Before Wednesday’s game against the Miami Heat, Gregg Popovich said the words every San Antonio Spurs fan was dreading. “I don’t expect him back this season,” said Coach Pop of Derrick White, who was having a career year before succumbing to the injury bug once again.
With White likely sidelined for the next month, projected lineups on just about every basketball site had Lonnie Walker in his place.
As Project Spurs’ Paul Garcia shared minutes before tipoff in Miami, Coach Pop decided to go a different route. Instead of going with Walker, who has started 31 times this season, Popovich inserted nearly forgotten rookie Devin Vassell into the starting lineup.
Coach Pop says Devin Vassell will start tonight to keep Lonnie Walker IV off the bench similar to how the Spurs used to use Manu Ginobili as a 6th man off the bench.
— Paul Garcia (@PaulGarciaNBA) April 28, 2021
I must admit, this move fully took me by surprise. Wednesday morning, I wrote about how Lonnie Walker needed to channel his inner Manu Ginobili, but I didn’t realize how spot-on that suggestion might become. Sure enough, Lonnie did exactly that against the Heat, scoring 18 points on 3-for-6 from beyond the arc while committing zero turnovers.
Starting for the second time this season, Vassell had a relatively quiet game with 11 points, two boards, and one block, but I wouldn’t expect him to immediately thrive playing with a lineup in which he’s rarely shared the floor.
Why this starting San Antonio Spurs lineup is a smart change
Despite Devin’s timid start, having him with the starting group makes all the sense in the world. DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray already need the ball in their hands often to be their optimal selves, and Vassell is the opposite of that.
Some of Devin’s strengths are being in the right spots, making smart defensive switches, and getting open for timely shots. He’s not a creator by nature, but he’s an excellent floor spacer, given his 39.4 percent shooting from downtown.
While Lonnie possesses many of those qualities as well, it would be a disservice to his game to reduce his playmaking opportunities by having him out there with DeMar and Dejounte. He’s already had stretches of fading into the background when he’s the third or fourth option on the floor, and he’s earned the chance to take on a more prominent role by now.
Recently, I suggested the Spurs might be best served by putting two accurate 3-point shooters in the starting lineup to better space that unit. That involved replacing Keldon Johnson with Lonnie. However, the loss of Derrick White changes everything. While Vassell is no White, I genuinely believe he has the potential to get there in time.
As the season of uncertainty winds down and the Spurs continue to have nothing to lose, this shift by Coach Popovich makes a winner out of everyone involved.
Devin Vassell gets valuable experience playing with the best players on the floor. Lonnie Walker gets the touches he needs to be most effective. And even I win! I get to write a positive article about Gregg Popovich, who I’ve been harsh on this season despite still firmly believing he’s the greatest coach ever.
Well done, Coach Pop, for making a decision that keeps the team competitive while also setting them up for the future.