Jan 9, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with forward DeMar DeRozan (10) in the third quarter during a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports
Who on the San Antonio Spurs has impressed us the most this year?
Coming into the season, our expectations for the San Antonio Spurs were modest. They’d made some moves over the offseason but the roster was, for the most part, the same as it was last year.
The roster might be mostly the same, but the way this group is playing looks nothing like the Spurs from last year. Gregg Popovich hammered home the importance of picking up where the team left off in the bubble. So far they’ve done just that.
They haven’t been quite the track stars that we predicted them to be but the Spurs have brought the heavy drive and kick offense they used in Orlando into this season. San Antonio’s guards and wings are constantly getting downhill and putting pressure on the rim.
Through 11 games, the Spurs rank 3rd in the league in drives per game. Their emphasis on getting to the rim and creating looks off of that has played right into the strengths of their stars and unlocked the potential of a few of their young guys as well.
It’s been a total team effort but performances by a few players have stood out more than others. Here are the San Antonio Spurs who have impressed us the most this year.
Next: No. 5 - An international icon
Jan 9, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills (8) celebrates after converting a three point shot against the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports
FIBA Patty Mills having a career year for San Antonio Spurs
He warned us this was going to happen, he really did. Patty Mills made it very clear that he was coming for necks this year. Still, what he’s been doing for the San Antonio Spurs in year ten with the team has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the season.
To put it plainly, Mills is playing out of his dang mind. He’s gotten off to a scorching start to the season, averaging career highs in points per game (15 ppg) and three-point accuracy (50 percent) while playing a crucial role for the Spurs with Derrick White missing.
He’s already had some of the best games of his career this season and shows no sign of slowing down. He’s playing like a man possessed and as long as he keeps that up the Spurs will continue to have one of the best second units in the NBA.
His on-court contributions have been phenomenal but Mills also deserves attention for what he’s doing when play stops. He is constantly chatting up the younger players, always acting as a second coach out on the court. That veteran leadership is crucial for any team but especially one as young as this year’s Spurs.
Patty could retire today and still go down as one of the most successful and beloved Spurs of all-time. The fact that he’s having a career year at age 32 is just adding on to what has already been a great career.
Next: No.4 - DeRozan adapting once again
Jan 7, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan (10) shoots past Los Angeles Lakers guard Alex Caruso (4) during the fourth quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
DeMar DeRozan continues to evolve for the San Antonio Spurs
Since he arrived in San Antonio in the summer of 2018, DeMar DeRozan has done nothing but continuously adapt his game to what the Spurs have needed him to be. What he’s done this year might be some of his finest work yet.
DeRozan’s game is like a fine pan sauce that San Antonians were unfamiliar with prior to his arrival. At first, a few things stood out more than others. A hint of advanced playmaking? Delightful. A keen ability to find shooters on the perimeter? What a treat!
This year, Chef Popovich has reduced that sauce down, skimmed off some unnecessary parts, and strengthened others. The result is a better version of DeMar than we’ve ever seen before.
Here’s what the reduction has done. DeMar’s usage rate is the lowest it’s been since the 2010-11 season, he’s almost completely cut out shots from just inside the three-point line – shots that used to make up a hefty portion of his scoring profile – and focused on reading and reacting rapidly to the whatever the defense gives him on a given possession.
Yes, DeRozan will still hypnotize your favorite defender in the mid-range but he’s not forcing those situations. If he finds himself in them he’ll take advantage of them but if the opportunity isn’t there you can bet he’s swinging that ball to a waiting teammate who will drive and repeat the process and until something opens up.
Another addition to this sauce has been the emergence of a three-point game. No one is going to mistake DeMar for Steph Curry but he’s already made as many three’s this season as he did all of last year and looks very comfortable taking them within the flow of the offense.
DeRozan’s future has long been a hot topic of debate for Spurs fans but this version of DeMar is one that I’d be happy to see re-sign with the Spurs this summer.
Next: No. 3 - Lonnie takes on a greater scoring role
Jan 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV (1) goes up for a shot against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports
Lonnie Walker emerging as a lead scoring option for San Antonio Spurs
One of the biggest questions facing the San Antonio Spurs over the next few years is who will take over as the team’s top scoring option if DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge leave? Through the early parts of the season, Lonnie Walker has made a strong case for why it should be him.
Lonnie’s athleticism has always been the most attention-grabbing part of his game but this year he’s blended it with improved finishing agility around the rim and a smooth jumper to become one of the Spurs’ most potent scoring options.
Getting to the rim was never the issue for Walker, it was finishing. Sometimes it seemed like he was simply moving too fast for his own good. He’d go for a layup and the ball would clank off the back of the rim, but that hasn’t been the case this year.
He’s pulling off contortionist finishes inside, making the easy ones, and continuing to light opponents up from beyond the arc. He’s more than doubled his nightly scoring average from last season and it still feels like we’re scratching the surface of what Lonnie can become.
Pop said that the entire coaching staff is hammering the no prisoners mindset into Lonnie, and they want to get that out of him more consistently.
He's led the team with 25 and 24 points in two games with DeMar out.
— Tom Petrini (@RealTomPetrini) January 13, 2021
A poor first showing against the Timberwolves left Walker upset but he more than made up for it with his next two games. As the coaches are hammering into him, it’s about consistency.
Walker has the talent to be the lead scoring option for the San Antonio Spurs. He’s shown that he can be a 20+ per game scorer at times, but let’s see if this hard coaching leads to the breakout season we all know he’s capable of having.
Next: No. 2 - Dejounte becoming a true point guard
Jan 12, 2021; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray (5) defends Oklahoma City Thunder guard Theo Maledon (11) as he directs his team on a play during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Dejounte Murray establishing himself as the leader of the San Antonio Spurs
Even though he’s only entering his fourth year of play, Dejounte Murray is already one of the longest-tenured members of the San Antonio Spurs and a leading force in the locker room. We’ve heard plenty of stories from the young core about how close they are and it’s becoming increasingly clear that Murray is the leader of this next generation of Spurs.
Keldon Johnson said as much after the Spurs win over the Thunder, pointing to Murray’s command of the offense. Gregg Popovich was equally complimentary, praising DJ’s patience and improved feel for the game.
Johnson and Popovich are dead-on, Murray’s been phenomenal this season. He’s been in complete control, patiently working the offense and doing an excellent job of finding his teammates in transition or in half-court sets. We’re seeing a more well-rounded and confident DJ than ever before and the results speak for themselves.
Murray’s averaging career highs across the board. Now, Derrick White’s absence certainly plays into that a bit but make no mistake, Murray’s been in his bag this year.
Here is the list of players currently outperforming Dejounte’s nightly averages of 16.2 points, 7 rebounds, and 5.3 assists: Westbrook, Jokic, Luka, LeBron, Domantas Sabonis, Brandon Ingram, KD, Giannis, and Julius Randle (who is having an absolutely bananas season of his own). That’s impressive company to be near.
Those averages might dip when White returns but the improved patience and three-level scoring aren’t going anywhere. He won’t get the national attention he deserves but Murray has truly been one of the most impressive young players in the NBA this season. San Antonio Spurs fans should be thrilled to have him as their point guard.
Next: No.1 - Keldon's breakout year
Jan 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) goes up for a shot past Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jarrett Culver (23) in the first quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports
Keldon Johnson taking off for San Antonio Spurs
With all due respect to the four aforementioned players, it’s clear who has been the most impressive member of the team through the first 11 games of the season. Keldon Johnson has been an absolute monster.
After Keldon’s breakout in the Orlando Bubble, we knew the Spurs had pulled off another robbery by getting him with the 29th pick in the 2019 draft. We knew he was going to be good. He likely wasn’t going to keep shooting nearly 65 percent from behind the arc as he did in Orlando but we knew he was talented.
There were fears that Johnson could miss some time as he recovered from an injury but on opening night, Gregg Popovich surprised Spurs fans by debuting Johnson in the starting lineup. He’s been there ever since and has brought an injection of energy to the team. The young man is an absolute electric factory.
If you let Keldon build up a head of steam I legitimately worry for the safety of whatever poor defender gets between him and the rim. His work in the weight room is paying off, we’ve seen him body up players significantly larger than himself and still manage to get his shot off.
He’s not hitting 65 percent of his three’s this year but 37 percent isn’t bad. It’s enough to keep defenses honest and Keldon’s come through when the Spurs have needed him to from behind the arc.
One of the most fun things about watching Keldon rampage through opponents is that it comes with the knowledge that what we’re seeing now is just a glimpse of what’s in store for Big Body.
If he continues to progress at the rate he has been and adds an improved handle and a consistent mid-range jumper to his game he could very easily be a 20+ point per game scorer along with Lonnie.
Other players have contributed to the team’s success but the play of these five San Antonio Spurs has stood out more than others. If they keep playing at the levels they have been the Spurs will have a strong chance of making a return to the playoffs this season.