Five players who can improve the San Antonio Spurs’ defense in the 2020 NBA Draft
By Dylan Carter
Aug 13, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Nigel Williams-Goss #0 passes over Dejounte Murray #5 and Jakob Poeltl #25 of the San Antonio Spurs at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports)
Regaining a defensive identity will be critical for the San Antonio Spurs in the 2020 NBA Draft and this selection of players would help them improve.
Defense clearly wasn’t the forte of the 2019-20 San Antonio Spurs, which is extremely uncharacteristic. This season, they posted their worst defensive rating in the Gregg Popovich era, effectively counteracting years of work established by teams that came long before this one. However, the team has a chance to improve on that in the 2020 NBA Draft in November.
Being that this is their highest pick since Tim Duncan way back when, the San Antonio Spurs have an opportunity to pick a franchise-altering player. With this NBA Draft selection, the franchise can get back to establishing its defensive identity. This will help the team transition into a new era in which the young core takes on better habits and gets into a groove as one cohesive unit.
Teams cannot succeed on defense without some semblance of unity and this past season, the Spurs didn’t exemplify that well. There were clear deficiencies in rebounding, forcing turnovers and limiting perimeter shooters — Much of which was rectified during the Orlando restart. However, the team needs to take steps toward being a more reliable defensive group as a whole between pretty much every position.
The players listed in this group seem to be the best in their NBA Draft class. Some are more attainable than others, but after failing to continue the playoff streak, all bets are off. The team should be willing to move around in the draft, even if it means trading a piece with the pick to jump up or even trade back into the late first round.
Next: Onyeka Okongwu
January 30, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) shoots against potential San Antonio Spurs draft pick Onyeka Okongwu (21) at Galen Center. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
Onyeka Okongwu can shift the San Antonio Spurs’ defensive identity
There aren’t many players in this draft class as universally appreciated as USC power forward/center Onyeka Okongwu. Standing at 6-foot-9 at a stout 245 lbs, Okongwu is everything you could wish for in a defensive-minded big man in 2020. Not only is he great on the ball against opposing bigs, but he can play off the ball and make plays for you as well.
Part of what makes him such an influential player is his high basketball IQ, which is showcased when rotating near the rim. As a primary defender, he can keep up with just about anyone at positions three through five and leverages his body to make them uncomfortable. He’s great at blocking shots off of switches by tracking ball-handlers down and pinning their shots late. Furthermore, Okongwu works perfectly off the ball to blindside his opponents by swatting their shots into the stands.
Okongwu averaged 2.7 blocks per game in a freshman campaign that saw him earn All Pac-12 Honors for the 2019-20 season. He was truly transformative for a defense-oriented USC team, posting a defensive rating of 88.5. This was 4.7 points per 100 possessions better than his team’s composite defensive rating on the season.
"ABSOLUTELY NOT." – @BigO21_
Trojans and Utes all tied up now (46-46) with 3:46 to go.
?: FS1 pic.twitter.com/JNC6ihQx9K
— USC Men's Basketball (@USC_Hoops) January 31, 2020
In terms of Okongwu’s impact on the San Antonio Spurs, there’s really no downside to taking him. He can play off of any lineup combination including LaMarcus Aldridge at center or Luka Samanic at the four and make his team better. Beyond just switching, Okongwu has active hands and loves to get out on the fastbreak, making him an ideal candidate to play with starting point guard Dejounte Murray.
The most likely scenario for Okongwu to land with the San Antonio Spurs is if the team trades up because at this point, I’d bank on Okongwu rising in the NBA draft before I would on him falling. Since he’s the type of player who can positively influence every team in the lottery, it’s not likely for him to land in silver and black unless they seek him out.
Next: Tyler Bey
Feb 27, 2020; Berkeley, California, USA; California Golden Bears guard Joel Brown (1) looks to pass the ball against Colorado Buffaloes guard Tyler Bey (1) during the first half at Haas Pavilion. (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)
Tyler Bey is the defensive stopper the San Antonio Spurs need
It’s no secret that the San Antonio Spurs need help defending the perimeter and their history of picking from the Pac-12 is robust. Even though he may be expected to go later in the NBA draft than they’re picking, it wouldn’t be outlandish to see the team pursue Colorado forward Tyler Bey.
The 2019-20 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Bey brings a 6-foot-7 frame at 218 lbs with the incredible hustle and defensive awareness. His lateral quickness when defending the perimeter makes him a candidate to switch everything for the San Antonio Spurs. Ideally, he’d make for an incredible compliment to both the young core and this team’s veterans.
For as much as the San Antonio Spurs are building for the future, they also need someone who can contribute ASAP. Their star player, DeMar DeRozan, is an incredible offensive threat who doesn’t help very much as a defender. Bey could be their answer in becoming a modernized defensive team while covering up DeRozan’s deficiencies on the wing.
Beyond that, Bey is a great defensive leader who’s constantly in communication with his teammates to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Bey’s leadership traits and incredibly driven defensive IQ are what earned him that DPOY honor over someone like Okongwu whose stat line was a bit prettier overall.
Bey averaged 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks per contest this past season while shooting above 40 percent from deep. His playstyle seems to be mature and while I can’t speak to his personality, one would have to think his approach to the game would follow suit.
Next: Saddiq Bey
Mar 4, 2020; Newark, New Jersey, USA; Villanova Wildcats forward Saddiq Bey (41), an NBA Draft prospect, reacts after being fouled by the Seton Hall Pirates during the 2nd half at Prudential Center. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
Saddiq Bey aligns with the San Antonio Spurs’ defensive goals
For as much as people want to hone in on Villanova forward Saddiq Bey’s offensive output, it’s his defense that makes him a serious candidate to be drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. At 6-foot-8, Bey is a versatile perimeter defender who can attack multiple positions and locate weaknesses in their game plan to generate turnovers.
He’s not the incredible athlete that most other high-quality defenders in this class are, but uses his body to his advantage and reads the opponent well. Using his wit and anticipation, Bey intercepts passing lanes and picks the opponent’s pockets when an opportunity presents itself.
Beyond the statistics, Bey is simply one of the smartest players in his class. On both sides of the court floor, Bey manages to put himself and teammates in positions to succeed in that regard. He’ll be the player to ask for the toughest assignment on the opposing team so long as he truly believes he’s the best option to guard them. With that being the case, he can go up against guards and forwards alike while holding his own against bigs.
The San Antonio Spurs could use as many high-IQ defenders as they can get their hands on. As the 2020 Miami Heat have shown us, a team with perimeter defenders galore can make it work so long as they’re coached well and play unselfishly. Hustle isn’t something that can be taught — It comes from within and Bey brings it on every single play.
Having multiple players willing to put their bodies on the line to compete will make the San Antonio Spurs a playoff team once again and Bey fits the mold.
Next: Isaac Okoro
Feb 8, 2020; Auburn, Alabama, USA; LSU Tigers forward Darius Days (0) reaches against Auburn Tigers forward and potential San Antonio Spurs pick Isaac Okoro (23) at Auburn Arena. (Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports)
Isaac Okoro may become the next San Antonio Spurs star defender
Despite having a poor offensive showing through most of his freshman campaign, Auburn small forward Isaac Okoro remains one of the most highly-touted prospects in the draft class. His shot is a real work in progress and the offensive decision-making needs to improve, so how does he stay so high on draft boards?
It’s quite simple, actually: Defense!
There’s a case that the 6-foot-6 forward is the best defender of the 2020 draft class to date. His willpower as a defender makes him a ferocious opponent, playing well-above his size with an NBA-ready frame at 225 lbs. Beyond that, his verticality is uncanny as Okoro soars through the air to contest shots, snag rebounds and swat shots from the weak side.
“Nobody works harder than Isaac Okoro.”
The @AuburnMBB freshman is making a name for himself. pic.twitter.com/SRp0hBb5Cx
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 1, 2020
As an on-ball defender, Okoro sticks to his opponent’s hip like glue without fouling. He consistently interrupts passes, cuts off passing lanes and effectively shuts down the best perimeter player on the opposing team. There’s serious Kawhi Leonard-upside with Okoro in the sense that his physical profile and drive as a defender can be immediately useful to the San Antonio Spurs. Then, the development staff can slowly but surely help him hit the highest levels of the sport.
In the wrong scenario, however, Okoro could find himself slipping in stature from this draft class. Fit is everything and a relationship between Okoro and the Spurs would be hugely beneficial to both sides.
Next: Tre Jones
Mar 2, 2020; Durham, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack guard Markell Johnson (11) drives as NBA Draft prospect Tre Jones (3) defends during the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)
Tre Jones helps the San Antonio Spurs lock up the perimeter
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Considered a late-first-round pick, there’s a solid chance that the San Antonio Spurs and Duke guard Tre Jones never cross paths in the draft process. However, on the off chance he slips to the 41st pick, Jones fits the mold of a Spurs guard. Nevermind his ability as a floor general, shot creator and playmaker — Jones is an excellent guard defender.
For some players, physical gifts never really come along. These guys are forced to rely on their wit and willpower to lock up their assignment. Some would sink, but Jones swims at 6-foot-3, 185 lbs.
Jones has a high basketball IQ, which seems to be the common thread between the players on this list. He’s got a strong knack for anticipating opposing ball-handlers motions, leading to 1.8 steals per game through two seasons at Duke. Since he’s small, teams try to screen him out of plays, but Jones fights through and around them with relative ease to stick on his assignment and interrupt the flow of their offense.
With a great feel for the game and overall crafty approach to the sport, Jones is someone who the San Antonio Spurs could help establish himself at the next level.