Some of the San Antonio Spurs’ best basketball of the season came inside the NBA Bubble despite being shorthanded and counted out.
How often in your life have the San Antonio Spurs been considered underdogs? It’s become more often during the last three seasons but overall, their organizational structure, development skills and masterful coaching have put them in a position to succeed. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t enough to combat the injury trouble and irregular roster construction that the team brought into this second chance.
Still, the weakened version of the Spurs in the Orlando Bubble brought their A-Game, fighting until the very last moment to keep the playoff streak alive. Perseverance wasn’t enough but alas, this version of the roster put up an incredible fight. Players made the most of the opportunity with a major lineup shift that prioritized the young guns over their veteran counterparts besides a few invaluable contributors.
Certain players hit another level inside the bubble that you couldn’t have imagined during our last look at this team. The foundation was there for rookie breakouts or increased roles, but overall, the team was very difficult to figure out. Even now that the Spurs had four of their top eight contributors out of the rotation, putting the pieces together for another run at the postseason next year will be quizzical.
Regardless, these four players went above and beyond in the bubble. They took every preconceived notion and threw them out the window, establishing a new baseline for success while giving the NBA world a glimpse at who they can be moving forward.
That’s what the Orlando Bubble experience was all about for the silver and black anyway.
Next: The veteran forward transformed himself once again
Veteran Rudy Gay reinvented himself for the San Antonio Spurs’ bubble squad.
All season long, forward Rudy Gay looked like a shell of himself. Before the bubble, his shooting splits were in the gutter and his season outlook became bleak. He became more valuable as a small-ball five than as a viable scoring option on the wing. After a few months off to get his body and mind back to peak-form, Gay played arguably his best basketball in silver and black.
Through seven games in Orlando, we got the version of Gay that the Spurs paid for this past offseason. In an average of 24.8 minutes off the bench, Rudy averaged 17.9 points on 46.8 percent from the field and a whopping 45.7 percent on five threes per game. He was effective on the glass and as a defender, grabbing 5.7 rebounds and gathering 1.3 steals in that span.
When San Antonio brought him back, they needed him to be a tertiary ball-handler and bucket better for the second unit. The team needed someone who could buy them a basket whenever they needed to be bailed out. Furthermore, they asked him to play unselfish team-basketball to execute their gameplan. Gay was an exceptional teammate, but his scoring wasn’t up to par with what we’ve come to expect.
Gay took his time off to remember who he is and what he’s capable of. He got his body in great shape and elevated his play as a veteran leader for a team trending young. Watching him play in Orlando was an absolute treat that Spurs fans won’t take for granted. If this is a glimpse into what we can expect from him in limited bursts moving forward, Rudy is going to push the needle for a Spurs team fighting to get back into the postseason.
Next: The rookie hit his stride for the silver and black
Rookie Keldon Johnson is a stud for the San Antonio Spurs.
During a four-game stretch before the season shut down, we got a short glimpse of Keldon Johnson‘s play translating to the NBA. It was something I harped as the bubble drew near, but the extent to which he’d take it astounded myself and the Spurs fanbase at large. With injuries at the power forward spot, the 6-foot-5 wing filled in exceptionally.
Using his strength and physicality, Keldon held his own out of position and took advantage of every moment he stepped on that court. The 20-year-old averaged 14.1 points, five rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.1 steals on a hyper-efficient 63.8 percent from the field and 11-for-17 from beyond the 3-point line. His 5.4 +/- was amongst the best on the team and his aggressive defense came up huge in crucial wins against Utah, New Orleans and Houston.
Keldon Johnson is now the first Spurs Rookie to have multiple 20-point games in a season since Gary Neal in 2011.
— Jordan Howenstine (@AirlessJordan) August 11, 2020
Without a doubt in my mind, Keldon is the most NBA-ready rookie the Spurs have had in years. Teams couldn’t get a read on what he’d be able to do at the next level and now, they look silly for passing up on the Kentucky product. He plays with his heart on his sleeve, giving aggressive and concerted effort every time on the floor as a team-based player who’s perfect for Spurs culture.
If the Spurs don’t start the season with a legitimate role in the rotation prepared for Johnson, I’d be shocked. There’s a legitimate argument based on this small sample size that he’s better than most of the team’s other options, including fan favorites from the young core. There are two free agents, Forbes and Belinelli, whose futures with the team are in question based on just how talented Keldon has become in such a short period.
Keldon is wise beyond his years and ready to compete at every opportunity. He was amongst the best parts of this season restart for the San Antonio Spurs.
Next: DeRozan proves why he's a good fit for the squad
Star DeMar DeRozan could fit with the San Antonio Spurs for the long haul.
Even though the San Antonio Spurs are technically trending younger, wing DeMar DeRozan is still their most respected player. A 31-year-old veteran with a knack for isolation scoring, DeMar transformed his game to suit the Spurs better than ever before. He’s still a mid-range master and one of the best active players on the drive, but his passing has become influential for this squad.
Between his game-winning free throws against the Memphis Grizzlies or his takeover against the Sacramento Kings, DeRozan led the way for the silver and black in Orlando. He posted 21.7 points per game on 58.1 percent shooting with 5.7 assists, 4.4 rebounds and quite literally the best defense of his Spurs career. Strong defense is not his forte, but DeRozan knew that his team needed from him and executed by intercepting passing lanes, blocking shots and contesting shots.
He took fewer shots than he normally does but stepped up in big moments when his team needed him. DeRozan was uncharacteristically amongst the best fourth-quarter scorers in the Orlando restart, pouring in clutch play after clutch play despite taking a step back to his younger cohorts.
DeRozan did everything the Spurs needed him to and more in his seven games, seriously opening up the dialogue about his potential long-term fit for the team. A pricey contract extension wouldn’t necessarily be ideal, but DeRozan’s leadership qualities and unselfish play make him a candidate to earn a massive paycheck this offseason.
Next: White is blossoming into a star
Combo guard Derrick White is the future of the San Antonio Spurs.
With the NBA announcing Bubble Awards for the eight seeding games in Orlando, third-year Spur Derrick White needs to be amongst those who are considered. Inserted to the starting lineup right out of the gates, White’s numbers took a massive leap beginning with game one.
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During the regular season before the league suspended basketball operations, White averaged 10.4 points, 3.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. His numbers jumped to 18.3 points, 5.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds, a steal and a block on 45.5 percent from the field, 38.3 percent from deep and 82.5 percent from the charity stripe. He asserted his dominance early in the process, averaging over 20 points before injuring his knee against the Pelicans.
White put the league on notice and showed the basketball world that the Spurs aren’t to be taken lightly moving forward. The 26-year-old has been developing in San Antonio for three seasons and is up for his rookie extension this year. You best believe the Spurs are going to do everything in their power to keep him in town through the foreseeable future.
A bonafide 3-point marksman and a reliable ball-handler, White is the epitome of an elite two-way guard in the modern game. He led the restart in charges drawn including an insane five-charge game against the Sacramento Kings. He jumped into third place in the league in that stat category while dominating in Net Rating and bringing a positive spark of energy every time he stepped on the court.
As the Spurs commit to the next generation of this organization, White needs to be a focal point.