The first season of the Trey Lyles experiment with the San Antonio Spurs exceeded all expectations, but there’s still room for improvement.
Even though it didn’t start this way, San Antonio Spurs forward Trey Lyles exceeded all expectations in his first season donning the silver and black. After a down-year in his last full season with the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio scooped in and signed him to a two-year, $11 million contract to become a key rotation player.
Instead, he slotted into a starting role for 53 of his 63 games this season and posted an average stat line of 6.4 points, a career-high 5.7 rebounds and 1.1 assists per contest. Lyles shot the highest three-point percentage of his career at 38.7 percent from beyond the arc and 44.6 percent from the field. While this isn’t exactly a standout mark for a player at his position, it was the second-best of his career and only grew better as the season went on.
After the All-Star break, Lyles’ averages skyrocketed to 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and a steal on 48.2 percent shooting from the field, 48.8 percent shooting from three-point range and 84.6 percent from the charity stripe. It was a shame that the season ended so abruptly in the midst of this because Lyles’ output was at a level of efficiency that we’ve never seen from him before.
While he’s a pretty complete player in his playstyle and approach to the game, Lyles still has a way to go before fulfilling his potential. Formerly remembered for his wicked passing ability and defensive prowess, Lyles took a step back in those regards during his lone season in the silver and black. Part of this is due to the role he fulfilled under head coach Gregg Popovich, but the best Spurs bend the rules a bit to exemplify the widest range of their skills.
There are a handful of areas he could improve on, but the most important is his defense.
Next: Stepping up on defense
Adding muscle to pose defensive threat
Even though Defensive Rating is a stat that’s comprised of team outputs in addition to the individual, Lyles posted the worst Defensive Rating of his career this year at 113 while matching his career-low in Defensive Box Plus/Minus at -0.7.
He’s a decent on-ball defender who is nimble for his size and puts up a consistent effort, but it’s not quite enough. Lyles isn’t fast enough to keep up with small forwards or strong enough to bump bodies with centers for extended periods, which is why it’d benefit him to put on some muscle and become a more physical all-around player.
Listed at 6-foot-9, 234lbs, Lyles is a bit wiry for a player at his size. Lyles should spend this offseason adding muscle mass to his upper-body including torso, shoulders and arms so that he can impose his will on opposing big men while getting physical when switched onto guards and small forwards.
Becoming an all-world defender doesn’t seem to be in the cards for Lyles, and that’s okay! Defense is entirely effort-based and he tries his hardest to make his mark on that end. However, a stronger build would help him strip the ball from opponents or muscle his matchup around in the paint when his number is called.
Considering the team’s star big, LaMarcus Aldridge will be 35 by the time that the 2020-21 season rolls around, he cannot be assigned to defend star power forwards and centers anymore. His presence hovering near the rim is going to prove helpful for someone like Lyles, who is tasked with rotating throughout the court floor and playing up at the perimeter.
Next: Striving to maintain shooting after the All-Star Break
Riding consistency into future seasons
There’s no doubt in my mind that the nine-game sample size we got from Lyles after the All-Star break was the best stretch of basketball in his career. He had some of his best defensive performances including a four-steal, one block game in a win over the Orlando Magic.
Lyles aged like fine wine as the season progressed and we’d like to see that trend continue as his time within the Spurs’ system goes on. This is a team that caters itself to the needs and skills of its players, which is a large reason why Lyles is playing so well as of late. There were some bumps along the way and stretches of mediocrity from the fifth-year big man, but he also flashed a genuine upside that makes him a strong candidate to be in the team’s long-term outlook.
It’s not realistic for him to be a 48.8 percent three-point shooter for a whole season, but it’s plausible to see him shoot between 41-45 percent next season given the way he’s played lately.
This is going to take a lot of hard work from Lyles in the offseason, but no one signs with San Antonio expecting anything other than hard work. At the very least, the free-throw shooting should rise from this season to next. Improved free throw shooting is usually a solid baseline for distance shooting to develop later on.
However, shooting above 40 percent from three-point land shouldn’t just be a goal for Lyles next season—it should be a requirement because we’ve already seen that he’s capable of it.
Next: Distributing offense as a secondary playmaker
Becoming a secondary-playmaker for the Spurs
Since coming out of Kentucky in 2015, it’s been widely known by his coaches and teams that Lyles is a skilled passer who hits teammates in the hands when he rockets passes. This is a skill that’s highly coveted in the modern NBA because secondary playmaking opens up a world of opportunity for shooters around the perimeter.
For someone like Lyles, who makes reads and passes innately, learning to make plays for teammates shouldn’t be too hard. Part of being aggressive is learning how to balance when to take a shot and when to defer to teammates, so this is the next logical step in his progression toward a solid NBA career.
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When he signed with the team, various people including myself threw around the Boris Diaw comparison because of this exact trait, in addition to his position and build. The passing didn’t come to fruition this year with Lyles reaching more than two assists in only 10 games this year. Averaging three assists per game as a starter, or two as a bench player should be a primary goal for the 24-year-old in the 2020-21 season.
Players like Bam Adebayo, Draymond Green, Pascal Siakam and Nikola Jokic all translate directly to winning because of their ability to generate offense for their teammates. More so than he may even realize, Lyles can influence the Spurs’ future by becoming that for this team. Passing out of the post to cutters or driving-and-dishing to shooters in the corner would hugely shift the dynamic of the Spurs’ offense.
We already know that Lyles is going to go up strong on the glass and gobble up rebounds at every opportunity. His importance to the team transforms when he learns how to grab that rebound and find the next man up on the fastbreak, which is something we’ve already seen from him in flashes. Passing on the fastbreak is one thing, but learning how to do it in the halfcourt is a whole new ballgame and it’s the logical next step for a player like Trey.
Even though he’s already a strong and smart player, Lyles can be so much more than he already is.