As the Prodigy series continues, we break down two of the best young big men in the NBA: Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. Both players are showing signs that they could become Hall of Famers despite going through entirely different journeys to their initial NBA success.
Towns experienced an almost seamless transition from the University of Kentucky after his freshmen year to being drafted as the No. 1 overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2015 NBA Draft. During a stellar rookie season in which Towns captured Rookie of the Year honors, Kevin Durant told the Associated Press, “He’s going to be a Hall of Famer in this league.” In his second season in the league, Towns came back even stronger by increasing his scoring, rebounding and minutes per game, all while shooting a better percentage from the field.
Unlike Towns, Embiid’s journey to his rookie season success has been burdened with injury complications. Drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014, Embiid has broken the navicular bone in his right foot twice, which caused him to miss what would have been his first two seasons in the league. After battling back through these complications, he is now having a huge impact on the league; so much so, that some of his contemporaries think he has the chance to be the best big man in the NBA. After the Sacramento Kings played the Sixers on December 27th, DeMarcus Cousins told SB Nation’s Kristian Winfield, “I don’t give a lot of people props, but I like that kid a lot. I think he’s got a great chance at being the best big in the league… after I retire.”
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of both Towns and Embiid:
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
21.4 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 47% from the field, 31% 3 from three (37 Games)
Transition Play: Towns’ exceptional ball handling skills allow the T-Wolves big to be super dynamic in the open-court. His euro-steps, spins, and change of direction moves are on full display when Towns is in transition where he averages 1.27 point per possession, scoring 75 points on 59 possessions, according to Synergy.
Isolation: Currently, Towns ranks in the 49th percentile with .85 points per possession in isolation plays, according to Synergy. However, through the first 30 games, Towns was killing it in isolation, scoring 47 points on 48 possessions, ranking him in the 73rd percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He has struggled in the last few games, but his struggles as of late don’t change the fact that Towns’ dynamic skill-set makes him dangerous going one-on-one.
In the T-Wolves’ offense, Towns often finds himself isolated in the high post and wing areas where he loves to face up defenders. Towns was averaging 1.43 point per possession (through 30 games) when operating out of isolation from the left side of the floor, which ranked him the fourth most efficient player in the league, according to Synergy. Towns is adept at squaring up using either pivot foot and also does a great job using ball fakes to keep his defender off balance. Many times after squaring up, Towns will stare down defenders into his jumper, gauging whether or not a shot contest is forthcoming. This ability to create his own shot allows him to also set up his drives both right and left. Minnesota’s guards also like to set Towns up in wing pick-and-rolls by refusing ball screens that the big man sets in order to kick back for isolation opportunities. Towns has freakishly good ball handling ability for a big and will create space by driving and stepping off defenders in a variety of ways. Moving forward, expect Towns’ efficiency to rebound in this area throughout the season.
Pick and Roll Action As Screener: Towns’ ability to stretch the defense with his shooting, nimbleness and ability to finish around the rim allows him to be even more effective when rolling and slipping to the basket out of pick-and-rolls. Towns ranks in the 69th percentile, averaging .99 points per possession when popping out for jump shot opportunities. Towns combines soft touch with ferocious finishes around the rim, which has him ranked in the 78th percentile in the NBA (1.38 points per possessions, according to Synergy). On slips, he ranks in the 62nd percentile, according to Synergy.
Spot Up Shooting/Drives: Despite his great touch and solid stroke, Towns’ shot preparation, many times, leaves a lot to be desired. He has a tendency to stand straight up and does not always step into his shot. This appears to hinder his rhythm and timing for catch-and-shoot opportunities and drives to the basket off of spot up catches. On catch-and shoot-opportunities, Towns is averaging just .831 points per possession, which ranks him in the 16th percentile in the league, according to Synergy. When spotting up and driving it to the basket, he is posting .875 points per possession, ranking him in the 39th percentile, according to Synergy.
Post Play: Post play is one area where, if Towns improved, he could take his game to a dramatically higher level. Towns has scored 145 points on 179 possessions. His .87 points per possession ranks him in the 33rd percentile in the league. 56.5 percent of his low post production is generated from the left post, where he shoots 44 percent. Towns loves turning over his left shoulder to make plays from either side of the floor.
On the left block area is where Towns really struggles. On 84 possessions this season, Towns has scored just 62 points. This ranks him in the 16th percentile in the league. The only move Towns consistently employs effectively from the left post is his right hand hook, where he is averaging 1.15 points per possession (79th percentile). That being said, the big man rarely attempts drop-steps, up-and-unders, drives, or turnaround jumpers from this side of the floor.
On the right block, Towns is much better and ranks in the 53rd percentile in the league in regards to his scoring efficiency. He wants to turn over his left shoulder and likes to get to his drop step when doing so, scoring 28 points on 23 possessions, good enough for the 86th percentile in the league, according to Synergy. Despite his effectiveness off the drop-step, and the left block, Towns rarely attempts jump shots, face-ups, hooks, or drives to the basket. Diversifying his repertoire of moves down low could help generate substantial improvement moving forward.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
19.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 46% FG, 37% 3PT (25 Games)
Isolation: Embiid is a superb isolation player. This season he has scored 45 points on 43 possessions, ranking him in the 83rd percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He likes to work from both the right side and from the top of the key. On the right side, he is boasting a 1.2 points per possession average, putting him in the 86th percentile in the league and from the top of the key he has scored 17 points on 14 possessions (1.4 points per possession), placing him in the 99th percentile, according to Synergy. Around the perimeter, Embiid will face up and use a jab step to set up his drives to the basket. He possesses great poise off the dribble for a big and uses his extremely long, fluid steps and superior size to get by opposing bigs. He also does a great job rocking his defender to sleep off the dribble in order to create space for his jumper. He likes to do this from the top of the key.
Pick & Roll Play: Pick-and-roll man opportunities make up 16 percent of Embiid’s overall offensive play types. As the screener out of pick-and-rolls, Embiid has recorded 94 points on 83 possessions, placing him in the 72nd percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He is especially adept at screening and popping out, converting 65 points on 59 possessions. However, he has been deadly when he catches and shoots without a dribble, hitting 42 points on 29 possessions, good for 1.45 points per possession. This puts him in the 98th percentile of the league on these play types.
Jump Shot Opportunities: Embiid is a very good jump shooter. In the half court this season, Embiid has scored 106 points on 96 possessions (87th percentile), according to Synergy. Most of these jumpers are generated in the flow of the Sixers’ offense, others in pick-and-roll play and a smaller portion coming from isolation play. In any case, this is one area where Embiid really excels.
Injury History: Embiid missed a large portion of his freshmen season at Kansas because of back issues. A screw was inserted into his right foot after twice breaking the navicular bone. From complications regarding his foot, Embiid ended up missing his first two seasons in the NBA. However, due in part to an extensive rehabilitation process employed by the Sixers’ medical and sports science teams, and a strict minute per game restriction this season, Embiid has looked great. Assuming he stays healthy, the sky is the limit for Embiid.
Post Ups: Post ups make up 34 percent of Embiid’s overall offensive play types, according to Synergy. However, for such a talented player, Embiid, like Towns, by the statistics, is only an average post up player at this point in the season. He has recorded 150 points on 173 possessions, placing him in the 45th percentile for all players in the league, according to Synergy. Additionally, 21 percent of his possessions in the post result in turnovers, with 45 percent resulting in scores. Obviously, reducing turnovers and increasing scoring efficiency will help Embiid become even more dominant than he already is.
Transition: Another area where Embiid could improve is his transition play. At times, Embiid will get out of control or try to do too much off of the dribble. He ranks in the 8th percentile in the NBA for transition efficiency, scoring just 34 points on 47 possessions, according to Synergy. Luckily for the Sixers, these plays make up only 9 percent of Embiid’s total offensive play types.
Rebounding / Attacking The Offensive Glass: Considering how athletic and long Embiid is, you might expect him to gobble up offensive rebounds. However, this season the Sixers’ big man is only averaging two offensive rebounds per game and has recorded just 33 points on 32 put back opportunities, ranking him in the league’s 39th percentile. This may be due in part to the Sixers’ limiting Embiid’s minutes to protect him from further injury.
In the next part of the Prodigies series, we will evaluate the Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker and the Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins.
All statistics are courtesy of Synergy and Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of January 12, 2017
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.
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.
Neil Olshey: “This first-round loss was not a product of the roster.”
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) June 7, 2021
He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.
“For anyone (prospective coaches) to advance in the process they’re going to have to prove they can do that (improve defensively) without a ton of roster changes.” -Olshey
— Danny Marang (@DannyMarang) June 7, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Steve Kerr said it was the rebounding that cost the Warriors tonight:
"This is the modern NBA. Guys don't box out. It's just the way it is. Players let guys come in from the weak side. It's a disease that's rampant in the NBA."
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) April 30, 2021
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.
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.
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.
Watch this Klay Thompson defense against Kyrie Irving. Sheesh pic.twitter.com/1ZmRU1VLAu
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) March 27, 2020
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.
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?
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?
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.
2019-20: 10.9 points a game
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.
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.
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?
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.