Less than a month out from the San Antonio Spurs returning to play, these three players should see an uptick in playing time in the coming weeks.
Whether he likes it or not, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich needs to make some changes when the 2019-20 season resumes in Orlando, FL later this month. His anchor in the post, former All-NBA big LaMarcus Aldridge is out for the year and now, he’ll be forced to lean into the team’s youth. With many teams considering this a Summer League of sorts, we’re bound to see some of the team’s less experienced players get more burn.
Just a few days ago, I remarked on three players whose roles should be reduced. The other side of that equation is that other players need to have their roles increase to fill that gap, which has landed us at today’s topic: Which players need to be playing more?
For the first time in my lifetime, there are reasonable motives to question Popovich’s rotation this year. He refused to play his best guards alongside each other despite combo guard Derrick White spending 86 percent of his minutes at the two-guard. He leaned into Marco Belinelli in arguably the worst season of his career instead of giving his young players a chance and the player with the third-most minutes on the team, shooting guard Bryn Forbes, was an analytical nightmare.
However, there’s time for course correction here in July and August as we get one last look at this Spurs team before they head into an offseason that will shape the direction of this franchise dramatically. There are certain lineups that we have to see and in order for that to happen, Pop needs to give these guys some more minutes.
Next: A true floor general and two-way star
There’s no denying it: San Antonio Spurs guard Derrick White needs more playing time at the end of the season.
After stepping up in place of his injured cohort last season, Derrick White proved that he’s worthy of a starting job in this league. He’s left a positive impact on this team in every year of his career with the team 4.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor through 3,335 minutes.
White is a true hustle player, ranking near the top of the league in both charges drawn (19) and total blocks (55) for a guard. Though his 35.6 percent 3-point shooting is roughly league-average, he’s often forced into bad shots near the end of the shot clock, lowering his efficiency. He’s actually a way more efficient marksman than the statistics will give him credit for.
0 D1 offersPlayed 3 years at a D2 school1st round draft pick
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) July 2, 2020
Compared with the Spurs’ starter at his position, Bryn Forbes, White leads in each of these statistical categories: Field goal percentage, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals, True Shooting percentage, Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus, Player Efficiency Rating, Value Over Replacement Player and the list goes on. At this point, I don’t think there any argument worth having to start Forbes over White besides floor spacing and even then, I’d still rather play White.
Derrick’s 24.1 minutes per game should be closer to the 28-30 minute-range as the season resumes. The case that he should be coming off the bench in that “Manu-Esque” role is mute because if we’re all being honest with ourselves, Lonnie Walker IV is way closer to Manu than Derrick is. White is more a practical player while Walker is more of a showman and energizer.
Orlando would be the perfect opportunity to get White and Dejounte Murray acclimated to sharing the court with each other. Let’s hope Coach Popovich can recognize that himself.
Next: Time to see what Poeltl's really got
With Aldridge sidelined, the San Antonio Spurs can take a look at what center Jakob Poeltl looks like in an expanded role.
Now’s the time for center Jakob Poeltl to really make his money as the fill-in starter for the injured Aldridge. A fourth-year center entering restricted free agency this offseason, Poeltl is already one of the game’s best traditional centers with an incredible rim presence on both sides of the floor. There’s a strong argument to be made that he’s the team’s best shot-blocker since Tim Duncan.
However, the redundancy he shares with Aldridge has made it difficult for the Spurs to play Poeltl extended minutes. Now that this won’t be an issue, it’s more-than-likely that Poeltl will be the team’s starting center and can prove to the world that he’s got what it takes to play a large role.
Poeltl holds his opponents to 56.7 percent shooting within five feet from the basket, which is tied for the seventh-best ranking amongst centers who defend at least 10 inside FGAs per game. When he’s on the floor, he accounts for 58.3 percent of the Spurs’ blocks, which is the seventh-best mark of qualifying players, and the team’s Net Rating is 7.6 points better with him on the floor. He’s been a catalyst for this team, accounting for the fourth-most Win Shares despite playing the ninth-most minutes of all Spurs this year.
This one is nearly guaranteed, barring injury or a total lack of judgment from the coaching staff. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that Poeltl has been their best option at Center all season and now that Aldridge isn’t playing, that role is wide-open for the 24-year-old to step in.
Next: This rookie's got what it takes to compete
So what if the San Antonio Spurs usually make their rookies wait to play? Wing Keldon Johnson is ready to compete right now.
I’ve brought this up on a handful of occasions since the hiatus began and I’ll continue to make light of it: The Spurs actually gave Keldon Johnson minutes before the season ended. He played 67 minutes in San Antonio’s final four games, averaging 7.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals on 62.5 percent shooting from the field. In those 67 minutes, the Spurs’ total plus/minus was +21.
Say what you want about putting a rookie into the lineup, even if those who came before him were marginally more talented, but Keldon is ready to compete right now. There’s a role for Johnson right now if the Spurs cut back on Forbes, Belinelli and Patty Mills’ minutes and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the superior defender to all three of them.
Orlando could be a showcase for a lot of #Spurs' younger players like Keldon Johnson. "He’s energetic," Derrick White said. "Even when he’s not playing, he brings energy. People just like being around him. He is a fun guy to be around, so that’s always nice to have on the court."
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) July 3, 2020
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Defense, hustle and heart are what the Spurs need most right now and Johnson embodies all three. He’s a gritty player who’s fantastic at finding lanes to the basket and finishing through contact with an array of moves to the basket. His jumper is a work in progress, but it’s coming along faster than some have anticipated after making 38.1 percent of his 118 3-point attempts as a freshman at Kentucky.
Letting Johnson get acclimated to NBA game pace after a successful stint with the Austin Spurs throughout the season is what this league resumption is all about. San Antonio isn’t going into this with the expectation that they’re winning the NBA Championship — They’re going out there to recoup some revenue and use it to prepare for next season, even if they somehow sneak into the playoffs by some miracle.
With Belinelli and Forbes’ deals both expiring after this year, it’s looking more likely that Johnson will be in the lineup as early as next season. San Antonio isn’t likely to swing at any long-term free agent prospects since they have major cap space in a loaded 2021 class. Therefore, letting Johnson warm up to a role he’ll be asked to take next season is the right move in my mind.
There’s no telling what Popovich will decide to do, but let’s keep our fingers crossed that he makes the right decision and lets his young guns run.