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Two-Fold Friday: A question at the top, and some newfound intrigue at the very bottom
Can Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell finally get on the same offensive page? Is there something about Mamu? The Spurs still have questions that need answers.
At this point of the NBA season, four days in between games feels like an eternity. But the Spurs needed all of them.
San Antonio has only played two home games since Feb. 3, saw its roster go through a series of changes at the trade deadline and the weeks that followed, has worked to reintegrate previously injured players back into the rotation, picked up a few extra bumps and bruises in the mean time, and dealt with all of it while trying to keep spirits high in the midst of a whole bunch of losing. This was a tired team.
Now, following this extended break in their schedule full of practices, treatment and yesterday’s big team photo, the Spurs are almost fully healthy for the first time in months just ahead of their springtime stretch of home games. And as the Charlotte Hornets continue to build their lead ahead of it in the standings, San Antonio can afford to let things fly a bit more without worrying much about its top-three NBA Lottery chances in a couple of months. While there could still end up being some ground to be gained in the trenches, the goal of grabbing the best possible odds of drafting first overall is likely in the bag.
So with only a month left in the season, it’s time for the Spurs to put a little more pressure on the developmental gas pedal. There is plenty of opportunity for young players to find rhythm and confidence over the final 17 games, and there remains a number of questions that need to be answered — from the top of the team hierarchy, all the way to the very bottom.
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Can Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell finally start to click?
Perhaps it ends up mattering little in the grand scheme, all things considered, but the Devin Vassell injury likely represented the most disappointing setback of the Spurs’ season thus far. One could counter that assessment with, ‘Well, it gave Malaki Branham and Jeremy Sochan more space to grow into themselves,’ or, ‘They got a chance to watch Keldon Johnson as the alpha,’ or even more cynically, ‘Meh, they already know what they have in Devin, and it helps the tank anyway!’ And you know what? Fair points.
But lost in that shuffle is the reality that the Spurs haven’t really had a chance to see the Vassell-Johnson tandem develop in earnest. Despite being teammates for nearly three years now, the two only have about a quarter of a season under their belts as the team’s lead duo. The primary job responsibilities during their first two seasons belonged to DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray, and even to Derrick White, for that matter; this year, Vassell was in and out of the lineup even before the knee soreness he was battling eventually led to arthroscopic surgery in early January, and it was difficult for the two to establish any sense of continuity.
A season that was supposed to prominently feature both has mostly belonged to Johnson. And with Vassell still working his way back to normal playing time, it still mostly does.
Given the inconsistencies of the rotation (and any number of other things) throughout the season, poring over lineup data may not be the fairest way to assess their on-court relationship. But the numbers are what they are, and the Spurs have been worse when the two have shared the court this season (-14.6 points per 100 possessions) than they have been when just one of Vassell or Johnson has been on the floor. And while we can go any number of different directions with a defense that’s been bad no matter who is playing, the fact the team has managed just 108.5 points per 100 possessions (10th percentile of lineups league-wide) when the two have been on the floor together suggests there’s still plenty of streamlining left to be done.
It isn’t just the lineups that are suffering, either. Both Johnson (+.07 points per shot) and Vassell (+.09 points per shot) have been more efficient scorers from almost everywhere on the floor this season when the other is sitting, per NBA Shot Chart data. There’s been a bit of a ‘your turn, my turn’ aspect to their coexistence within the flow of the offense — which is not at all uncommon for young players, by the way — and finding a way to effectively utilize each player’s scoring gravity in a way that benefits the other has been a grind.
Nothing that happens between now and the end of the season is going to suddenly transform San Antonio’s offense into a beacon of efficiency, but before going down with injury, Vassell was showing off a level of playmaking he hadn’t previously displayed during his first two years in the league. And somewhere within that development lies a key to unlocking more of what that duo has to offer.
(If you missed last week’s deeper dive into Vassell’s passing this season, you can read it here.)
It just makes sense from a simple basketball perspective: If the more versatile player has the ball in his hands more often, there’s going to be a wider range of potential outcomes for each possession. And as Vassell continues to ramp things up, you can expect his usage will do the same. Both he and Johnson seem like a good fit on paper considering the things each does well, but the roles have to be right in order to maximize their collective potential.
“Me and Dev are pretty close, and it just carries onto the court. He’s a special talent. He can get to the mid-range, he can shoot the ball, he can do it all,” Johnson said. “As for me, it’s downhill or shoot the spot-up 3. The little time we had together we definitely enjoyed it, but we’ll be back soon. He’s getting healthy, and before you know it we’ll both be back on the court full power.”
I mentioned earlier both players have scored more efficiently from almost everywhere on the floor this season when the other is sitting. The one shot location that has yielded different results? Johnson has shot 35.4 percent from the 3-point line when Vassell has been in the game with him, and just 30.8 percent when Devin has been on the bench or in street clothes.
It isn’t as if Vassell is the one creating all of Johnson’s shots, but the scoring gravity Devin possesses at all three levels — perimeter, mid-range and rim — makes life easier on everyone around him, and his ability to find open teammates when the defense commits is something both Keldon and the Spurs need in spades.
There likely won’t ever be a massive usage split between Vassell and Johnson, especially not the rest of the way this season. But there’s evidence to suggest a shift in that collective workload could eventually lead to more efficient outputs from both players in the long run, and now is the perfect time to experiment.
Is there something about Mamu?
It isn’t often you see players with Sandro Mamukelashvili’s skill set just land on the open market in the middle of the season. A 23-year-old, 6’10 forward with solid athleticism and mobility who can handle the ball, pass, rebound and shoot from the perimeter, the second-year big man from the country of Georgia fits the versatile forward archetype San Antonio has been trying to get in its building since last summer when it drafted Jeremy Sochan and took fliers on Jordan Hall and Dominick Barlow.
Mamu worked out for the Spurs in San Antonio ahead of the 2021 NBA Draft, so the team had already been given a chance to gain some familiarity with his game and personality. But he’d been familiar with the franchise for years.
“It’s an honor to be here. Being from Europe, you hear a lot about the Spurs, their organization, and the European and other foreign players [who have played for them],” Mamu said. “I still have a lot to learn in the league, but I was in a great spot in Milwaukee with a lot of veterans, so I feel like that’s going to help me bring that experience here and be as competitive as possible.”
He describes himself as an all-around player but specifically noted his ability to pick and pop from the perimeter, an area of his game that, along with his ability to hold up defensively against bigger interior players, raised some pre-draft concerns. He loved to shoot at Seton Hall, despite only connecting on 33.9 percent of his 3-point attempts during his four-year college career.
But Mamu has been mostly lights out from deep at the next level. He’s shot 40 percent from the 3-point line during his 16-game G-League career to this point, and boasted an impressive 42.3-percent mark in 41 games during his rookie year with the big club in Milwaukee. That number dropped precipitously along with his playing time for the Bucks this season, but he’s hit three of his first five 3-point attempts in San Antonio, and they’ve come in a number of different forms.
Mamu’s already shown the ability to pull up off the dribble, backpedal into a catch-and-shoot from behind the line, and knock down the good-old-fashioned spot-up. He’s been working on that area of his game, and it’s shown.
“I stay in the gym, I shoot a lot of 3s, I try to work on my game a lot. With Milwaukee it was harder to get some shots up, but here I’m shooting with confidence and staying with it,” Mamu said. “And I know I’ll have the opportunities. Hopefully it keeps dropping.”
For a team that ranks near the bottom of the league in 3-point percentage, working a true stretch big into the mix could help alleviate a ton of pressure for everyone else. Zach Collins and Keita Bates-Diop have had their moments from the perimeter this season, but it’s not exactly either player’s strong suit.
Still, it’s that playmaking ability that could potentially add a different level of threat. There are plenty of big men who can shoot these days, but 6’10 guys who can attack a closeout and find open teammates are a different breed.
“I’m telling you, the more comfortable I get, the more things will slow down on the court. I can bring the ball up, I can facilitate, I love passing the ball. I want to be like Toni Kukoč or (Nikola) Jokić, who can pass and shoot and do a little bit of everything,” Mamu said. “I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do, but at the end of the day I know I can rebound it and push it and make a play out of it. Hopefully I can showcase that more and more throughout the games.”
Before you think we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, there is certainly still a mountain of questions remaining. Mamu hasn’t yet shown he can consistently finish at the rim (though he does draw a decent number of fouls), he’s prone to turning the ball over, he’s hardly flashed any mid-range game to speak of, and despite his size he’s not a rim protector. There are reasons he was drafted near the bottom of the second round.
But he has the makings of a real complementary NBA piece if the shooting percentages remain high. The Spurs thought enough of Mamu to claim him off waivers and not let him touch free agency once the Bucks released him, and the fact they signed a former Two-Way player to a standard NBA contract shows an immediate interest in what he could do for them moving forward.
Mamukelashvili finished off the regular season last year with a 28-point, 13-rebound, four-assist performance during a game in which Milwaukee sat its starters ahead of postseason play. And given its current situation, San Antonio should be able to replicate some of that additional opportunity for the Georgian big man to put up some numbers down the stretch, especially when other players are given a night off to rest or recover from injury.
The Spurs are in a place where they can afford to take swings at talent, no matter where they find it. And now is exactly the time to take advantage and learn as much about the players they have in house as the season of development moves along.