Can Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson coexist on a competitive Spurs team?
Amongst the many dynamic duos in the NBA today, the Boston Celtics Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are about as good of a young wing pairing as you'll find. The All-Star duo is the driving force behind the top team in the Eastern Conference right now, and they set a high standard for what up-and-coming teams around the league hope their players can someday become.
Before the season started, some San Antonio Spurs fans wondered if Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell could take a leap and approach the Brown and Tatum level. Vassell's knee injury has all but derailed that train, but even before Devin went in for surgery, questions were starting to brew about the tandem's long-term compatibility.
We're a long way from San Antonio having to decide if they can keep one or both of Vassell and Johnson around for the long haul, but it's a determination they'll have to make eventually. All of those first-round picks the Spurs have been acquiring will turn into players at some point, and you can't help but feel like San Antonio will eventually have to put all their chips behind this duo or break up the band.
Can Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell lead a competitive Spurs team?
The Spurs have plenty of runway to judge the viability of Vassell and Johnson as franchise cornerstones. Devin is still on his rookie contract, after all. But given how the pair has done so far and who the Spurs might be adding soon, a divorce could be coming in the next few years.
As a collective, San Antonio has the worst net rating in the NBA. They get outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions. But they're even worse when Devin and Keldon share the floor. Of all the Spurs' duos to play more than 500 minutes this season, Johnson and Vassell have the second-worst net rating at -14.4.
It's not as cut and dry as seeing that number and saying the team needs to separate the pair, but it calls into question whether they can lead a competitive team in the next few years. Transparently, I think they can. But it's far from a certainty. And a lot of it hinges on Johnson's ability to become a consistent contributor from behind the arc.
Given everything he brings to the table and the high draft capital that San Antonio invested in him, I think it's a near certainty that Jeremy Sochan will be a fixture in the Spurs' starting lineup for years to come. And until the Spurs can find a better option at point guard, Tre Jones has a firm handle on that spot. Unfortunately, neither of them has many indications they'll be a three-point threat so far.
None of Johnson, Jones, or Sochan are locked into the players they are today. There's plenty of room for growth. But San Antonio might have to make a business decision at some point. You can't rely on Devin as your only starter who is a regular three-point threat. And with who they have coming up, it could be Johnson who finds himself on the outside looking in.
It's too early to anoint him as a franchise cornerstone, but Malaki Branham has shown immense promise since being inserted into the starting lineup. Over that stretch, he's averaged 17.6 points per game while making 39% of his three-point attempts. It's an undeniably small sample size, but he's been cooking since the calendar turned over to 2023, and people are starting to take notice.
Looking ahead to the 2023 NBA Draft, selecting someone like Victor Wembanyama would make many of these decisions easier for San Antonio. With his floor spacing ability, Wemby would make Johnson's shaky long-range shooting less of an issue. But landing Wemby is far from guaranteed. And if San Antonio chooses someone like Brandon Miller, this situation could get a lot more complicated.
Johnson is a solid wing partner for Devin Vassell. But Miller is just about perfect. The 6'9" forward from Alabama leads the top-ranked team in the nation in scoring and does a heavy share of his damage from behind the arc. Miller shoots almost 43 percent from three and has a high, smooth release that looks like it will translate beautifully to the NBA. If the Spurs are lucky enough to select him, it won't be long before he starts putting pressure on Keldon in the starting lineup.
Like so much of the Spurs' future, the long-term viability of Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell as leaders for the team hinges on what the front office does this summer. They're both fan favorites. And in an ideal world, they would be in San Antonio for the rest of their careers. But we have to acknowledge the possibility that sometime in the next few years, the Spurs could have to make the tough decision to prioritize one over the other.