Charles Bassey wasn't the star on Friday, but he sure was the story
San Antonio's newest big man has come out of nowhere to surprise anyone who's paying attention, all without knowing 'what the hell' the Spurs are doing.
SAN ANTONIO — The waiver wire has not been a pleasant topic of conversation for the Spurs over the last couple of weeks following the release of Joshua Primo. But when one door closes, another is broken down by a 6’11 shot-swatting rebound machine with 3-point range.
I think that’s how the saying goes.
Quietly, Charles Bassey fell out of the sky like a gift from a higher power just a few days before the tumult of the Primo situation. Cut by the Philadelphia 76ers because of a logjam in their frontcourt, the former St. Anthony product has returned to San Antonio and made an immediate impact for a team that just lost Zach Collins indefinitely to a fibula-head fracture. And he’s doing it without having a clue about what the Spurs want to do on either side of the ball.
“He was something else today. He just plays. He doesn’t know what the hell we are doing, but he catches up quickly on plays and he plays the game hard,” Gregg Popovich said after the Spurs’ 111-93 win over the severely shorthanded Bucks. “He knows his role, he rebounds, he blocks shots, he runs the floor and he does it with a lot of energy.”
Bassey may still be learning everything on the fly, but it’s clear he understands how to play basketball. The Spurs’ system is built on reading and reacting, and the new guy is just going with the flow.
He’s crashing the glass relentlessly, angrily and emphatically blocking shots, knocking down 3-pointers, and perhaps most surprisingly, he’s getting in on the San Antonio assist train. Whether he’s clearing space on the perimeter for teammates in dribble-handoff situations or finding cutters zipping through the back door, his presence somehow hasn’t disrupted San Antonio’s second-unit offense in any significant way.
That’s something you rarely see. The Spurs’ playbook is by no means layered in complex set pieces, but their system does typically require a high level of familiarity between personnel in order to operate smoothly. Bassey has just slipped right into place, and he’s provided San Antonio with a hammer on the back end of the defense.
But as thrilled as the Spurs have been with yet another gem of an acquisition off the scrap heap, Bassey may be even more ecstatic. When asked how he’s been able to integrate with his new team so quickly, he smiled and quickly answered.
“Just playing for Pop. As a kid, I wanted to play for him. That’s the coach you want to play for, go hard for. He is just so calm,” he said. “When we are winning or losing, he is calm and he says the right words — the right things to a player that make you want to go crazy in a game. Me being a part of this team is just a blessing.”
While we’d all love to hear a 19-year-old Tony Parker regale Bassey with past stories of Pop’s calmness and stoicism (or a notorious lack thereof), the elder statesman of the NBA’s coaching fraternity has unquestionably achieved some level of Zen in recent years. To him, all plays great and terrible serve the same purpose for young players learning the game, as every single one of them provides a clip for the film reel to be studied at a later date.
Frankly, there may not be a better place in the league for Bassey to land right now than San Antonio, where there’s a player-friendly framework in place, the only expectation is development, and the future at the center position has been guaranteed to no one.
“This is a perfect spot. This is a young team. I am still learning everything out there. I wish I had started training camp and preseason with them, but everything is going smoothly,” he said. “Every day I am learning new plays, getting with the coaches, watching film, just doing what I can to help this team to win and go out there and play as hard as I can every night.”
As improbable and impressive as the Bassey arrival story has been so far, it’s been almost equally as confusing. Not only was he cut during the preseason, but he cleared waivers and sat in free agency for nearly two weeks, unrestricted and clear to sign anywhere. Young, mobile, athletic big men with great size, decent touch and obvious smarts are valuable commodities in today’s NBA, so the 76ers’ decision to waive him and the subsequent delay in another team signing him obviously raise questions.
Bassey suffered a tibial plateau fracture near the beginning of his 2019-20 season at Western Kentucky, an injury that required nearly a year of recovery time. Naturally, one wonders if injuries were a concern ahead of the NBA Draft, but the former late second-round pick put up impressive numbers for the Hilltoppers during the 2020-21 season while playing 30 minutes a night in 28 games. And beyond that, he hasn’t experienced any serious health issues at the pro level.
Furthermore, why would an old, slow Philadelphia team that’s been trying out new backup centers to Joel Embiid for years opt instead to employ and play guys like Deandre Jordan and Montrezl Harrell? Is it as simple as Doc Rivers wanting to stick with familiar veterans as the 76ers try to pursue a title? They do have Paul Reed in the mix as well, but limiting exposure to young bigs with upside seems like a poor strategy. Bassey’s career in San Antonio is just minutes old, but it’s obvious this guy can play.
Still, it’s easy to jump the gun on exciting young players when they arrive on the scene of a good situation and immediately catch onlookers off-guard. Exceeding expectations is a lot easier when they’re not exactly there, and now a new bar has been set. But the Bassey bubble doesn’t seem like it’s gonna burst on its own, not with the level of play he’s displayed during his brief time with the Spurs. The athleticism, defense, rebounding, and flashes of a perimeter shot were all real facets of his game at the college level. If he’s able to unlock the playmaking aspect of it as well you have a player who can fit in with anything San Antonio is trying to accomplish.
He wasn’t the star of Friday’s game — that would be Keldon Johnson (29 points) or Devin Vassell (22 points) — but Bassey was certainly the story. The big man tallied five points, 14 rebounds, four assists and four blocks in just 18 minutes of play, which ain’t bad for a guy who just arrived in town and apparently doesn’t yet know what he’s supposed to be doing out there.
Just wait until he actually learns.
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