San Antonio Spurs: Three X-Factors for success in the NBA’s return to play

Jul 30, 2020, 9:25 AM CDT
SAN ANTONIO, TX - FEBRUARY 26: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks pushes the hand away of Lonnie Walker #1 of the San Antonio Spurs as Walker was called for the foul during second-half action at AT&T Center on February 26, 2020 in San Antonio, Texas. The Mavs defeated the Spurs 109-103. 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 Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX - FEBRUARY 26: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks pushes the hand away of Lonnie Walker #1 of the San Antonio Spurs as Walker was called for the foul during second-half action at AT&T Center on February 26, 2020 in San Antonio, Texas. The Mavs defeated the Spurs 109-103. 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 Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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SAN ANTONIO,TX – OCTOBER 26: Jakob Poeltl #25 of the San Antonio Spurs and Lonnie Walker #1 battle the Washington Wizards for a rebound at AT&T Center. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO,TX – OCTOBER 26: Jakob Poeltl #25 of the San Antonio Spurs and Lonnie Walker #1 battle the Washington Wizards for a rebound at AT&T Center. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

There’s still a chance that the San Antonio Spurs sneak into the 2020 NBA Playoff picture, but it’s going to take a concerted effort from the whole squad.

This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for — NBA basketball makes its official return today starting with an early matchup between the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans followed by a possible WCF preview between the Los Angeles Lakers and the LA Clippers. We’re still more concerned with tomorrow’s matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and the Sacramento Kings.

That kicks off an eight-game slate in which this alternate-reality version of the Spurs without their starting big men attempt to become the eighth seed. Their chances are improved by a play-in system implemented due to the irregular circumstances of this season. Most likely, the No. 9 seed will face the Memphis Grizzlies and if they win back-to-back games, they’ll earn that final playoff spot.

San Antonio isn’t out of it just yet and with the team’s priorities shifting, we’ll see what it looks like when the young guns are put first. Though DeMar DeRozan will still play a significant role for the team, starting at the four-spot through three scrimmages, he’s going to set up the young players as they go through the motions and try to compete for themselves.

We’ve never seen anything like this from professional sports. This is the first functional bubble that’s not associated with some sort of tournament as opposed to playing out a season traditionally. Therefore, the Spurs are about to get funky with some of these lineup combinations that will allow their young players to build chemistry while battling against top competition.

Had the season resumed as planned, the Spurs would’ve had one of the easier schedules to finish out the year. In this case, they’ll face more talented squads without as many freebies along the way. They need to bring their A-games and these three X-Factors play a major role in the outcome.

Next: 1. An unknown impact from a fan favorite

SAN ANTONIO, TX – FEBRUARY 29: Lonnie Walker #1 of the San Antonio Spurs drives past Michael Carter-Williams #7 of the Orlando Magic during second half action at AT&T Center (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX – FEBRUARY 29: Lonnie Walker #1 of the San Antonio Spurs drives past Michael Carter-Williams #7 of the Orlando Magic during second half action at AT&T Center (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

1. How far will Lonnie Walker’s growth propel the San Antonio Spurs?

Having three scrimmages gave us a good look at how the team will operate as the season resumes and a large part of that was sophomore Lonnie Walker IV’s accelerated role in the gameplan. Earlier this season, Walker was stuck behind Marco Belinelli on the bench, wishing his way into a rotation spot. Now, he’s starting for the team at a pivotal position and we don’t fully understand what to expect.

There are times when Walker has been given greater opportunities and he fell short of fulfilling his potential. In these three scrimmage games, Walker looked like a much more mature version of himself on the court, taking shot attempts in stride and using the threat of his ball-handling, shooting and slashing to set teammates up with some wicked dimes. He had a few truly awe-inspiring moments in the early going, but how far can he go?

Defense ➡️ offense courtesy of @Dwhite921 & @lonniewalker_4! pic.twitter.com/zVDkjIiXf4

— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) July 25, 2020

If Walker is playing somewhere between 28 and 33 minutes per game for the Spurs, 15 points per game should be an ideal goal for him. There’s no denying that he has the three-level scoring threat to make that happen and the ball is going to be in his hands more than ever. So long as the team remains consistent from the scrimmages to now, we’re finally going to see what it looks like when the Spurs prioritize him.

Walker averaged 13 points per game on 50 percent from the field and 56 percent from beyond the arch in the scrimmages. That efficiency is huge for a guy whose shot selection was questionable and scoring efficiency was a bit dumbfounding contrasted with his talent this year. Getting comfortable in the NBA is not easy, but as he put it himself in a tweet earlier this week, the game is slowing down for him.

That should be scary for the rest of the league. If he plays to his potential in Orlando, Lonnie can will the Spurs into a winning record along with some help from his teammates.

Next: 2. Filling big shoes in the starting lineup

SAN ANTONIO, TX – FEBRUARY 01: Jakob Poeltl #25 of the San Antonio Spurs dunks against the Charlotte Hornets during first half action at AT&T Center. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX – FEBRUARY 01: Jakob Poeltl #25 of the San Antonio Spurs dunks against the Charlotte Hornets during first half action at AT&T Center. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

2. The San Antonio Spurs need a starting center — can Jakob Poeltl deliver?

Advanced statistics implicate that Jakob Poeltl is one of the best rim protectors, rebounders and screeners at his position, but there’s more than meets the eye. Those things are all true, but Poeltl is also a high-IQ player who makes reads far beyond many players at this stage of their careers. He’s amongst the team’s best passers from the high post and under the basket, which usually results in open triples for shooters in the corner.

So we know what Jakob brings to the table and what his limitations are as well. He’s not very light on his feet and doesn’t add anything more as a scorer outside of the traditional layups, dunks, tip-ins and floaters of a big man. His game is predictable, and that’s okay. The real question we have to face is “Can he fill the shoes of a seven-time All-Star during this postseason push?”

a thing of beauty pic.twitter.com/05N0lHvxaw

— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) July 25, 2020

At no point in his career has Jakob been considered a full-time starter. While he’s contributed his fair share of spot-starts for short-term injuries in both San Antonio and Toronto, Jakob has never gone into a stretch of games knowing that he would be the go-to guy in the paint. To be fair, he wants that level of treatment, and depending on how this goes, he just might get it.

San Antonio is well aware that Jakob is a restricted free agent this offseason who wants to play a greater role moving forward. This is the proving grounds for Poeltl because if his conditioning and skill-level hold up against starters in an expanded role, he’s going to get the contract and playing time that he longs for.

If Poeltl can’t step up to the challenge, it’ll raise questions about his long-term role in the NBA amongst San Antonio and the teams who are considering him in free agency. I’m confident in the 24-year-old’s ability to thrive in this new position.

Next: 3. Just how far has Murray come?

SAN ANTONIO, TX – FEBRUARY 29: Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs drives between two Orlando Magic defenders during second half action at AT&T Center. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX – FEBRUARY 29: Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs drives between two Orlando Magic defenders during second half action at AT&T Center. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

3. Dejounte Murray has been groomed for this moment, but is he ready for it?

During the offseason, Dejounte Murray made note that we haven’t yet seen what he can do when he’s a primary scorer for his team. This may be his chance because DeRozan isn’t taking as many shots as he once was and while I’m sure he’ll lead the team in attempts during some of these games, the ball will be distributed more so than ever in his two-year run.

With more shots, Dejounte looked rusty through those three scrimmage games. His jumper was a bit inconsistent and he completely fell apart in the game versus Brooklyn, finishing with four turnovers to two assists and five fouls. That isn’t necessarily an indictment against what he’ll do when he gets the ball rolling, but that Nets team started Chris Chiozza at point guard.

The steal. The hustle. The slam. ?#GoSpursGo | #WholeNewGame pic.twitter.com/dWRo2pTlCD

— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) July 28, 2020

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For those of you who read that and thought “WHO?!?,” that’s sort of my point. Dejounte needs to go up against the likes of De’Aaron Fox, Ja Morant, Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook and a handful of extremely talented point guards in this eight-game slate. Murray was just getting used to game pace again when the season shut down and quite frankly, I don’t think we talked enough about how detrimental that might’ve been for him.

Coming off of a life-changing injury like an ACL tear and losing momentum has got to be extremely difficult. I believe in Dejounte’s talent and his long-term potential as the leader of this young core, but I’m not sold on him being ready to take that next step in Orlando.

If Dejounte can pick up where he left off at the end of the season, becoming a higher-usage scorer whose drives to the basket make for an easy bucket and jumper was as reliable as they come, San Antonio is going to be way more deadly than anyone realized they’d be. Luckily for him, Derrick White is there in the backcourt to pick up the slack on those tough nights, but for the Spurs to reach the playoffs, they need to be few and far between.

Next. Three ways to make the Spurs more at-home in Orlando

There’s a solid case that Dejounte’s play is the catalyst in all of this and if he plays to the best of his ability, the Spurs could certainly make a splash inside the NBA’s bubble.

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