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Why the Spurs chose Devin Vassell over Tyrese Haliburton

Oct 21, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) shoots the ball
Oct 21, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) shoots the ball / Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
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Team fit may not matter, but context does

When a team is selecting in the draft, and particularly when it's in the lottery, taking the best player available rather than the best-fitting player available is almost always the superior strategy. In this way, if you're asking me, team fit doesn't matter much. What I think does matter much more, though, particularly when comparing players early in their careers, is team context. And no, that isn't the same thing.

Coming into the 2020 NBA Draft, the Spurs still didn't seem to have a rebuild on their radar. The team already had multiple wing players on the roster including DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, and Derrick White, and yet they opted to select Vassell in the draft anyway. This is why I say team fit often doesn't matter--the Spurs believed Vassell was the best player on the board and they selected him accordingly. The same thing could have been said had the Spurs selected Haliburton instead given the team's guard depth at the time.

That doesn't take away the fact that Vassell was forced to fight for minutes with all of those Spurs wings, though, and that's what I mean when I say team context. By Spurs standards, a rookie playing 69 games and 17 minutes per game is quite high. Could Coach Popovich have played Vassell a bit more over some of those wing players? Sure, but then whose minutes were getting taken? In retrospect, Vassell probably could have played over Walker, but that season (and the following) were needed to determine whether or not Walker would be a long-term piece of the Spurs' core.

Looking at Haliburton's situation on the Kings, on the other hand, it's much easier to see how he was able to carve out a role for himself so quickly. While De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield occupied the team's starting backcourt spots most of the time, coming off the bench, Haliburton realistically only had to fight with Cory Joseph and Terence Davis for minutes through most of the season.

Ultimately, through two full seasons, Haliburton was on the court for nearly 1500 more minutes than Vassell (roughly 68% longer). Considering that Haliburton has been on the court so much more than Vassell has been through two seasons and that the Kings' offense often ran through Haliburton in those minutes as well, it should be very easy to see why it appears as if he has been the more effective player compared to Vassell.

Haliburton had more opportunities to show his talent in Sacramento and a longer leash to do so, and had Devin Vassell gone to the Kings instead, he likely would have gotten those same opportunities. On the flip side, had the Spurs selected Haliburton 11th overall, he likely would have been fighting for minutes against Patty Mills, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker IV at the very least, all of whom were and still are on a tier above Cory Joseph and Terrence Davis.

With all of this in mind, it absolutely should not be a foregone conclusion that one player will have a better career than the other; it's simply too early to tell. Being that both players are now starters and focal points for their respective teams, however, the battle will be on much more even ground beginning this season.

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