San Antonio Spurs: Three players whose roles could increase next season
By Dylan Carter
Mar 6, 2020; Brooklyn, New York, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich reacts during the third quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
After a season that was focused on growth, these three San Antonio Spurs players might see more minutes for the team in the 2020-21 season.
Times are changing for a San Antonio Spurs organization finally feeling the aftermath of its three franchise stars retiring. Every franchise has to face the music at some point and for as much of a staple as the San Antonio Spurs have been since the late-90s, their time has finally come. Don’t be sad that it’s over — Be proud to have been a part of it and look forward to future endeavors!
That’s how the organization is going to approach its first major retooling since the end of the Big Three era. Making the trade with Toronto wasn’t truly in the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, but rather in the hands of Kawhi and Uncle Dennis. Now, the San Antonio Spurs have their ducks in a row and control the destiny of this roster. Whatever comes next lays on the shoulders of the brain trust leading the operation: Head coach and President Gregg Popovich, SS&E CEO R.C. Buford and general manager Brian Wright, who just completed his first full year in the role.
Barring something unforeseen, the San Antonio Spurs are going to run it back with a relatively similar lineup to the one they deployed this season. The major difference is that some of the roles are going to be shifted around and players who didn’t have reliable roles last season will take a step into the rotation.
Not only is revamping the rotation good for the San Antonio Spurs’ development, but it’s going to position this team to win now. Deploying the young core and prioritizing some of the up-and-comers made the San Antonio Spurs a considerably better team in the Orlando restart. Now that we have a sample size of what that looks like in considerable bursts, Popovich is forced to look at his roster a little bit differently heading into next season.
Next: No. 1 — The Mustang
Mar 10, 2020; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) brings the ball up the court against the Dallas Mavericks in the first half at the AT&T Center. (Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports)
1. Keldon Johnson has forced the San Antonio Spurs to recognize him.
Rookies don’t generally get the opportunities that Keldon Johnson did in his first year with the San Antonio Spurs, but he’s too talented not to play. The 21-year-old logged minutes briefly during an injury-ridden stretch and never looked back, commanding the respect and attention of his peers. Unlike many Spurs rookies before him, Keldon forced the team to carve out a role for him.
Beyond instantly becoming one of the team’s best defenders, Johnson averaged 11.8 points in that 12-game span. The rook shot the ball excellently, posting a 63.5 percent field goal percentage while hitting 51.9 percent of his 3-pointers and 81 percent of his free throw attempts. Those percentages aren’t sustainable over a full-season slate — particularly the percentages from the floor. However, Johnson scored 20+ points three times in his last five games including back-to-back 24-point performances to finish the season.
2019-20 season highlights ➡️ Keldon Johnson
Keldon averaged 20.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 30 minutes per game this season ?#AustinSpurs #GoSpursGo #NBAGLeague pic.twitter.com/JE1uJZOQmV
— Austin Spurs (@austin_spurs) July 15, 2020
Injecting the lineup with his endless positivity and keen basketball instinct is the kind of shift that can help the San Antonio Spurs return to glory. For as impactful as the young Spurs have proven themselves to be, none has shined like Keldon. These scoring performances with only 17 NBA appearances including many in garbage time aren’t something that can be taken lightly.
Johnson has the potential to be the Spurs’ next All-Star if he keeps up this pace. At this point, it’s not even a matter of development — Johnson needs to play because he gives the Spurs their best chance to win basketball games. Expect him to play between 18-24 minutes per game next season but early on, he’s going to need to earn it from the vets in front of him.
Next: No. 2 — The Unknown
Sep 30, 2019; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Luka Samanic (19) poses during media day at the Spurs practice facility. (Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports)
2. The San Antonio Spurs can’t afford not to play Luka Samanic.
While Keldon is obviously the focal point of the Spurs’ draft in 2019, it’s Croatian forward Luka Samanic who was the Spurs’ first of three draft picks in that class. To be quite honest, I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one. The first thing that came to mind was that the San Antonio Spurs drafted him as their replacement for Davis Bertans. It seemed like they believe that what Samanic lacks in comparison to Bertans’ shooting will be made up for tenfold in other aspects of the game.
Early into the process, it was made clear that Samanic wasn’t going to be a draft-and-stash. He spent his season on the Spurs’ roster playing for the Austin G-League affiliate and learning as much as possible on the sidelines with the big dogs. His G-League performances were admirable despite some poor shooting spurts throughout the year, but Spurs fans are most notably going to remember how Samanic showed up in the final game of the season.
No hesitation ?@SamanicLuka | #GoSpursGo pic.twitter.com/5ROFJBApni
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) August 14, 2020
I broke that game down using film in my piece linked here, but that’s not the focus of this conversation. Mostly, what that 16-point performance against the Utah Jazz proved was that the San Antonio Spurs weren’t completely insane to pick Samanic where they did. His scoring profile, when executed properly, fits what they need out of the frontcourt — A touch of modernism with a wide range of skills transcending the norms of his position.
To be quite frank, the main reason why Samanic is going to see more minutes is that the Spurs drafted him so high. If you’re going to invest that kind of draft capital into a player when more NBA-ready talent was available, they need to at least play the kid and get his feet wet. Otherwise, it’s as good as saying ‘We botched the pick, better luck next time!’
Allow me to clarify — I don’t think they botched the pick …… yet. I’m still a bit salty they chose him over Brandon Clarke, who should’ve been a lottery pick, but overall, Samanic is developing nicely. Now, it’s a matter of throwing him into a few game situations in which the team can lean on him to provide energy and a spark of intrigue that’s currently missing in their frontcourt rotation.
His role will be modest. Expect between 14-20 minutes per game for Tall Luka next year.
Next: No. 3 — The Skywalker
Jan 26, 2020; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV (1) in the 2nd half vs. the Toronto Raptors at the AT&T Center. (Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports)
3. It’s time for the San Antonio Spurs to cut Lonnie Walker IV loose.
Bear with me for a moment: There comes a time in every great padawan’s progression when their master has to let them loose and discover things for themselves.
For Anakin Skywalker, it came during The Clone Wars animated film and series between Episodes II and III. He took more of a leadership role and even began mentoring a padawan of his own. For Luke Skywalker, Anakin’s estranged son, it came when Obi-Wan Kenobi allowed Darth Vader to strike him down to force Luke into a leadership role during Episode IV (The original film).
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For Lonnie Skywalker IV, the time for his mentor and leader, Gregg Popovich, to loosen the reins is in his third season. There is no way for Lonnie Walker IV to fulfill his potential if Popovich is going to be so quick to pull him from games and rotations for making mistakes. It’s something that Pop practiced over the course of the season, but the team’s beloved engineer needs to relearn his role.
Young players in San Antonio aren’t here to complement a winning product anymore — They’re here to become the winning product. Therefore, Walker and his peers need to play extended minutes together this season in order to take that next step. You’re not going to get the 28-point explosions like the Spurs did against Houston without a few duds like his four points and three turnovers in extended minutes against the Nuggets earlier this year.
There’s going to be some variance in his efficiency, which is how Lonnie will learn to establish himself and fit his playstyle into various game situations. After a successful performance anchored by young talent in the Orlando restart, Walker is in line for a minutes increase next season.
Instead of 16.2 minutes per game like he logged this year, expect to see Lonnie playing between 19-25 minutes per game for the San Antonio Spurs in year three.