this, his poise and effectiveness in these situations suffer. As Booker becomes more and more comfortable creating opportunities going both left and right, nuances of the game, such as DHO effectiveness, will improve.

Off Screen – Surprisingly, another area where Booker has struggled thus far this season is when he is looking to score the ball off of screens. At this point, Booker is below average in this category, only posting 69 points on 95 opportunities this season. This play type makes up 11 percent of his total offensive production. As you would imagine, Booker is more effective coming off left, where he has scored 30 points on 33 possessions, with the straight cut being his most effective method of scoring. When coming off right, he ranks in the 15th percentile of the NBA in scoring efficiency, where he again finds himself in many straight cut opportunities within the Suns’ offensive sets.

Booker is on track to become an elite scorer in this league and working off the ball should be one of his main priorities moving forward.

Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

21.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 44 percent from the field, 35 percent from three (38 Games):

STRENGTHS

Transition Play – Wiggins uses his world-class athleticism to excel in the open floor. Wiggins attacks the rim in transition and often will get hit-ahead passes, or dimes by running the lanes hard. Although he excels running the lanes, Wiggins is especially adept at leading the break as the ballhandler. In these situations, he ranks in the 86th percentile in the league and loves to attack the rim and get back to his right hand finish around the rim. So far this season, he has scored 111 points on 89 possessions in transition, per Synergy.

Put-backs – Wiggins has been great cleaning up missed shots on the offensive glass. Similarly to how he attacks the rim in transition, Wiggins appears to employ the same aggressive mentality on the offensive glass. His high motor, long arms and his lighting fast second-jump ability allow him to corral rebounds and convert put backs over defenders. He also does a great job of following his own missed shots on drives. Wiggins has scored 47 points on 31 possessions, good enough for 1.52 points per possessions on these types of plays.

Cut – Wiggins does a great job cutting to the basket within the Timberwolves’ offense. On basket cuts, Wiggins is averaging 1.38 points per possession, ranking him in the 72nd percentile in the league. When teammates drive it to the rim, Wiggins naturally seems to make his way to the basket, positioning himself effectively for finishes in the pant. Overall, Wiggins is averaging 1.44 points per possession off of cuts, scoring 52 points on 36 possessions, according to Synergy.

Post-up Play – Wiggins is a solid post player. He has posted 91 points on 100 possessions, ranking him in the 58th percentile in the league. He does his best work on the left block, where he likes to turn over his left shoulder (right-hand finishes) to make plays. Wiggins finds himself there 61 percent of the time and ranks in the 68th percentile in efficiency from that side of the floor. Remarkably, he is the best player in the NBA when it comes to jump shots from the left block, scoring 18 points on 15 possessions. He likes to crab dribble his man deep enough in to turn, fade and use his length and athleticism to shoot right over top.

From the right block, Wiggins is not great, ranking in the 38th percentile in scoring efficiency, where he still looks to turn left his shoulder to free himself.

WEAKNESSES

PNR Ball Handler – The majority of Wiggins’ play types on the offensive end are out of pick-and-rolls (“PNR”) (32 percent of his offensive plays are as a PNR ballhandler). He ranks in the 45th percentile in the league, posting a .77 points per possession in PNR ballhandler situations, and at this juncture of his career, Wiggins’ efficiency is only average out of PNRs. When coming off of PNRs and with the defender going under screens, Wiggins struggles. He is shooting just 33 percent, scoring 26 points on 35 possessions. Dribbling into his jumper out of PNRs is also an area of weakness for him as he ranks in the 30th percentile in this category and is currently shooting 36 percent from the field. Improving his comfort-ability in PNRs, especially from the left side of the floor, could help Wiggins level up his offensive efficiency as his career progresses.

Spot-up Situations– Wiggins can and does score in a myriad of ways, and for the most part he does it very effectively. However, one area where Wiggins has yet to separate himself from the pack is with this jump shooting. Spot-ups make up 15 percent of Wiggins’ production, where he has scored 124 points on 137 possessions. He is shooting 37 percent on these opportunities. On catch-and-shoot opportunities, he is just average, shooting 36 percent from the field. When driving it or pulling up right or left out of spot-up situations, Wiggins struggles, ranking in the 27th and 28th percentile of the league, respectively. Improving his balance and mid-range scoring capability could prove invaluable in expanding his game.

Isolation Play – Wiggins also could stand to improve his isolation play, where he is averaging .845 points per possession. Isolations make up 11 percent of his overall offensive production.  From the top of the key, Wiggins likes to drive right aggressively, but if he can’t get all the way to the rim, he has a default tendency to get to his fade away jumper. He also likes to pull up on and within the perimeter if his defender sags. Wiggins often will catch the ball off of the right and left elbows within the T-Wolves’ offense, where he will often drive to the right side. When this happens, opposing team’s help side defenses look to stop splits, dig, and take charges on Wiggins as they know what is coming. Improving his ability to make plays going left in traffic could prove useful as Wiggins progresses.

******

In the next part of this series, Basketball Insiders will break down the games of Zach LaVine and Myles Turner.

Jake Rauchbach is an Integrated Player Development Coach, specializing in High-Performance Mindfulness. He has coached professional and Division-1 basketball. He is the founder of The MindRight Pro® Program and consults on the Olympic, collegiate and professional levels. Follow him on Instagram @mindright_pro and twitter @mindrightpro

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Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers

From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.

It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.

Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games. 

He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.

To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.

There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.

However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.

Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.

As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.

The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”

As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.

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Now What? – Golden State Warriors

The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.

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For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.

Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.

The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.

Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.

Strengths

Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.

A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.

Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.

Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.

Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.

Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.

Weaknesses

One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.

Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.

Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.

Opportunities

The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.

The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.

Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.

Threats

Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.

Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.

While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.

One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.

The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.

Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.

A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Now What? – San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are down right now. Matt John examines how out they are and how they can get back in in the latest installment of Now What?

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Now What? Series. If you aren’t fully caught up, feel free to read some of our most recent installments such as Indiana and Minnesota first. Today, we take a look at the San Antonio Spurs. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Spurs have missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, which sounds inconceivable after all they’ve accomplished.

It’s not like the Spurs routinely won the championship year after year, but they were always in the title discussion for what seemed like an eternity. To know that they’re currently not there anymore blows the mind. Granted this large infusion of talented youth has overshadowed San Antonio’s fall from grace, but the postseason doesn’t feel the same without them. So, where are the Spurs at now if they’re not among the NBA’s titans?

Strengths

This comes when you have DeMar DeRozan as the offensive focal point, but, the Spurs drew free throws at a pretty excellent rate this season. They averaged 22 a game, which was good enough to tie for 11th overall in the league according to Basketball-Reference. Admittingly, that’s grasping at straws because not a whole lot about their offense was impressive this season. But this is the strengths section so we won’t dwell on that just yet.

Another strength is that their youth is coming along somewhat. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, and Lonnie Walker IV all took a step forward scoring-wise with bigger roles.

Murray
2019-20: 10.9 points a game
2020-21: 15.7

White:
2019-20: 11.3
2020-21: 15.4

Johnson:
2019-20: 9.1
2020-21: 12.8

Walker:
2019-20: 6.4
2020-21: 11.2

That came at the expense of their field goal efficiency but, again, we’re not going to dwell on weaknesses here. Better yet, progress in all areas takes time.

Lastly, among all that went wrong with the Kawhi trade, Jakob Poeltl has evolved into one of the league’s most effective rim protectors. Opponents’ field goal percentage around the rim dropped by 11.6 percent when he protected the rim this year. So it made sense when they started him at the five full-time over LaMarcus Aldridge.

As you can probably tell, the Spurs don’t boast any notable strengths. Fortunately for them, they don’t boast any glaring weaknesses either.

Weaknesses

Despite NBA offenses being centered around the three, the Spurs still refuse to fully embrace this. According to Basketball-Reference, they ranked dead-last in threes attempted on a nightly basis (28.4) which has been the case for the last few years. This will probably change *if* DeMar DeRozan changes teams this summer. Should that be the case, San Antonio will probably have to be more reliant on taking threes.

Unfortunately, the days of Davis Bertans and Danny Green are long gone. In the past, the Spurs’ made up for their lack of three-point attempts with incredible efficiency. Not anymore. Of all their rotation players, only two of them shot over 36 percent from three – Patty Mills and Rudy Gay – both of whom, much like DeRozan, are best-suited playing for teams competing right now.

The lack of attempts and efficiency in that department played a major role in the Spurs’ 21st-ranked offensive rating this season. If the defense held its own, maybe the Spurs’ issues offensively could have been mitigated a tad, but nope. San Antonio’s defense fell all the way that they tied for 17th overall in defensive rating (112.8) according to Basketball-Reference. That’s not bad enough to be considered a weakness – it’s average – but these are such off-putting numbers for a team coached by Gregg Popovich.

Whether DeRozan stays or not, the Spurs must become more inventive to boost their offense again.

Opportunities

San Antonio’s opportunities are limited, to say the least. Unless they shock the world with their low lottery odds, they probably won’t get an upfront special talent.

So where does that leave them? Well, reading the tea leaves, DeMar DeRozan seemingly has no interest in spending the rest of his prime with the Spurs. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably what’s best for both sides. All of San Antonio’s best players are 26 and younger. At 31 years old, DeRozan’s talents are probably best used on a team that’s ready to win now.

Besides, with him gone, that gives their youngsters more room to stretch their legs. Dejounte Murray is a jack-of-all-trades oversized point guard who made NBA All-defense his rookie year. Derrick White’s scoring went up once he saw an increase in minutes and usage. Lonnie Walker IV has had his promising stretches. Then there’s Keldon Johnson.

Johnson was a bubble boy wonder last year. Even if it was brief, he showed a promising three-ball, a bag of tricks in iso, and energetic defense. Many thought perhaps the Spurs had another bright star in their midst. That played a role in giving him some unfair expectations coming in. Much like other individual players this season, Johnson may have benefited enough from the bubble’s atmosphere that not taking another step forward in a COVID-shortened should have been foreseeable.

That doesn’t mean his potential does not intrigue anymore. Much like Murray and White, all it may take is time for him to reach it. If taking two steps forward requires taking one step back first, why not?

Threats

Usually, when writing these, we’re required to highlight each team’s strengths and weaknesses. In San Antonio’s case, that’s precisely their problem right now. Nothing about them, good or bad, is truly remarkable. They’ve been reduced to being the NBA’s quintessentially average ball club. They’ve entered the paradox of being too good to be “bad” and too bad to be “good”.

A core of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, and Jakob Poeltl is a solid one to have. No one’s denying the raw potential that some of them have. At the same time, do any of these guys project to be anything special? For years, a Kawhi-type or a Duncan-type or a Robinson-type led the charge on the Spurs’ title hopes. As of right now, none of the players on this roster has that trajectory.

What they have to ask themselves is how do they, at the very least, get back to owning a timeshare in the postseason as they did for over two decades? Sadly, there’s no quick fix for them. They metaphorically won the lottery when they traded for Kawhi Leonard on draft night and literally won the lottery when they drafted Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

The threat to San Antonio is not the lack of talent itself. It’s how they can get more.

To some, San Antonio’s downfall is a welcome change of pace seeing how long they were at the top. Honestly, it’s sad that their reign ended as prematurely as it did because Kawhi wanted other things. It only got worse the following year when they sacrificed Davis Bertans to make room for Marcus Morris before Morris reneged on their agreement.

They’re not completely bankrupt of young talent. But when you compare any of their young players to the likes of Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, or Zion Williamson, do any of them bring the same excitement as those three? Coach Pops has worked too many miracles to count, but much like any elite player, he needs help.

So their options are to either see how their young core turns out or start from scratch for the first time since the eighties. They’re good enough to give this young team a shot for now, but their immediate future is uncertain in the Alamo.

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