An inexplicable trait that makes every great team come together, the It-Factor, is exactly what the San Antonio Spurs’ young core needs to excel.
Each from seemingly different worlds, the San Antonio Spurs’ historic Big Three etched itself into the pantheon of NBA history despite varied approaches to the sport. How, exactly, did these three unique players from across the globe manage to dominate a two-decade run with sustained regular-season success and five NBA titles?
San Antonio’s iconic trio had the killer instinct and competitive drive to outwork and outcompete their opponents at every chance. None of them was the fastest, strongest, or most athletic player on the court in most scenarios. What they lacked in physical dominance, they made up for with high basketball IQ and heart.
That ‘It-Factor’ is something the San Antonio Spurs need from their young players if this core is to lead the way into the next era of this franchise. The question is, do they have it already, or is it something that needs to be sought after through trades and the NBA Draft?
For some, it may be too early to tell. However, certain players flash it well before their basketball intelligence and skill-level meet up to them. Looking at this year’s playoffs, you can tell that Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart has the It-Factor despite being a role player for his team. On the flip side, you wouldn’t be unwise to question LA Clippers star Paul George’s reliability in this equation. Keep in mind, the Spurs’ stars in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are being excluded from the conversation as this is mainly highlighting the young core.
Next: Players who have to prove it
These young San Antonio Spurs need to prove they have the It-Factor.
Let’s start with the player with the most to prove: 2019’s No. 19 overall selection, Luka Samanic. Drafted to be an influential player for this team, Samanic didn’t get much opportunity to shine during the San Antonio Spurs’ season. He also didn’t get enough time at the NBA level to show us what he’s got.
Samanic was exceptional in the G League despite being a bit of a raw prospect. He’s got the tools to be a great two-way player whose multipositional upside ascends the San Antonio Spurs to a modernized scheme. With that said, he’s been timid at times with body language suggesting he’s not comfortable at this level. For as natural as that is, Samanic could be seriously shown up by the Spurs’ other first-round rookie taken in his class. He should use that as fuel to unlock his potential and hopefully achieve the It-Factor in the process.
Similarly, sophomore Lonnie Walker IV has a lot to prove heading into his third year with the San Antonio Spurs. Athleticism alone won’t be enough for him to get by in this league and relying on it is only going to expose his weaknesses. Walker has the potential to be an All-Star-caliber player if he simply unleashes the dog inside of him and channels all of his abilities. Missing point-blank layups and dunks won’t cut it if he’s going to become the type of player who could make an impact for these Spurs in the playoffs.
Beyond that, simply making a few shots isn’t enough. To exemplify the It-Factor, you need to show up in critical situations, learn to close out games and elevate your play under pressure. When Walker led the charge in the San Antonio Spurs’ comeback overtime victory against the Houston Rockets, Walker flashed the It-Factor more than anyone else on the team did in a single game this season.
Unfortunately, that’s not the same Lonnie Walker that we got in every game. Lonnie has the It-Factor within him — Now it’s a matter of putting it together consistently.
Certain young Spurs players have shown NBA level proficiency within their roles, but don’t necessarily push the needle. This includes Trey Lyles, Drew Eubanks and Bryn Forbes. There is a case to be made for Jakob Poeltl, but ultimately, the second year Spur needs to show more before falling into that category. This is not to say these players cannot achieve it with time, but there’s not enough evidence to suggest they have it right now.
Not every player on a playoff team needs to have the It-Factor. You can play a role without being truly transformative, and within San Antonio‘s system, any player can leave their mark.
Next: Players who have shown it
These San Antonio Spurs have shown signs of the It-Factor.
A handful of the San Antonio Spurs’ younger players manage to show signs of what’s to come. None more so than Derrick White, who entered the starting lineup in Orlando and never looked back. Although he’s getting a bit old to be considered a young player, White is still on his rookie contract, leaving him in this group.
By putting his body on the line and competing to the fullest extent, White proved that he has what it takes to lead in the NBA. With increased volume and a greater opportunity, White became the player that the San Antonio Spurs saw during last year‘s playoffs against the Denver Nuggets.
However, the expectations are greater than ever before heading into the final year of his rookie deal. Whether the Spurs pay him this off-season or in restricted free agency next year, he’s going to be playing for his next deal. If he keeps up this elite level of play, no one will be able to deny that he has the It-Factor.
Just as expectations have been set for White, rookie Keldon Johnson has set the bar for himself. During his eight games in the Orlando restart, Johnson displayed all of the skills that made him a projected lottery pick in last year’s draft. Slipping to the San Antonio Spurs is the best thing that could’ve happened for his development — Now he’s on a path toward a very successful career.
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Since we’ve seen what Johnson can do against NBA competition, he’s likely to have a full-time role with the team moving forward. With killer instincts as an on-ball defender and three-level scorer, Johnson may just be the Spurs’ focal point for the future.
At one point, the same could be said for starting point guard Dejounte Murray. The youngest player to make an All-Defensive team, Murray’s potential was bursting at the seams before tearing his ACL in last year’s preseason.
A lot has changed since then and many think that White should take that starting position from Murray. The Spurs organization believes in their point guard despite a difficult transition while returning from injury. However, this is the same player whose competitive drive and uncanny work ethic forced head coach Gregg Popovich to hand Tony Parker’s starting role over.
Next season, expectations will grow for Murray once again. It’s not unusual for a player returning from a devastating injury to struggle in their first season back. Murray was pretty effective once he got comfortable again. That’s not to say there aren’t still issues, but we’ve seen the It-Factor from him before and in spurts throughout the 2019-20 season.
In the first season of his team-friendly extension, will get to know what’s truly to come from Murray.