Five players for the San Antonio Spurs to build around if the ship finally sinks
By Dylan Carter
After years of being spoiled by continuous winning, San Antonio Spurs fans need to look to the future if this is the end of their winning ways.
There are much worse things than the San Antonio Spurs potentially losing the playoffs – like stubbing your pinky toe on the sharp corner of a table, falling up or down in a crowded stairwell and being a fan of the Cleveland Browns.
If the Spurs miss the playoffs, it’s not the end of the world. As a matter of fact, it’d signal a new era in San Antonio that many will be excited to follow. This team has been called “old” and “boring” time and time again, but that’s not the case anymore. The Spurs roster eight players age 25 or younger and continue to add to that group with each passing season.
Let’s face the facts: The Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs since Bill Clinton was the President of the United States, cell phones were a clunky rarity and liquids purchased outside the gate were allowed on airplanes.
Fans have cherished five championships and countless victories both on and off the court as a culture of attentiveness, thoughtfulness and execution were established in the Alamo City.
There seems to be a cap on the potential of a team led by two isolation scorers in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Their defensive play is medial, and the ball oftentimes sticks in their hands, causing stagnation for a team founded on the belief that ball movement reigns supreme.
If things continue to trend downward and this is the fall of the Spurs’ empire, at least there are some exciting pieces to look forward to.
Next: Letting Lonnie walk the sky!
Letting Lonnie walk the sky!
The highest selected Spur since Tim Duncan, Lonnie Walker IV has been kept on a short leash by head coach Gregg Popovich. As one of the younger players on the team at 20-years-old, Walker can be clumsy with the ball in his hands and sometimes fails to rotate properly on defense.
That’s no reason to keep him on the bench, however, because Walker is easily one of the most athletically gifted players in the NBA and is slowly but surely creeping his way into the lineup. Walker logged double-digit minutes in two of the Spurs’ last three games and made a combined 11-of-20 shots in that span including 2-of-5 triples.
Per 36 minutes, Walker is averaging 15.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists this season and has shown huge growth from the start of the year to now. Getting called out by Popovich sparked something within him and now, Walker is living up to his tremendous potential whenever he’s given the chance.
There are a few roadblocks in Walker’s way at this point: Bryn Forbes is still shooting the lights out of the ball and occupying the majority of the team’s minutes at the two-guard while Marco Belinelli continues to clog up the backup three. With Popovich largely set in his ways, there’s not a whole lot of room to let Lonnie loose at the moment.
That would drastically change should the Spurs make a trade soon, but that’s also not a guarantee given the team’s past. However, something needs to be done if San Antonio can’t dig itself out of the hole it’s in at the moment and moving off pieces could free up space for Walker to shine.
If the Spurs’ winning ways are finally coming to a close, the fanbase can rest assured knowing that Walker is working his way up in the ranks and preparing for his future as a dynamic scorer in this league.
Next: Dejounte’s time to shine
Accelerating Dejounte’s growth as the floor general
There’ve been a handful of roadblocks preventing Dejounte Murray from truly taking off as the Spurs’ starting point guard, but his surrounding personnel have been the most impactful.
It’s no secret that the rising talent is not a consistent jump shooter, especially from outside of 15 feet from the basket. This would be a deficiency that Popovich could mask with no problem if his two-star players weren’t also non-factors from beyond the arc.
All of the talk has been about surrounding DeRozan and Aldridge but imagine how deadly Dejounte would be if he had shooters to kick out to instead. His drives to the basket have been explosive and frequent. He’s displayed a knack for passing out to the perimeter after drawing defenders to the rim.
As currently constructed, the two most likely players to receive this pass are two players who would opt to step in for a contested mid-range jumper instead of taking the three. It’d make it easy to give Murray his starting point guard duties back after being benched for having trouble fitting with the team’s current first five.
San Antonio gave Murray his extension for a reason – they see him as the future floor general of the team regardless of who’s around currently. He’s built excellent rapport with most of his teammates and spreads the Spurs’ rhetoric amongst the younger players. He embodies the future of the organization and will continue to do so regardless of the outcome of this season.
Next: Bringing Keldon to the big leagues
Bringing Keldon to the big leagues
From the moment he stepped onto the Summer League floor, it was abundantly clear that Keldon Johnson is the most NBA-ready player from the Spurs’ trio of rookies drafted this past summer. Projected as a late-lottery pick by many, Johnson fell to San Antonio in the recurring sweet spot that they’ve dominated in recent drafts: pick No. 29.
In an average of 30 minutes of action through eight G-League games, the young wing has shown no fear when attacking the basket. His athleticism is uncanny, and his ability to slither through defenders in a persistent attack of the basket has been stellar against the G-League’s level of competition.
He’s posting an efficient 18.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists while hitting 48.4% of his shots.
There are still kinks to work out for the Spurs’ 20-year-old rook, who has yet to make a triple in eight games. Playing in the Spurs’ development system will enable him to become more comfortable with the playing environment and pacing of NBA competition. If things continue to trend downward and general manager Brian Wright decides to deconstruct this team, Johnson’s ascension to regular-season minutes could arise.
Though Johnson has to work his way up the ranks to earn playing time, especially with Walker still vying for minutes, I firmly believe that he’ll carve out a role for the main team and provide energetic two-way play for the Spurs next year – especially if DeRozan or Bryn Forbes walk.
Johnson has much stronger defensive instinct and aggressiveness than Forbes ever displayed. If his shot can come together, Johnson could very well earn a sizeable role in San Antonio soon while developing his wide range of skills along the way.
Next: Expanding the role of Jakob Poeltl
Expanding the role of Jakob Poeltl
Even with Aldridge manning the middle and forward Trey Lyles occupying minutes at the four, Jakob Poeltl is still proving himself to be the most valuable rim defender of the bunch. Poeltl has the team’s best net rating at 6.3, the best offensive rating of any starter and a team-high 113.5 offensive rating.
In a contract year, Poeltl is proving to the Spurs and the world that he’s one of the most impactful big men in the league. His playstyle is simple: Poeltl is an excellent screener, rebounder and shot-blocker with a soft touch near the basket and very little range as a jump shooter.
While this may be harmful for other players, Poeltl doesn’t need a jumper to be a pivotal player. His future with the Spurs isn’t guaranteed as his restricted free agent status could earn him a nice payout this offseason, but San Antonio has the right to match any deal and would be wise to keep him around for the right price.
In recent history, the Spurs haven’t had many great true centers given Aldridge and Tim Duncan’s natural power forward status. Champion Tiago Splitter was similar in many ways to Poeltl, but the young big man seems to have every ability that Tiago had much farther along in his progression.
If this is how Poeltl can influence a game at 24 years of age, I’d be interested to know how he improves into the prime of his career in his late-twenties.
It’d be great if Popovich gave Poeltl more playing time, especially given the way he secures the paint for his teammates to focus on perimeter defense, but Pop is unpredictable. Regardless, the Spurs would be wise to let him grow and implement him to their future lineups as a start or crucial role player off the bench.
Next: Derrick’s journey continues
Derrick’s journey continues
It’s been a long road to this point of Spurs guard Derrick White’s career. From D2 to the Pac-12, to the G-League, to various roles in the NBA, White is still trying to find his path to stardom after flashing tremendous potential as he grew comfortable in the 2018-19 regular season.
Things haven’t been peachy for the Spurs this season and Derrick’s struggles have played a large part in that, but the team’s overload of players at the guard positions have made it difficult for Popovich to allocate minutes properly since he doesn’t wish to disrespect some of the team’s veterans.
However, Derrick has shown flashes of show he could become through this portion of the season and has been promoted back to the starting lineup in place of Murray recently. He’s playing hard defense in spite of his team’s difficult beginning and has shot the ball extremely well as of late.
White is posting 10.1 points, three assists and 2.4 rebounds, which increase to a 15/4.5/3.6 line per 36 minutes. His field goal shooting is slightly lower than last year, but he’s shooting a 42.2% clip from three-point land so far and has made a triple in 11 of his 19 games including each of the last four.
Though he’s older than most of the players listed in this group, White is still comparatively inexperienced with the rest of the rotation and hasn’t quite figured it all out. He can be lazy on defense at times and gets lost in the fray when the Spurs’ offense is weakened.
Even if this is the case, White has plenty of time to grow as the year progresses. The Spurs have yet another diamond in the rough with White and while his role moving forward is yet to be determined, he’ll have every opportunity in the world to show Pop why he deserves to wear silver and black.