Devin Vassell outduels Dejounte Murray in massive Spurs comeback
Devin Vassell has been a wildcard since returning from arthroscopic knee surgery at the beginning of March, failing to find much rhythm as a scorer as the Spurs reintegrate him into their offense. Although he has struggled to consistently display the skills that had him in the Most Improved Player Award discussion before the All-Star Break, he put forth his best two-way performance of the season on Sunday night.
The 22-year-old two-guard registered a career-high 29 points on 12-of-17 shooting as he outshined one-time teammate Dejounte Murray in his AT&T Center homecoming. He also played a pivotal role for San Antonio as they flipped the script on the Hawks to erase a 24-point deficit on their way to securing the biggest second-half comeback of the Gregg Popovich era.
Atlanta had no answer for stopping Vassell, and he scored off the bounce at all three levels. He punished their drop coverage, getting to his favorite midrange spots in the pick-and-roll when perimeter defenders got caught on screens and forced centers into mismatches. Devin even made a step-back three and buried a pair of pull-up trifectas when his man went under the screener.
His periodic playmaking flashes were encouraging. The six-five marksman rejected a screen from Sandro Mamukelashvili, baited two defenders, and swung it back to the center for a straightaway three. He later found a hole in the 3-2 zone and connected with Zach Collins for an uncontested slam. The last of his three assists came on a drive-and-kick to Blake Wesley for a trey that put the Spurs up four with three minutes left in regulation.
Vassell also showcased versatility without the ball, using dribble handoffs to get into the paint for soft floaters, sauntering into transition triples, and running around flares, backscreens, and pindowns to generate wide-open catch-and-shoot opportunities from beyond the arc.
The third-year swingman was equally outstanding on the other end of the court, finishing the evening with three steals and a block while holding his assignments to 2-of-7 from the field. Devin spent a combined 50.3 partial possessions on Dejounte Murray, De'Andre Hunter, AJ Griffin, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Each of them went scoreless when Vassell was their primary defender.
Despite regressing defensively this season, Devin proved he still has the tools to lock opponents down when engaged. He altered shots with high-hand contests, stifled drives with his wingspan and footspeed, and picked off pocket passes using phenomenal anticipation. Vassell continued to be a problem for the Hawks, blowing up a listless handoff, swatting Dejounte on the break, and forcing a jump ball in a scramble for a rebound.
Between his promising breakout campaign and the scoring explosion from Keldon Johnson, some fans are still asking why the front office traded All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray last summer. After all, considering all of the strides from their core pieces, wouldn't San Antonio be in a position to compete for the playoffs?
That is a fair question, but Vassell probably never would have received all the on-ball reps that have led to his astounding in-season development if not for the Spurs shipping their heliocentric offensive engine to Atlanta for tons of draft capital. And if you look at it from that perspective, moving on from Murray was a crucial stepping stone in the Spurs' rebuilding process.