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If trends continue, bench role might be perfect for the development of Point-Sochan
As the Spurs and their fans await the results of Jeremy Sochan's shooting experiments, other elements of his game are being given a chance to blossom.
Before the Spurs’ 132-95 blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco on Nov. 14, the only game Tre Jones has missed this season, Gregg Popovich told Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News that Jeremy Sochan would be in charge of running the offense that night in the usual starter’s stead. When asked again if he meant Sochan would be the team’s point guard that night, Pop bluntly replied, “He’s a point guard.”
It was an unusual response, not just in its matter-of-factness and borderline defensiveness, but because that’s not the way any of us would’ve thought to describe Sochan at this point of his career. His skill set indicated he’d likely become a good secondary facilitator from the forward spot at some point along the way, but to consider him a primary offensive initiator — especially so early in his career — seemed like a stretch.
And yet, since his return from a quad contusion and particularly over the last two games, we’ve seen a different Sochan. As he often does with players returning from injury, Pop temporarily moved his rookie Swiss Army Knife to the bench in order to manage his minutes following a five-game absence. At least, it appeared temporary.
Sochan started Saturday’s game against the Miami Heat in Mexico City, but at halftime he was moved back to that substitute role, switching places with Keita Bates-Diop. On Monday Pop went with that same rotation against the Rockets, but this time for the full 48 minutes. It wasn’t because Sochan was performing badly, though. It was because suddenly it appeared the Spurs may have found something in their reserves.
Part of the beauty in Sochan’s game is its freewheeling nature. Whether he’s cutting, flashing, attacking off the dribble, threading passes between teammates, crashing the glass or running out in transition, there’s a ubiquitous element to his style of play that can fit perfectly in some settings yet awkwardly in others.
San Antonio’s starting group has a structure to it — a hierarchy that’s relatively established considering its collective youth. Jones is the head of the spear who does well getting the ball to Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell in their spots, as Jakob Poeltl acts as the fulcrum on which everything balances. They’ve become solid in their roles, understanding where and how the others like to operate. But Sochan is a wild card who will often freelance a bit in an effort to help and get involved, especially considering defenses are not threatened by his spot-up shooting and often leave him alone on the perimeter.
Despite the relative success of that lineup — the Spurs’ starting five has a net rating of -3.3 points per 100 possessions, whereas the team as a whole possesses a -9.1 net rating — there are times when spacing becomes compromised. With Poeltl typically owning the area around the paint, offensive sets can become bumpy when Sochan tries to do his thing, whatever that may entail on any given play. The two manage to co-exist given their talent as passers, but their lack of shooting range inevitably puts a soft cap on the offense’s potential that’s difficult to push open at times.
However, the bench unit offers a different environment entirely. And despite the small sample size, there’s evidence it’s one in which Point-Sochan can potentially thrive.
Where San Antonio’s starting lineup is prone to difficult shooting nights, its reserve group has a way of opening the floor. Whether it’s Doug McDermott, Josh Richardson, Zach Collins, Isaiah Roby, KBD or Malaki Branham, there’s essentially always a perimeter threat at each position whenever the starters sit. Over the last six quarters, the Spurs have decided to let Sochan loose in the middle of all of that, essentially giving him the reins to the second unit’s offense.
Despite a small decrease in minutes during this stretch, Sochan’s usage metrics have spiked. He’s touching the ball more often and spending more time in possession when he does, he’s averaging 2.7 more potential assists per game (7.0) while playing fewer minutes than he did as a starter, and he’s been given more opportunity as a pick-and-roll ball-handler — situations in which he’s accounting for a healthy .981 points per possession (including passes) despite poor shooting numbers (.714 ppp on pick-and-roll scoring chances) this season.
“Obviously our point guard situation is a little different. There are a lot of guys who can handle it but Tre’s the only true point guard,” Bates-Diop said. “I think we’re seeing Jeremy can also do it. He can be that point forward, and he’s excelling in that role honestly.”
It is still very early, but Sochan’s potential and versatility as a playmaker have been more than just intriguing. He’s flashed a level of creativity you don’t often see from players his size, and while the assist numbers have been limited due to his role in the offense and inexperience reading defenses, it’s become clear there really isn’t a pass he can’t make. It’s going to take time and a better understanding of the NBA game, but he’s already shown the right ideas are in place.
Per BBall Index, Sochan is in the top quartile of NBA players in terms of ‘Playmaking Talent,’ a metric that “analyzes a player’s playmaking for teammates through their ratings in Passing Creation Volume, Passing Creation Quality, Passing Versatility, Passing Efficiency, and Scoring Gravity (which has a small weight).” It’s designed to measure playmaking capability and volume, as well effectiveness in playmaking for others. Considering volume and scoring gravity are factors in this equation, the fact he ranks in the 78th percentile among all players is impressive. It means the talent, creativity and efficiency are there, but the right types of opportunities have yet to present themselves regularly.
It remains to be seen if Pop is going to stick with the rotation we’ve seen over the last couple of games, especially with Richardson (the bench unit’s de facto ball-handler) set to return to the team on Thursday following a two-game absence. But there’s a real argument to be made for Sochan to continue coming off the bench, as his repoire with Collins, McDermott and Richardson has been notable even considering the small sample size. With more space and fewer high-usage players around him, it’s an environment that allows him to see more touches and effectively play to his strengths.
And Sochan would be fine with that. After all, he was the Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year during his only season at Baylor, so this wouldn’t be a role that’s new to him. He can’t control when he’s on the court, but he knows what to do once he’s on it.
“I have more of the ball (when coming off the bench) and a little more freedom. I’m dribbling, I’m dictating the offense, and I just get into my spots,” he said. “Especially now that I’m kind of like a secondary point guard, I think just having the ball and going through screens, you can see a lot more. (The game) has definitely slowed down.”
The future of Sochan’s career in San Antonio is an interesting one to forecast. So much depends on the development of his outside shot that there’s almost a tendency to hold off on analyzing his game in the meantime. But there’s more to his skill set than that, and we’re beginning to see the evidence of everything he brings to the table offensively. If Sochan’s limitations spotting up at the 3-point line thwart his contributions at this juncture, then perhaps the answer is easy, especially during a developmental year.
Continue to create a higher volume of advantageous ball-handling situations for him, and the rest may eventually just take care of itself.
“I think in this day of basketball, it’s so multi-positional. I feel like I see a lot with my size, and I can dribble for my size,” Sochan said. “I’m a point forward, a point guard.”
Turns out that maybe — just maybe — Pop knew what he was talking about that night in San Francisco.
*All stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats, Second Spectrum and Synergy.