After missing the playoffs last season, the San Antonio Spurs were not expected to be one of the key competitors in the Western Conference. However, measly early-season forecasts about the Silver and Black have been wrong so far as the good guys have raced out to an 18-14 record at the midseason point.
Given San Antonio’s great first-half showing, let us hand out midseason grades for every player and zoom in on the things that have gone well for the Spurs as they have jumped out to their pleasant start.
We’ll start with the team’s rising point guard.
San Antonio Spurs Dejounte Murray Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
San Antonio Spurs, DeJounte Murray
Dejounte Murray has performed well on both ends this campaign, far eclipsing his numbers from last season. As the second option on the starting unit, Murray is averaging an impressive 15.8/7.0/5.8 on 46/32/81 shooting splits. While the talent has always been there for the young stalwart, his improving all-around game has cemented his status as one of the franchise’s undeniable cornerstones.
The youngest player ever to crack an All-Defensive Team in history, Dejounte has proved this season that he is more than his advertised niche. While known more as a defensive stopper, his court vision, shooting, and instincts have all been better. Last season’s head-scratching turnovers have also been sparser in the present, as he’s averaging fewer turnovers than last year despite playing almost six more minutes per outing.
While the numbers are more than enough to highlight his improvement, his leadership as a floor general has been the most splendid. Though the veterans are still out there giving pointers to the young crew, DJ is taking Pop’s challenge to realize what it takes to be a mature point guard in the league, a major facet of his game that was lacking last season.
San Antonio Spurs, Derrick White
Expectations for Derrick White have been lofty this season, especially after inking him to a four-year extension to keep him in the Alamo City as one of the squad’s leaders. However, the early campaign has not been good on the health front for the heady guard, as he has only played in eight games so far due to toe injuries and COVID protocols.
While there is no big sample size to gauge his play so far, the Spurs have been relatively good with him on the court, tallying the second-highest plus-minus on the team behind DeMar DeRozan. Alas, San Antonio is a perfect 4-0 in games which he started, a role which he will occupy for the rest of the season.
Barring a setback, Derrick provides the squad with another shot creator and playmaker who is not shy to fire from long range, a point of necessity in the offense. On defense, he is one of the league’s peskiest backcourt stoppers, supplying a healthy number of blocks, playing outstanding positional and help defense, and being a charge-drawing savant.
Next: Grades, continued
San Antonio Spurs DeMar DeRozan Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports
San Antonio Spurs, DeMar DeRozan
The unquestioned leader of the pack, DeMar DeRozan‘s play this season has been a revelation. Once touted as one of the team’s prime trading assets and an obstacle to the new era of Spurs, his evolving all-around game has been a seamless fit with this latest iteration of the Spurs.
Averaging an eye-popping 20.0/4.9/7.2 line on top of 48 percent shooting with a modest usage rate on a WINNING team, it defies reason and logic that he was not on the All-Star team. But hey, a lowkey star leading a similarly lowkey team rings a familiar bell for this franchise. But this time, with his inspiring play this season, the Spurs are rightfully back in the winners’ circle.
DeRozan’s rising stock in the league truly presents the Spurs with a directional dilemma. However, keeping him to spearhead the young core of San Antonio to lead the team back to its winning tradition suddenly seems a lot more viable and convincing than a year ago.
San Antonio Spurs, Keldon Johnson
Even the most hopeful Spurs fans did not expect Keldon Johnson to start right from the get-go this season. After being stowed away in Austin before knocking on Pop’s door in the bubble for most of last year, the sophomore bruiser has raised eyebrows so far, shoving himself into rebounds and forcing fierce drives to emerge as another franchise cornerstone.
While easily the least experienced among the starters, the Mustang is also the most galvanizing to watch in the entire roster. Full of motor, a rampant burst of speed, and infectious energy, Keldon has been able to translate this verve on the court. Putting up 14.1/6.7/2.2 on 47/33/78 splits, the sophomore has mightily injected a winning spirit on the court.
Despite playing as an undersized tweener, Johnson has exhibited both brains and brawn when corralling for boards. Another impressive area in his game has been defense, where he has helped the Spurs hold their own against physically imposing players. If he can shoot the rock from long range more consistently and know better when to attack in traffic, this could quickly shoot up to an A+.
Grade: A –
Next: LaMarcus, Lonnie, & Jakob
San Antonio Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge
Having long been one of the game’s most polished frontcourt scorers, LaMarcus Aldridge has fallen off a cliff this season. While easily the most decorated current player in the Silver and Black, his dip in production, only two years removed from an All-Star berth, has been a primary cause of concern for the squad. While still deadly in the mid-range, the floor-spacing role imagined for the Texan has been marginal at most.
A vast majority of his decline stems from his defense — or lack thereof. While never a lockdown stopper in the past, he has at least been effective in drop and baseline coverages. This season, his defense has been atrocious, fueled by a lack of effort, injuries, and age. The starting lineup with Aldridge has a paltry net rating of -12.5. Offense, his calling card, has not been able to swing the fences to the team’s favor either.
The silver lining for LaMarcus is that he may see an uptick in production with a smaller role. With his recent demotion to the bench, his scoring may fuel the second unit without being as vulnerable to imposing bigs in other teams’ starting fives. The opportunity to contribute positively is still there for the perennial All-Star, barring a possible deal before the deadline.
Grade: C –
San Antonio Spurs, Lonnie Walker IV
While this grade may seem to push him off the good side, Lonnie Walker has a big chance to make a tremendous jump in the second half. His meager production so far, mostly due to inconsistency, has also resulted from an undefined role for the young athletic guard.
Having been used mostly as a starter due to White’s prolonged absence, his minutes have increased to 27.3 per outing, a significant jump from last year’s 16.2. However, his on-court production has not seen a similar jump in opportunities, as he’s merely averaging 11.3/2.8/1.8 on 40/36/80 splits.
Take note, though, that these are his numbers while serving mainly as the starters’ fifth option. Being back to the bench to lead the unit in scoring and playmaking as the pacesetter figures to elevate both him and the squad. Oh, and his defense has been above average, and his effort and motor still non-stop.
Grade: C +
San Antonio Spurs, Jakob Poeltl
Watching Blockob defend the paint is a feast for the eyes. Jakob Poeltl has anchored the Spurs to a meteoric rise in defense this season, with the squad ranking 9th in defensive rating from last year’s measly 24th. It is no coincidence that four of the team’s five best lineups in net rating have featured Jakob. This, along with his promotion to the starting unit, figures to be a game-changer with current projections. The expected starting quintet of Murray-White-DeRozan-Johnson-Poeltl has recorded an impressive 18.4 net rating so far.
His individual metrics are also nothing to scoff at. Poeltl ranks third in the league in defensive real plus-minus despite only playing 23.4 minutes per contest. Clearly one of the league’s premier rim protectors, though widely overlooked, he has been a major catalyst in powering the Spurs’ ability to go small without conceding at the rim on defense.
Jakob needs to improve his finishing, which depends heavily on his willingness to just dunk the ball and not be timid with the rock. He is also too passive at times, giving up clear shots at the rim for kick-outs. Lastly, he and Chip Engelland should work on his terrible 32 percent free throw shooting, which has understandably limited his minutes at times.
Grade: A –
Next: 2 Efficient Bench Sparks
San Antonio Spurs, Patty Mills
FIBA Patty has been on full display this season, tallying career-highs across the board. At Age-32, Patty Mills is playing his best season yet, zigging while the young core is zagging to make for a seamless blend on and off the court.
Perhaps the best backup point guard in the past decade, Mills is once again gunning with reckless abandon, albeit on excellent efficiency. Of course, with 13.3 points per game on 40 percent 3-point shooting, he has singlehandedly won some games for the team with his flamethrowers off the bench.
While still playing more than he should and getting more opportunities in crunch time than the young core, his minutes have so far resulted in a lot more pros than cons for the Spurs.
On defense, while always pesky and aggressive, his physical limitations have typically prevented him from being effective. Wild fact: Patty Mills has the second-highest defensive rating in the league among qualified players at 101.6.
Grade: B +
San Antonio Spurs, Rudy Gay
One of the prime suspects with atrocious defense last season, this campaign has seen a complete 180 from the veteran scorer. While known more as a bail-out creator on every spot on the floor, Rudy Gay has been a pleasant anomaly for San Antonio, holding the HIGHEST defensive rating in the league among qualified players at 98.7, the only mark below 100.
As with Mills, Gay gets more opportunities than he should. Still playing 22 minutes on average, his chances have limited playing time for the likes of Devin Vassell, but he has nonetheless maximized his on-court presence. Lineups with him have been phenomenal. Coincidence or not, this proves that the 14-year veteran still has value, whether as a bench contributor or a trade asset.
While once again averaging double digits, his shooting splits have been average at most. However, his misses do not seem as glaring as they were a season ago, where his missed open shots killed the momentum. Also, Rudy still provides Pop with the option to go full smallball with him at the 5.
Next: Vassell, Lyles, & Eubanks
San Antonio Spurs Devin Vassell Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports
San Antonio Spurs, Devin Vassell
San Antonio’s first lottery pick since Tim Duncan has easily been the Spurs’ most mature and NBA-ready rookie in years. The 11th selection out of Florida State, Devin Vassell continues to impress the team brass with his spectacular defensive prowess.
In the mold of a typical “Spursian” player, Devin has played to his strengths even better than advertised. Considered the best 3-and-D man in the draft, the lanky swingman easily possesses the most defensive upside on the roster.
While only playing 17.3 minutes per outing, Vassell is fourth in the entire NBA in steals per 100 possessions among qualified players. His 39.7 rate from downtown is fourth-best among rookies. With his two-way potential, it is hard not to rave about the things to come for the 20-year-old.
Grade: B +
San Antonio Spurs, Trey Lyles
After starting for most of last season, Trey Lyles has struggled early this season because of sparser opportunities. One of the victims of the squad’s new small-ball style, Trey still projects to remain out of Pop’s regular rotation barring injuries.
However, with a brutal schedule pending, he may receive increased action later on, especially after his impressive play before the break. At best, he gives Pop a stretch big that he can employ when needed, a la Matt Bonner, but more versatile. Sometimes, he plays like Boris Diaw. The key here is “sometimes.”
Grade: C +
San Antonio Spurs, Drew Eubanks
Since 2018, Drew Eubanks has been the tall version of towel-waver Patty Mills circa 2011-2012. Unfortunately, he has been more noteworthy for his bench reactions, though this has been mostly because of minimal opportunities on the court.
When he has played, usually to heed to Jakob’s foul troubles, he has been good as a source of energy and passable as a finisher. While undersized at the five, the defense does not crumble with him out there, at least.
Next: Grading Samanic and the end of the bench
San Antonio Spurs, Keita Bates-Diop
Save for the horrendous Atlanta game in which the third-stringers blew a 40-point lead into the low tens, Keita Bates-Diop has been serviceable when he has played.
Coach Pop likes to have big wings in the roster. However, his play before the break when the “COVID guys” were out was particularly impressive. His unorthodox shooting form always warrants a curious zoom-in, but lately, it has been going through the hoop.
Also, his defense lives up to his physical frame. He may be more than this year’s Dante Cunningham. Bet on it.
Grade: C +
San Antonio Spurs, Quinndary Weatherspoon
While it is tempting to hand Quinndary Weatherspoon a low mark because of that infamous Atlanta game where he fouled out in 10 minutes, it must be noted that he has only played a grand total of 24 minutes this season due to injuries.
He will be more available after the break, but even so, his chances of cracking the rotation are slim-to-none.
San Antonio Spurs, Tre Jones
The highly-touted playmaker out of Duke who luckily fell to the Spurs in the draft has only been on the court for a tad over 40 minutes thus far. His Austin tenure has been incredible, though.
As long as he buys into the system and hones his conditioning, Tre Jones is well on track to be one of the squad’s featured playmakers in the future.
San Antonio Spurs Luka Samanic Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports
San Antonio Spurs, Luka Samanic
Tall Luka, San Antonio’s prime draft project, may be rounding into form. While it is plausible to hand Luka Samanic an “incomplete” card, his showing before the break has been a mini-revelation for the Spurs.
Luka’s detractors were quieted after he turned in astonishing two-way effectiveness in meaningful minutes against legitimate competition. Guarding All-Star talents in Brandon Ingram, Kyrie Irving, Julius Randle, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Croatian prospect has abruptly raised his stock tremendously.
This, combined with his natural talents on the offensive end, are more than enough to justify minutes moving forward, especially with possible trades due for some of the team’s veterans come the trade deadline.
It is not a common sight for bigs to defend effectively from one through five, shoot with accuracy from deep, move with agility, and double as a wing in the small-ball era. At best, Luka has it all. He may now safely bid adieu to Austin.
Grade: B +