Mamukelashvili and Bassey have shined as Spurs embrace new-age NBA
By Oscar Barkis
The NBA is at a fascinating point in its development. After a breakout performance from Sandro Mamukelashvili as a Spur (20pts/5reb/3stl on 50/50/100 shooting), I had a thought. Listen — it was a rather dreadful game otherwise. Amid the Pelicans’ 119-84 blowout victory over a depleted San Antonio team, I had some time for brainstorming.
My thought: throughout most of basketball history, there have been positional archetypes that require specific skills. Different variants of those archetypes existed (think Shaq’s power versus Kareem’s finesse). But for the most part, the foundation was consistent across the board (Diesel and Cap were each seven feet tall and dominated the paint on both ends of the floor).
Now and then, a player like Magic Johnson would come along and change the perception of what a position could do, but the status quo remained for a long time. Remember that for a while, most executives thought of Johnson as a forward (and famously played reps at center to secure his first title), but he has since gone down as one of the best point guards ever. Nowadays, we call that position LeBron.
Slowly but surely, the league has evolved. We have reached a point where basketball is essentially positionless. If you want to argue against that, remember the Cavaliers' main starting lineup last year included three seven-footers. And at several points against New Orleans, the Spurs played lineups where Keita Bates-Diop was their tallest player on the floor.
San Antonio has historically been an organization willing to embrace creativity—their play of Boris Diaw as the small-ball five while also allowing him to run the offense at times helped the Spurs win the 2014 championship—but this is the first time I can remember the team fully embracing a semi-positionless team building approach.
Charles Bassey is an excellent example of a current Spur who fits the bill. Bassey is 6’9” and 230 pounds. He is smaller than LeBron, yet functionally serves as a center for the good guys! He has an intimidating interior presence, playing the role of a monster rebounder.
Though he’s undersized, Bassey works his butt off on defense. The Nigeria native serves as a great complement to the other Spurs bigs, and he could be a perfect fit for the one the team hopes to draft come June. I’m glad the team locked him into an affordable contract, and I hope we get to watch the development of such a unique player for years to come.
Mamu is another fantastic example of this. The Georgia product (country, not state) is slightly larger than Bassey at 6’10” and 240 pounds. Like C-Bass, he populates the center position though his prowess from three allows him to play stretch-four. But any comparison between the two ends there.
Bassey is a defensive-oriented big. He’s got some fun touch around the rim, but that’s about it offensively. As for Mamu, he is limited on D but serves as a playmaking hub on offense. He can also shoot the laces off of the ball. Sandro is on an expiring contract, but I would bet the Spurs work to keep the restricted free agent around.
It’s fun that San Antonio has such polar opposite players on the roster. In past eras, coaches would have mistakenly tried both guys at the three or four and probably dismissed them from their team. They might have even slipped out of the NBA after a while. The current league allows for new brands of player builds to develop and shine every day.
The final example of a multi-positional Spur without a defined role is, of course, Jeremy Sochan. Analysts have likened the rook to Draymond Green, which is about as good as it gets. However, player comparisons are mostly a superficial way to scout. I’m sure Sochan wants to develop into a unique player rather than try to fit into Green’s shadow (though he seems to take a page out of his book when taunting opponents).
There are already so many words written about Jeremy; it feels as though every third article on Air Alamo is about Sochan in some form. Instead of dwelling too much on why he fits into the premise of this piece, I'll leave you with the above highlight reel. And any player with those ball skills and the ability to defend 1-5 possesses something most players don't have, and I'm betting on the kid for that reason.
This piece might not be a hard-hitting analysis about the development arcs of young players or draft content or words about the team’s glory days like you were probably looking for. It was more so me running through a thought exercise and using it to highlight some lesser-discussed guys on the team. So if you made it to the finish line, thank you for reading!