Young Spurs have the potential to wreak havoc on defense

SAN ANTONIO, TX - FEBRUARY 26: Lonnie Walker #1 of the San Antonio Spurs high fives Dejounte Murray #5 after a basket against the Dallas Mavericks during second half action at AT&T Center. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX - FEBRUARY 26: Lonnie Walker #1 of the San Antonio Spurs high fives Dejounte Murray #5 after a basket against the Dallas Mavericks during second half action at AT&T Center. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images) /

After the worst defensive season in team history, there’s still hope. The young San Antonio Spurs have the potential to be great on defense.

From the early 2000s until just recently, the San Antonio Spurs have consistently been one of the best defensive teams in the league. They took a step back with the loss of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green but were still able to play passable defense in the first season without two of their best wing defenders. That all went out the window this year.

Before the season was suspended, the Spurs were on pace to have their worst defensive year in franchise history. Barring an unexpected change, San Antonio was on track to record a defensive rating of 113.7, .9 points worse than their previous low back in 1987-88. Plain and simple, this was a historically terrible year for the Spurs defense.

The silver lining, this difficult season has San Antonio ready to make their highest draft selection since Tim Duncan. That, combined with their already impressive group of youngsters, should help the Spurs return to one of the better defensive teams in the league.

Led by Derrick White and Dejounte Murray, San Antonio already has two of the best defensive guards in the NBA. Add in Lonnie Walker, Jakob Poeltl, and Keldon Johnson and you can quickly see the makings of a team that will put defense first and foremost.

It starts with Walker and Murray. We knew that Murray had great defensive potential when the Spurs drafted him back in 2016, but his meteoric rise to one of the best perimeter defenders in the league was still astounding. In just his second season in the league, Murray became the youngest player in NBA history to make an All-Defensive Team, breaking the record previously held by Kobe Bryant.

We saw Murray gradually work his way back from a devastating knee injury that held him out for a full year. He started this season with a bit of hesitation, but as the year went along he gradually returned to long-limbed defensive menace he had been before.

Pass the ball near Murray at your own peril. He’s an expert at using his 6’10 wingspan to disrupt passing lanes and create easy fast-break opportunities. He was 7th in the league in steals per game, 5th in total steals, and 3rd in deflections per 36 minutes.

While DJ can rely more on his athleticism and wingspan, White has had to make more of less impressive physical talents. That hasn’t stopped him from emerging as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders alongside his teammate. Now if only we could get them to play together.

Despite seeing his minutes decrease from last season and only starting 13 games, White was still a league leader in many key defensive statistics. He led all guards in total blocks (55) and the next two closest players, James Harden and Jayson Tatum, both play more than 10 minutes per game more than he did this year.

He’s not the tallest guard and doesn’t have the longest wingspan but White is still consistently able to put himself in the right spot to make key defensive plays. He’s rarely out of position, is nearly impossible to shake, and has an extra gear to kick in when he needs to make a hustle play.

One of the things I love about White’s defensive contributions is the effort he gives outside the arc. Contesting shots at the rim is one thing, but staying locked on your man and contesting three’s is different.

That makes White’s 3.7 contested 3-point shots per game, good enough for 10th in the league, all the more impressive. He’s skilled at walking the line between sagging off just enough to prevent his man from getting past him and staying close enough to be able to recover and contest or block the shot.

While White and Murray have already emerged as top-tier defenders, they’re complemented by two growing defensive presences. Lonnie Walker and Jakob Poeltl both have improving to do but each has shown the potential to have a tremendous defensive impact.

Before going down with an MCL sprain that had the potential to end his season, Poeltl was having an impressive season as the Spurs’ most intimidating rim protector. He was leading the team in block percentage (7.7%) by a wide margin and correspondingly led them in blocks per 100 possessions at 4.2.

His offensive limitations look like they will prevent him from ever reaching an All-Star level but Poeltl has real potential to be one of the best defensive bigs in the league. He’s already leading the Spurs in defensive box plus/minus and, thanks to his consistency with going straight up and avoiding fouls, he’s able to stay on the floor for long stretches at a time.

As LaMarcus Aldridge continues to age, and Poeltl continues to learn from Tim Duncan, we could be approaching a day where we see Poeltl take over as the man in the middle for San Antonio. If he’s surrounded by shooters and slashers, similar to what the Utah Jazz have built around Rudy Gobert, it isn’t a bad future to look towards. Signing him to an extension this summer is a must for the Spurs.

Then there is young mister Skywalker, overflowing with defensive potential but not quite there yet. Spurs fans cries for Lonnie to be given more minutes at the beginning of the season were largely ignored by Gregg Popovich. Pop won’t play rookies until he knows for certain that they’re ready, and he’s definitely not going to play them if he doesn’t trust them on defense. Lonnie simply wasn’t there at there for most of the season.

But as the year went on we saw more frequent glimpses of the defensive impact that Walker can have when he properly harnesses his otherworldly athleticism. He can jump out of the gym and is by far the fastest player on the team. Combine those two and you have a potentially dynamic defender capable of making impressive plays on the weak side or after he’s been passed.

We’re about as high on Walker as you can possibly be. He has real 20 points per game scoring potential and has all the athletic gifts you could want out of a disruptive defensive wing. The sky is truly the limit for the Spurs’ most exciting player in years.

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Finally, we have the rookie, Keldon Johnson. We didn’t see much of Johnson in the NBA but what we did get was impressive. You don’t want to make too much of one single play but this defensive effort on Luka Doncic was eye-grabbing.

Standing 6’5 with a solid frame, Johnson looks like he will give the Spurs another rock-solid wing defender to pair with Walker. He’s not going to back down from anyone, just look at how eagerly he stepped up to put the clamps on an MVP candidate.

He’s a grinder, he gives non-stop effort when he’s on the floor. Comb through some of his G-League highlights and you’ll see him regularly diving all over the floor for loose balls. Even if he didn’t show tremendous defensive instincts that alone would be enough to endear him to Spurs fans. Combine the two and you have a young player who can really help take the Spurs back to the defensive-minded team they have been in the past.

With their highest draft pick this century, the Spurs will have an excellent opportunity to add another strong defender to their roster. Jaden McDaniels has all the physical tools you want in a rangy lockdown forward but has been inconsistent on the defensive end in his time at Washington. If the Spurs want someone a little more established they could go with Patrick Williams from Florida State.

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No matter how they decide to play the draft, their incoming rookie, combined with the players already on the roster, has the San Antonio Spurs on track to returning to the defense-first styled team that dominated the league for much of the past twenty years.