The San Antonio Spurs trotted out the youngest roster in franchise history this season, with four teenagers and a bundle of early twenty-somethings learning the ropes under the supervision of Gregg Popovich. The 74-year-old playcaller ran a metaphorical daycare as he guided the club in its first full-scale rebuild in decades, but he smiled through all the growing pains.
Were there moments when the grey-bearded coach expressed frustration with the on-court product? Of course. Yet he balanced his criticism with a healthy dose of positive feedback to keep players engaged and motivated. Now that this season is behind us, how about we explore one enticing skill every rookie displayed during their first go-round with the Silver and Black?
Jeremy Sochan: Defensive Versatility
Jeremy Sochan put together one of the most impressive rookie seasons in franchise history, showing countless two-way talents as he made tangible developmental strides. Picking just one skill to highlight is difficult. But his defensive versatility stood out throughout his first go-round in the NBA as head coach Gregg Popovich asked him to defend every position.
Per BBall Index, Sochan had the highest Matchup Difficulty and Defensive Positional Versatility ratings in San Antonio this season. The young combo forward hounded Damian Lillard and Steph Curry and stifled Karl-Anthony Towns and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He looks like the glue that could hold this defense together for a brand-new era of Spurs basketball.
Malaki Branham: Pull-Up Shooting
While Malaki Branham demonstrated alluring three-level scoring potential in his maiden voyage with the Spurs, midrange shooting was undoubtedly the most well-rounded apparatus in his extensive repertoire. The teenage swingman plays with poise beyond his years and understands how to use pace, angles, and screens to create shots with or without the ball.
Branham hit 51.8% of his pull-up jumpers inside the arc this season, which ranked third out of the 27 rookies that registered at least 20 attempts. His arsenal will expand as he continues adjusting to the speed and physicality of the association. But his polished in-between game provides him a rock-solid foundation for long-term success as a reliable bucket-getter.
Blake Wesley: Pickpocketing
We explored one significant area Blake Wesley must improve this summer in a piece that went up on the site on Monday, but he has multiple skills in his toolbox that make him a fascinating prospect. Although his supersonic wheels allow him to get wherever he wants on the hardwood, his aptitude for swiping the basketball is perhaps his most promising attribute.
The 20-year-old point guard averaged 1.1 steals over the final 14 games of his rookie season, using active hands, incredible instincts, and his six-nine wingspan to pickpocket poor ballhandlers, detonate dribble handoffs, and pinch the passing lanes. He bears striking physical similarities to Dejounte Murray, though he is lightyears from reaching All-Defense status.
Dominick Barlow: Rim Protection
Despite going undrafted after an encouraging season with Overtime Elite, Dominick Barlow is hands down one of the most intriguing project players to come through San Antonio in recent memory. He has the athleticism to switch seamlessly across positions, and his knack for protecting the paint makes the 19-year-old uniquely adaptable for someone his size.
The six-nine forward held opponents to 55.9% shooting within six feet of the rim this season, a better mark than notable shot blockers like Myles Turner, Anthony Davis, Mitchell Robinson, Rudy Gobert, Evan Mobley, and Nic Claxton. While his outstanding production comes from a small sample, those numbers should convince the front office to invest in Barlow.
Julian Champagnie: Three-Point Shooting
Julian Champagnie was one of the best storylines in San Antonio over the final month of their regular season schedule. Although he struggled in the G League after the Spurs claimed him off the waiver wire, the 21-year-old capitalized on a late promotion to the NBA, recording over 20 points three times over his last five games and catching fire from beyond the arc.
The six-eight forward was one of five rookies to shoot better than 40% on more than 80 three-point attempts this season, draining multiple triples in two-thirds of his appearances for the Spurs. Court spacing was a genuine problem for this team, and they should consider re-signing a young player that ranked in the 84th percentile in catch-and-shoot jumpers.