San Antonio Spurs: Can Vassell eventually be the next Kawhi?
After being selected 11th in the 2020 NBA Draft, San Antonio Spurs forward Devin Vassell managed to make an instant contribution. Vassell appeared in 62 games this past season, and in 17 minutes per game, he averaged 5.5 points, and 2.8 rebounds while connecting on 34.7 percent from three. While his stats might not stand out, he became the first Spurs rookie since Kawhi Leonard in 2011 to immediately join the rotation.
In fact, Vassell shares several similarities with Leonard at similar stages in their careers. Both Kawhi and Devin were promising sophomore wings drafted out of San Diego State and Florida State respectively. Additionally, both Devin and Kawhi made an immediate impact on the defensive end after joining the Spurs. Let's take a closer look at how Devin compares to Kawhi.
Kawhi quickly exceeded expectations in San Antonio offensively by connecting on 37.7 percent of his threes as a rookie despite his shooting initially being a concern. He continued to improve as a shooter in his sophomore season by adding a mid-range shot to his game as well as seeing his role steadily increase within the Spurs offense.
As with Leonard, early on Vassell was used mostly as a spot-up shooter this past season. That said, Vassell appears to be the more skilled offensive player of the two at the same age.
After all, Kawhi played power forward at San Diego State and had to learn how to shoot to make it as a full-time perimeter player in the NBA. Whereas Vassell, at Florida State, proved effective creating as a pick and roll ball-handler, even creating and hitting off-the-dribble threes and pull-up jumpers. Additionally, Devin shot an impressive 41.7 percent from three in college, despite some difficult attempts. This compared to Kawhi, who shot just 25 percent from three before joining the Spurs.
Heading into next season, Devin will likely get the chance to prove himself more, specifically on offense, especially if DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and Patty Mills all leave in free agency. With all three gone, Vassell could thrive in a larger role similar to how Leonard did.
Furthermore, considering San Antonio ranked 24th and 29th in three-point percentage and attempts this past season, they should look to utilize Devin as a shooter more next season. The Spurs could accomplish this by running him off multiple screens and using him in pin-downs or dribble handoffs. This would free him up for higher percentage shots in the paint, the mid-range, and from three. The Spurs often used Marco Belinelli in much the same way to get him open.
Finding ways to get Vassell similar open looks in the half-court could unlock Devin's shooting, possibly turning him into an efficient high-volume 3-point shooter. Were that to occur, it would go a long way towards helping San Antonio solve its shooting issues.
On the defensive end, Vassell doesn't quite have the physical tools that Leonard has (measuring in at 6-5 with a 6-10 wingspan compared to Kawhi at 6-7 with a 7-3 wingspan) though was impressive defensively as a rookie. Additionally, Vassell has made good use of his length and defensive instincts as evident by his 1.5 steals and 2.8 deflections per 36 minutes.
While he's certainly above average on defense when compared to other players in his draft class, Kawhi was definitely more impactful as a rookie. Furthermore, Leonard was often tasked with defending some of the best wings as a rookie and defended them well. He also had excellent timing to go along with his massive wingspan, often stripping defenders or jumping passing lanes as evidenced by his two steals per 36 minutes in his first season.
Leonard would only get better as a defender, even winning two consecutive Defensive Player Of The Year awards in his fourth and fifth season. Vassell doesn't have Defensive Player Of The Year potential, though he can still improve upon his already impressive defense.
He can even develop into a lockdown defender in his own right, though. If he's playing alongside Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, he might not be tasked with guarding the opposing team's best players. Devin could, instead, wreak havoc more as a team defender by providing help off of his assignment, and tipping or stealing passes, and blocking shots.
So, can Devin Vassell ever get to Kawhi's level?
Ultimately, when comparing Devin to Kawhi at the same age, Devin appears to be more talented offensively, however, Kawhi certainly has the edge on defense. Overall, Vassell, while arguably a more polished player at the same age, isn't quite the prospect that Kawhi was. Kawhi's rare physical tools, including length, speed, athleticism, and hand size all aided him as a prospect and gave him an edge.
Furthermore, Leonard developed quickly, transforming himself into a top-five NBA player while Vassell’s ceiling likely isn't anywhere as high as Leonard's peak. That said, he can still turn into a great two-way player in his own right.