Playoffs are falling farther out of reach for the San Antonio Spurs, and second-year big man Chimezie Metu has been working his tail off in Austin.
Patience is a virtue, and few players exemplify it the way big man Chimezie Metu has since being drafted in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs last year. He’s only played a total of 202 minutes in the NBA in contrast with 1174 minutes played across 43-career G-League games.
It’s normal for players in San Antonio’s system to work their way up the rotation by paying dues in Austin, but Metu is nearing a point where he can contribute genuine NBA-caliber skills to the Spurs’ main rotation. As a “tweener,” meaning he’s not a true power forward or center but can play both positions, Metu is a fireball of energy who can bring some spunk to the Spurs’ bench.
Metu has played quite a bit of basketball since entering the NBA, representing Nigeria in the FIBA World Cup this summer and logging minutes in the Spurs’ Summer League for each of the last two seasons. For as much as San Antonio is helping him to develop his skills and become a quality rotation player in the NBA, they’re also wasting time by giving his minutes to lackluster veterans.
Starting center LaMarcus Aldridge is playing 33 minutes per game at 34-years-old, busting his behind on every play for a team that’s five games out from the eighth seed and eight games below .500. At a certain point, head coach Gregg Popovich needs to accept his team’s fate and start allocating more of the veteran’s minutes to young players.
He’s also doing so with Lonnie Walker IV, who is up to 18 minutes per game in his last 14. The team just bought out forward DeMarre Carroll and accepted that the veteran has no place on their roster, signaling that it’s probably time to let the young guys earn their keep.
If that ends up being the case, the first player to get an expanded role should be Metu.
Next: Low-risk, high reward offense
Bringing an offensive punch without requiring much help
If there’s one area where the Spurs are lacking this year on offense, it’s offensive rebounding. Known for their hustle and constant fight, San Antonio isn’t exemplifying that quality the same way they have in the past and implementing Metu could dramatically shift that.
Forward Rudy Gay isn’t playing very well off the bench this year despite having a career-year shooting the ball last season. His true shooting is down to 54.5 percent after skyrocketing to 58.3 percent last year and his effective field goal percentage is down by 5.5 percent as well. It’s just not going well for him as a scorer and his defense hasn’t been much better, so maybe it’s time to start slowing his role and giving some backup-four minutes to Metu.
Floor spacing was one of Metu’s draws coming out of USC, and the former-Trojan is up to 46.7 percent from beyond the arc on 30 attempts in the G-League. The sample size isn’t huge, but he’s much more comfortable with his shooting stroke after failing to prove that aspect of his game last year.
His field goal percentage is at 58.3 percent, up 8.8 percent from last season, and he leads the Austin Spurs in rebounding average at 8.4 per game. Metu is exceptional when it comes to tip-ins and putbacks, as he has showcased in limited NBA action. Though his sample size is skewed due to a majority of garbage-time minutes, Metu is averaging 17.3 boards including 6.8 on the offensive glass per 100 possessions.
He’s a bulky 6-foot-9 with a high vertical leap and excellent instincts when attacking the glass, enabling him to slam and tip in putbacks. Metu can lurk in the paint for passes, cut in when he sees an opportunity, spot up for jumpers, pass, post up and dunk ferociously.
While he can score from anywhere without needing the ball in his hand, his upside comes from his potential as an influential defensive player.
Next: Shifting the dynamics of Spurs defense
Influencing defense both on and away from the ball
Weak-side defense is extremely important for a tweener, especially one whose natural fit is at the power forward spot. Being a modern four requires defensive flexibility since power forwards are being asked to do more than ever before. Metu is light on his feet and can keep up with defenders from the outside, but thrives when leaping into the paint to block shots from unsuspecting victims.
Metu averages 1.8 blocks per game in Austin, which ranks highest on the team, coming from his blitzing weakside defense and intense movement on that side of the floor. He leads the team in defensive rating (107), Defensive Box Plus/Minus (2.9), and defensive rebounding percentage (23.2%).
The fact that Metu can stick with ball handlers off the dribble and send their shots packing is an incredible sign of who he can become. He has played in eight or more minutes in just three games this season and has at least a block in each of them.
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Take this play against Chicago Bulls rookie Coby White, an excellent playmaker and ball-handler. White attempts to take Metu off the dribble and is met at the rim with a high-flying rejection near the basket. White creates separation for a moment, but Metu recovers to block the shot and runs the court to get set for the offensive play.
His game is nowhere near complete, but it’s coming along very nicely. Metu struggled on defense before this season and seemed a bit lost, but it’s clear that his instincts are coming along and he’s learning to use his physical tools to compete.
Metu only has one year left on his contract after this one and will enter restricted free agency looking for a team that’s willing to let him play. If the Spurs don’t start making him a priority, he could look to move on and find a place that’ll let him get his reps in the big leagues.
Allowing Metu’s career to pass the Spurs by is a mistake, especially as the team falls into the reality of its situation.