SAN ANTONIO — If you haven’t heard, the Spurs had their highest draft pick since Tim Duncan in this year’s NBA Draft.
San Antonio used the 11th pick on Devin Vassell, an elite 3-and-D wing with the potential to grow into so much more. He easily could have gone in the top 10, and he was pretty clearly the best player with the highest ceiling at a position of need. He’s a leader and winner who can make an impact right away and could be special later on.
They also snagged Duke point guard Tre Jones, whom many talent evaluators are already calling a second-round steal. Last season, he was named a 2nd Team All American, and he became just the second player to win both ACC Player of the Year and ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
Based on some very scientific polling, a vast majority of Spurs fans are thrilled or at least satisfied with the picks. So why, then, does it seem like so many others are steaming mad about how the draft went?
Part of it is the Yelp Effect: those with angry, negative things to say are typically the loudest. But what are those disgruntled fans actually saying, and does it make sense?
Vassell shot almost 42% from deep last year while wreaking havoc on defenses and leading Florida State to an ACC title, and he showed serious growth off the bounce. Much of the disappointment seems to stem from the idea that he’s a guard, and there are already too many guards in San Antonio. Both parts of that are a bit misguided.
Vassell stands at 6’7” with about a 6’10” wingspan, so if he’s a guard, he’s a huge one. At 200 pounds, he’ll need to eat some breakfast tacos, hit the gym and pack on some additional muscle to bang with bigger wings inside, but he has the skills and physical tools to guard one through small four on the perimeter. FSU switched everything, and he did everything from checking guards to fronting big men in the post.
He was asked about his preferred position after the draft.
“I think that shooting guard is my ideal position, but I played small forward all through college,” he said. “I’m able to adjust. I think that either way, whatever position they put me in, I’ll be able to thrive and flourish as long as I’m working, and putting the work in and learning.”
Spurs GM Brian Wright said Vassell added some weight in the pre-draft process, and he hopes his barely 20-year-old body continues to grow. He doesn’t have a target weight for the rookie, but he said that there will be an emphasis on adding functional strength. He also spoke about the idea of basketball becoming position-less -- or at least a game with less-defined positions.
“The league has really changed, where you really looked at guys as one-position players, and you’re either a one, a two, a three, a four, or a five. What you see now is you’ve got guards, you’ve got wings and you’ve got bigs,” he said. “You want guys that are versatile and can play multiple positions, and I think with Devin for sure he can play across multiple positions, and as he gets stronger, he’ll be able to do that even more.”
“We talked tonight. He’s gonna grow to 6’10,” he said with a laugh. “He’ll be able to play one through four in a few years.”
Whether or not that late growth spurt pans out, it’s pretty clear that Vassell projects as, at the very least, a high-level 3-and-D wing, and that’s how the Spurs will probably use him. He’s a lob threat, a rebounder, and looks like a laboratory-built prototype wing.
The roster may look guard-heavy at first, but this draft indicates that the team will let the much-maligned pair of Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli walk, and re-signing Jakob Poeltl in restricted free agency should be a priority. It looks like Chimezie Metu, who just switched agents, is on his way out.
With that in mind, let's explore those three positions Wright mentioned.
- Patty Mills - 6’0”
- Tre Jones - 6’2”
- Quinndary Weatherspoon - 6’3”
- Dejounte Murray - 6’5”
- Derrick White - 6’5”
- Lonnie Walker IV - 6’5”
- DeMar DeRozan - 6’6”
- Keldon Johnson - 6’6”
- Devin Vassell - 6’7”
- Rudy Gay - 6’8”
- Trey Lyles - 6’9”
- Luka Šamanić - 6’10”
- Drew Eubanks - 6’9”
- LaMarcus Aldridge - 6’11”
- Jakob Poeltl - 7’1”
The depth chart probably looks something like this:
1: Derrick White, Patty Mills, Tre Jones
2: Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Quinndary Weatherspoon
3: DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell
4: Trey Lyles, Rudy Gay, Luka Šamanić
5: LaMarcus Aldridge, Jakob Poeltl, Drew Eubanks
That’s a pretty balanced, modern, switchable NBA roster, and the Spurs have built an impressive portion of it through the draft without a single top-10 pick. Their young players are long, fast and versatile, qualities that the organization values, Wright said.
Outside of not understanding Vassell’s fit, the big reason that some Spurs fans are upset that they took him at 11 is that they wanted to see a trade into the top 10 to get a player they preferred while moving on from some of the veterans on this team.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the Spurs stood pat and took a wonderful player who fell in their lap because that's what they do, but this year produced more smoke about a possible move in San Antonio than we’ve ever really seen.
It made sense that the Spurs might try to trade up for a guy like James Wiseman, Deni Avdija or Onyeka Okongwu, especially after missing the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. Those with top picks were trying to trade down in a murky draft with no clear-cut top talent.
As front offices across the league made trades, the environment seemed ripe for an uncharacteristic big move from San Antonio. DeRozan and Aldridge have some value as former All-Stars on expiring deals, and there’s a valid argument for moving on from one or both for assets to fully commit to the youth movement.
“With every draft, there’s always a bunch of things up on the board, whether it’s move up, move back, it’s a chance for you to get creative and see what’s there,” Wright said. “Where we would pick was always a question, and when Devin was there, we knew we had a good player at 11 and it was the best thing to stay put and draft him.”
A perfectly reasonable answer, but it won’t satisfy the fans who want those veterans gone, fell in love with a top-5 pick, and screamed “DO SOMETHING” into the void. I’m not gonna sit here and say that a trade up for a prospect slightly higher on my board would not have excited me, but the Spurs don’t make moves to excite people on draft night.
Some hoped for a blockbuster trade that would send shockwaves through the NBA, and what they got instead was a prudent, solid, predictable pick. They begged for a stick of dynamite and were left watching Gregg Popovich’s stone cutter front office pound the rock one more time.
It’s worth noting that every wing and big man picked before Vassell has a lower floor, and not a single one of them would have put the Spurs on a clear path to contending for a title. Also, "high floor" doesn’t necessarily mean "low ceiling." Vassell has tremendous upside as a shot creator, and if the Spurs can help him build on his impressive college development there, he can be a top 5 player from this draft class.
Every draft, a large contingent of Spurs fans will make the same unfunny joke welcoming whoever the team picks to Austin, complaining that he’ll be buried there. In many years it’s apt if not original, but this year it’s neither.
In case this phrase hasn’t been seared into your frontal lobe at this point, Devin Vassell is the highest Spurs draft pick since Tim Duncan. He should play more NBA minutes than any Spurs rookie since Kawhi Leonard, and Vassell right now is a more polished player on a worse team than Leonard his first year.
That’s without even mentioning the possibility that there won’t be a G League season at all next year due to coronavirus.
I asked Wright about how much time he thought Vassell would play in San Antonio, and while he left that up to the coaching staff, he seemed to agree that Vassell could contribute right away.
“I know he’s gonna come in and work hard and be ready,” Wright said. “He is one of those guys that, because he knows how to play, there’s an understanding of him just jumping into something and fitting in, but we won’t put expectations on him. He’ll come in and he’ll work, and he earns what he gets, and Coach Pop and the coaching staff will figure that out as we go.”
Outside of the top three picks, there weren’t any players who projected to eventually be a top player on a contending team. This draft was about finding complementary pieces to add to what the Spurs already have.
“Both really good basketball players, high-IQ, really understand the game, I think both of them know how to fit around really good players,” Wright said. “They play off of other really good players well, I mean both of them were on really talented teams this season, and didn’t play a starring role where it was just one guy who had all the shine, took all the shots, and carried the load. They fit in amongst other good players, and we think they’ll do that here.”
In addition to the on-court fit, Wright raved about these two young men as cultural fits, laughing about how it was impossible to find someone with a bad thing to say about them.
“They’re both very high character guys from great programs, that have had a lot of success, have won at every level, workers, competitors, just good solid basketball players,” Wright said. “We think we added to our team on the court tonight, but in the locker room and in the community as well. Just two really phenomenal young human beings.”
The final complaint that fans had after the draft is uncertainty. What is the direction of this team? What’s the plan moving forward?
Wright was of course cryptic about further offseason plans in free agency and trading but said that the team has a few goals they’d like to achieve before training camp.
That probably includes re-signing Poeltl, and they might look for another bigger body to shore up depth there as well. As of right now, it seems less and less likely that they would trade any of DeRozan, Aldridge, Gay, or Mills, at least for now.
The young Spurs looked quite good in the Orlando bubble run, and adding LaMarcus and Trey Lyles back into the mix will help. After another offseason of growth for the youngins, and probably replacing Forbes and Belinelli with Vassell and Jones, this looks like a team that will at the very least compete for a playoff spot out west.
They could also move some of those veteran bucket getters on expiring deals at the deadline depending on how things go. A variety of on-the-cusp contenders might see any one of those guys as a piece that could help them get over the top, and if they’re likely gone anyway at the end of the year, expect Wright and the Spurs to consider flipping them for assets.
Outside of the two trades involving Kawhi, the Spurs don’t really shape their roster that way. San Antonio isn’t exactly a free agent destination, so they build through the draft methodically. I asked Wright about what he and the Spurs are trying to build, and his answer was illuminating.
“A team has to have many components, and they have to fit. I think you just start stacking good players on top of good players,” Wright said. “In the draft, you oftentimes think about, ‘okay, how does this guy fit positionally with our group, relative to the ceiling?’ I think in all of our drafts, we’ve always said we’re gonna take the best player available unless there’s two that are kind of neck-and-neck in terms of projected ceiling. Then we may take position into account, but you just try to continue to add good players to the group that fit the core things, core values that we’re looking to add and have represent this organization. We’ll just continue to do that and try to piece it together with guys that fit that mold.”
Vassell and Jones certainly fit that mold, both on the court and off. They bring needed defense, coveted skill sets, and after talking to both they seem humble, driven, focused, and low key.
When I asked Vassell about his interests outside of hooping, he said there really wasn’t much outside of hanging out with his friends, watching Netflix, and working on his swing at Top Golf. Other than that, it’s watching film and grinding in the gym. That work ethic is a big reason why he went from an under-recruited high school player to a lottery pick in just two years. He’s passionate about social justice and is excited to join Coach Pop in supporting that message.
“It’s huge, I feel like what’s going on today in America, we have such a huge platform and we’re able to help, and talk about some of the things that some people don’t have the voice to,” he said. “To be able to be here with a coach like that who knows how big of a deal it is, and really embraces it.”
Jones, who many thought would go in the first round, said he can’t wait to learn from the veterans and compete with the young guys as they all push each other to get better. When I asked him about going from Coach K to Coach Pop, his face lit up and he shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it.
“To be able to go from one legend to another, I couldn’t be luckier, and I’m very fortunate and very blessed to be in this position,” he said while smiling ear to ear. “Something I learned from Coach K was his dedication to the game. I think that’s something that both him and Coach Pop share.”
He said it seems like the two of them just get hungrier every single year, and that’s the energy he’s trying to bring to San Antonio. He and Vassell played against each other in the ACC, and Jones glowed about his defense, athleticism, frame, and competitiveness.
“I know that he played very well for them in big games, and I think that speaks to what kind of player he is, and also how much better he’s gotten,” Jones said. “That goes to show how he is about his game, and how serious he takes his game, and how much he wants to improve his craft.”
Speaking of playing well in big games, it’s easy to see how Jones earned his nickname when you watch the insane comeback he led against rival UNC and Cole Anthony, who was selected 15th overall.
Jones isn’t the most athletic point guard, but he has decent size and uses it well on both ends. As far as development goes, he went from setting up Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish as a freshman to improving as a scorer (16 ppg), shooter (37% from three), and defender his sophomore year. He has skills, smarts, vision, and killer instincts.
“He’s a treasure,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He was as competitive as anyone in the country. He not only developed offensively, but he developed his leadership skills. He is a joy, just a joy, and was so deserving of the honors that he received.”
Coach K called him the best point guard in the draft, and while there’s probably just a touch of bias in there, Jones is for sure among the most NBA ready. His older brother Tyus is a backup point guard in Minnesota, and Tre could prove to be a taller, better version of him.
As for Vassell, he immediately gives the Spurs their second true 3-and-D wing alongside Keldon Johnson, who exploded in the bubble. Vassell’s long arms, quick feet, and fantastic anticipation make him a monkey wrench on the perimeter, and he has the length to meet anyone at the rim. His reliable shot and high release point are elite, and instantly improves the team’s ability to space the floor.
A short video showed a different, wonky, behind-his-head release from deep during a workout, and it went viral as people questioned why any skills trainer would try to fix something that was already great. Both Vassell and Wright laughed about that after the draft, and if there are any form issues, legendary Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland won’t have to adjust too much.
Vassell’s absolute rock-bottom floor is a taller Danny Green, but he’s already shown more playmaking ability than the sharpshooting former Spur ever has. In my humble opinion, his ceiling is somewhere between Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard, which might sound crazy until you think about it. Consider that Klay was also the 11th pick and Kawhi went at 15. Sure they were in a stronger class, but nobody would have batted an eye if Vassell went to the Hawks at 6.
Devin Vassell is the most NBA-ready Spurs rookie since Duncan, and probably has the most potential of any Spurs pick since they traded up for Leonard. San Antonio gave up nothing to get him and picked up a legit first-round talent and NBA rotation player who slipped to 41 as well.
Sure San Antonio didn’t trade up, but if you can’t be satisfied without splashy trades and risky moves, Spurs fandom may not align with your interests. Sam Presti and other GMs have taken an aggressive approach to roster building. Results vary, but some in San Antonio will point to even the less successful examples and say, “Well at least they’re doing SOMETHING.”
But the Spurs are doing something. This team has been slowly and methodically building a long, versatile, athletic core that should develop into a defensive juggernaut, mainly through the draft and the oft-maligned Kawhi trade. If that bores you, perhaps watch a Michael Bay movie with lots of explosions.
Whether you do that, start supporting another team, or continue screaming at the brick wall between you and Brian Wright, Pop and RC Buford, it makes absolutely no difference to the Spurs. They’ll keep doing what they do, pounding away at that rock until it breaks. This draft might be the one that finally splits it in two, revealing a rock-solid NBA team after a few rough years.
Draft Grade: A