San Antonio Spurs: Aldridge’s injury carves out an expanded role for Chimezie Metu

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 16: Chimezie Metu #7 of the San Antonio Spurs posts up Gary Clark #6 of the Houston Rockets during the fourth quarter at Toyota Center on October 16, 2019 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 16: Chimezie Metu #7 of the San Antonio Spurs posts up Gary Clark #6 of the Houston Rockets during the fourth quarter at Toyota Center on October 16, 2019 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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SAN ANTONIO, TX – OCTOBER 18: Chimezie Metu #7 of the San Antonio Spurs drives around John Konchar #46 of the Memphis Grizzlies during a preseason NBA game held at the AT&T Center (Photo by Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX – OCTOBER 18: Chimezie Metu #7 of the San Antonio Spurs drives around John Konchar #46 of the Memphis Grizzlies during a preseason NBA game held at the AT&T Center (Photo by Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images)

For two years the San Antonio Spurs have been grooming big man Chimezie Metu for this moment and now is the time they need to call on him for help.

Throughout his two seasons in the NBA, hybrid power forward/center Chimezie Metu hasn’t been let off the leash very much. Playing under San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich requires quite a bit of patience and the Los Angeles native’s efforts have yet to pay off. After an unexpected change of events, it seems like that’s about to shift.

It was announced that star big man LaMarcus Aldridge is going to miss the remainder of the 2019-20 NBA season after undergoing a procedure on his right shoulder in April. With 33.1 minutes per game to fill and a dearth of frontcourt players ready to go, Popovich needs to let some of his younger players fill minutes in place of the injured star.

Metu has only played 218 career minutes thus far in his career across 45 games but has over 1,400 career G-League minutes to his name including an impressive jump from his rookie year to now.

Duncan here at practice getting some work in with Chimezie Metu… #Spurs @TheAthleticNBA ? pic.twitter.com/MUswgpy91E

— Jabari Young (@JabariJYoung) October 2, 2018

As a member of the Austin Spurs, Metu averaged 18 points, 8.9 boards, 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals in 29 minutes per game with impressive shooting to note. Hs hit 54.9 percent of his field-goal attempts and 22-of-58 threes at 37.9 percent playing for the San Antonio’s developmental team. He combined tremendous athleticism with a stocky frame and solid feel for the game, which has led many to wonder why Popovich doesn’t let him play.

Even when both Aldridge and backup center Jakob Poeltl were injured earlier in the year, it was two-way player Drew Eubanks that got the starting nod from Pop. Now, the team should be in line to give Chimezie the chance that he’s been working for since being drafted in 2018.

Next: What can Chimezie bring to the table?

CEDAR PARK, TX – NOVEMBER 8: Chimezie Metu #7 of the Austin Spurs shoots the ball against Isaiah Hartenstein #55 of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers during an NBA G-League game in 2019 (Photo by Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images)
CEDAR PARK, TX – NOVEMBER 8: Chimezie Metu #7 of the Austin Spurs shoots the ball against Isaiah Hartenstein #55 of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers during an NBA G-League game in 2019 (Photo by Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the reeling San Antonio Spurs, Metu provides a glimmer of hope through defense, rebounding and firey athleticism.

With all of the time that Metu has under his belt learning from the likes of Tim Duncan and Aldridge, it’s obvious that his footwork has come a long way. During his extended time in the G-League, it’s clear that the face-up big man can use some of that underrated quickness and strength to get to the rim and explode for tough lay-ins or dunks.

However, the dunks are just a small segment of what Metu can actually do. He has a nice form on his jump shot, which extends as far as the 3-point line and grows increasingly more effective as he moves inside the arc. That jumper is paired with a soft touch that he can use on tip-ins, floaters and contested layups around the rim, which makes him a versatile and reliable finisher.

https://twitter.com/austin_spurs/status/1233986037531193344

Though Metu isn’t going to replace Aldridge’s offensive value, he can provide similar spacing at the four or five with much greater athleticism at his disposal. He can move laterally and vertically, making him a multifaceted defender who’s great as a primary rim protector or a weak-side help defender. Chasing after defensive possessions like that isn’t easy and requires a determined mindset, which Metu has proven through his unwavering hustle and dedication to his team.

Metu doesn’t give up on plays and even when he makes a mistake, he tries his hardest with every opportunity. According to Defensive Rating, Austin was at it’s best on that side of the game when Metu was on the floor this season, improving their average rating (114.9) by nearly five points per 100 possessions.

Maybe G-League stats aren’t going to immediately make Metu a candidate to take the NBA by storm, but now’s the best possible time for the Spurs to figure out who he can be when tackling the most elite of competition. Having a player who can transition between the two frontcourt positions so easily is an asset to any team trying to win against playoff contenders.

Next: Who does Metu need to compete with for playing time?

CLEVELAND, OHIO – MARCH 08: Drew Eubanks #14 listens to Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO – MARCH 08: Drew Eubanks #14 listens to Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

There are still some San Antonio Spurs players in line for minutes before Metu.

San Antonio’s totem pole isn’t the same as the traditional NBA team. With Coach Pop at the helm, you never know what you’re going to get. When Aldridge and Poeltl went down with an injury early in the season, Eubanks started three games for the silver and black, struggling mightily in the process. You have to wonder where Metu falls in the pecking order of tertiary frontcourt players vying for the same segment of playing time.

First and foremost, we’re going to see an uptick in playing time and usage by starting four Trey Lyles. A first-year Spur in his fifth NBA season, Lyles stepped into a large role for San Antonio as a contingency plan for forward Marcus Morris, who now plays for the LA Clippers. In those games when Aldridge was absent, Lyles not only took more shots, but he thrived with them.

Next up in the Spurs’ lineup is Poeltl, who is returning from a knee injury that was initially slated to cost him three weeks of playing time. When he suffered his injury, fans who clamored for his elevated role felt a shot in the gut, but now is his chance to prove what he’s worth before hitting restricted free agency in the Fall.

Poeltl is likely to start at the center spot in place of Aldridge, which leaves those backup center minutes open. There’s also a chance that Lyles is pushed to the small-ball five, which leaves a glimmer of opportunity for Metu to jump into the rotation.

The biggest question mark left is whether the team is going to play rookie Luka Samanic or not. This was supposed to be a purely developmental season for the No. 19 pick in last year’s draft, which is why I wouldn’t be totally surprised if he only sees garbage time minutes if any at all. That, of course, is barring further injury trouble.

Eubanks had a shot at minutes before the regular season finished and he had a hard time adjusting, which leaves me to believe Metu should be the next man in line for his shot.

Next: Can Metu carve out a role?

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – NOVEMBER 28: Luol Deng #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves defends against Chimezie Metu #7 of the San Antonio Spurs at the Target Center. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – NOVEMBER 28: Luol Deng #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves defends against Chimezie Metu #7 of the San Antonio Spurs at the Target Center. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

If Metu gets the time he deserves, he may be a legitimate rotation option for the San Antonio Spurs heading into next season.

We could spend a whole heap of time pondering whether or not Metu is going to get those minutes, but let’s operate under the assumption that he does play enough playing time for the team to get a good look at him. If he plays up to the standard that I believe he could be based on his development and play style, Metu could be a staple of Spurs basketball moving forward.

The second-rounder is under contract through next season and San Antonio could retain his rights beyond that—or better yet, extend him this offseason to ensure he’s with the team for the future. Metu’s ceiling is a legitimate starting big with the ability to shift between either position. Everything that Lyles brings to the Spurs—rebounding, defense, high basketball IQ and floor spacing—Metu could potentially provide as well.

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On one hand, the fact that he’s been stashed on the bench for this long is a cause for concern. On the other hand, Metu might be a gem waiting for his chance to emerge after an extended period of training. However, if the Spurs don’t give him his chance to get his feet wet, he could very easily lose interest in donning silver and black moving forward.

To be honest, Metu has been on the roster for two years and we don’t know much about him. The jury’s still out on what kind of player he’ll be in the big leagues since he never got much of a chance to try. His most minutes in a game was on November 19, 2018 when he logged 13 and a half minutes, scoring eight points on 4-of-5 shooting. Still, based on everything I’ve seen from him dating back to USC, I’m all-in on Metu being a high-level rotation player at the very least and this is the perfect stage to debut him on.

Development is key for the young Spurs and if they find themselves eliminated from the postseason officially, it’ll be time to unveil some of the gems they’ve been stashing on the bench over the last few seasons.

Next. Predicting final 8 games of Spurs regular season

Arguably the most underrated and underutilized of the bunch, Metu will be ready to go.

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