The 'Point-Sochan' era could be upon us
While there will be workarounds at first, San Antonio's halfcourt offense is going to have some questions to answer. But defensively, this group may just put on a show if Sochan indeed gets the nod.
It’s been a little more than 11 months since Gregg Popovich first called Jeremy Sochan a “point guard,” just ahead of a game in San Francisco against the Golden State Warriors. The then-rookie was about to make his first start at the position while usual front man Tre Jones dealt with a stomach bug, and it did not go well in an eventual 132-95 ass-kicking at the hands of the defending champs.
“It wasn’t the best,” Sochan said with a laugh after Tuesday’s practice. “A few turnovers, guarding (Steph) Curry, it was tough. But again, I feel like it was a process, and every other game it got better.
“Just like now, it’s going to be a process.”
While nothing has been said definitively about the starting lineup for the approaching regular season, the trail of breadcrumbs has become more and more defined in recent days, as evidenced by the last sentence in that quote. Whoever is dropping those bits of baked goods is lurking right around the corner, and they’re aggressively teasing the idea that Point-Sochan is real.
No other topic of conversation has generated as much interest or contention this preseason, and it’s easy to understand why: At no point has Sochan been the full-time lead initiator of an offense at the highest levels of basketball, a difficult job that’s historically gone to players with a specific skill set that rests on an ability to break down defenses off dribble-penetration or from the 3-point line before spraying the ball to shooters, cutters or rolling big men (See: Curry or Tony Parker for either extreme). Sochan has demonstrated high basketball I.Q. and impressive secondary playmaking ability for such a raw player coming into the league, but there has been little in-game proof he can consistently run pick-and-rolls or beat players off the dribble to create an advantage, and he certainly hasn’t given reason for defenses to bend toward his pull-up perimeter shot.
Any detractor of the Point-Sochan concept has every reason to be skeptical, and may very well be right in their pessimism in the long run (for whatever that’s worth). But in the world of sports, very seldom are successful philosophical changes evident until they’re ubiquitous. In the modern NBA, more and more teams that don’t employ an elite lead guard have begun shifting their resources toward adding balanced, versatile size on the wings and in the frontcourt, as it’s become almost impossible to truly compete for a title without those pieces in place.
Smaller, high-usage assist machines at the position have largely given way to bigger, more switchable players among the league’s best teams, who play a more complementary role than your traditional point guards generally do. Outside of the inimitable Steph Curry, it’s been guys like Jamal Murray, Marcus Smart and Jrue Holiday setting the table for the NBA’s elite in recent years — all good situational passers, but at their best playing off the initiation or gravitational pull of others. The NBA has become increasingly more taxing on smaller guards, and recent offseason moves and decisions seem to indicate San Antonio is well aware of that particular development. If Sochan does indeed get the nod, it will mean a commitment to size over a currently more polished lead man in the starting lineup, and hope that with a whole lot of reps the development will come.
And much of what the Spurs are planning — or might be planning, technically — isn’t going to depend on Sochan occupying the exact role of Tre Jones or Dejounte Murray before him. San Antonio is going to run off misses with almost anyone who grabs the rebound (save for guys like Zach Collins and Charles Bassey), and while Sochan will likely be given plenty of opportunity to initiate, the Spurs will depend heavily on side-to-side and high-low actions, wings coming off screens, movement around the elbow, and getting the ball to Victor Wembanyama in threatening positions, of course.
More than anything, as Sochan continues to learn, simplicity will be key.
“Bring energy, keep the pace fast, and just run the floor,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I have to control it or be the main ball-handler, but whoever gets the ball can push it and play with a flow instead of playing slow and stagnant.”
The Spurs don’t have to pull their 20-year-old Swiss Army Knife too far away from his strengths, either, even with the added responsibility. That’s going to be important as he and the offense are sure to deal with some roadblocks. Through two preseason games, Sochan is still cutting at a high rate, initiating out of spot-up situations and getting out in transition. Those elements remain staples of his repertoire, and until he’s able to show he can consistently initiate out of unfamiliar situations, they’ll continue to be a large part of his make-up.
But in the meantime there are workarounds, if they can even be called that. By going big, San Antonio would be clearly stating it wants to take advantage of its size, and there are ways to run offense that don’t include a head-of-the-snake type of downhill, attacking guard.
Even with both Collins and Wembanyama missing one game apiece during the preseason, the Spurs are posting up quite a bit. They’re not exactly Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets, but 7.3 percent of their scoring opportunities thus far has come out of post-up situations, per Synergy data — a very early uptick from 5.6 percent last season. That’s not some massive spike, but it’s sizable in a league that depends less and less on back-to-the-hoop basketball, where even a handful of additional touches on the block is noticeable. More importantly, however, is the 1.28 points per possession (including passes) they’ve generated on such play types. One of the primary reasons the league has moved away from the post is the inefficiency of the setup, but that is a very efficient number even considering the context of preseason basketball.
This approach makes sense, though, because going big wouldn’t unless you’re planning to exploit mismatches. And San Antonio appears to be hunting them early and often.
“There are ways to do that (take advantage of size). Sometimes instead of creating something, just walk the guy down and play from the post. I know that’s an emphasis for us,” Sochan said. “We have a lot of big guys — Vic (Wembanyama), Zach (Collins), Keldon (Johnson) can play in the post — so once we’re in the post everyone on the other side can start moving, screening for each other, cutting, slipping (screens) — it’s gonna open up a lot.”
The Point-Sochan lineups are going to create trickle-down effects that will cause problems for defenses, even if he spends an entire season continuing to learn on the fly. We saw both the Miami Heat and Houston Rockets toggle between different players defending him on Friday and Monday, respectively, and the Spurs reacted accordingly by giving Sochan the freedom to walk guards down to the block, attack the rim in early offense, or get the ball to the wings and cut off screens if guarded by bigger players. If anyone switched, and if the next right play wasn’t available within the flow of the offense, they showed no hesitation in identifying the new mismatch, attacking it on the block or elsewhere, and allowing the rest of the roster to move around it.
San Antonio might be lacking for on-ball shot-creators outside of Wembanyama, Vassell and Johnson (in the right matchups), but it’s got a whole lot of guys who know how to move without the ball, and almost as many capable of finding them. The offense is going to depend on nonstop ball- and player-movement, which is obviously a Popovich staple.
And there have been a lot of positive signs offensively when the core rotation guys have been on the floor during preseason play — deeper end of the bench, not so much — but struggles are likely inevitable as they figure out how to play around Wembanyama, and his on-court relationship with Sochan is going to be put under a microscope.
For all the ways San Antonio can work around its lack of a true “point guard,” Sochan and his perimeter-based teammates are still going to have to pressure-test defenses off the dribble in order to give their big man plenty of space to operate. Pick-and-rolls have to lead somewhere, off-ball screens have to create shooting opportunities and downhill chances in order to put defenders in compromising spots, and those ball-handlers — whether it be Sochan or anyone else — will be expected to accurately get the ball to Wembanyama in advantageous positions when available.
But even as much of the talk has been centered on what a Sochan-led halfcourt offense might look like, the most immediate benefits to sizing up will manifest themselves on the defensive end, where the Spurs should be exponentially better. Adding Wembanyama to the mix will create a boon in and of itself, but pulling Sochan from the paint and consolidating his defensive responsibilities should create additional havoc on the outside, where he’s at his best.
The interior presence of the Wembanyama-Collins duo is going to thwart a ton of rim-attacks, and all that length is going to put ball-handlers in serious binds as they have to make last-second decisions.
“Especially with that kind of size in the lineup, I think it’s important to protect the paint and be able to show the presence of our length, our hands, and make it chaotic for them, make them rush into decisions or shoot shots that could’ve been better,” Sochan said. “We’re trying to be big and aggressive to the point where the paint is ours, so I think it’s gonna be exciting.”
If they do indeed protect the paint the way they plan too, it’s going to allow San Antonio’s perimeter defenders to act as ball-hawks.
“It’s just read and react. That length — not a lot of players are gonna want to go up against that in the paint,” Sochan said. “They’re gonna want to pass out, so you read the advantages and disadvantages, and try to read and react.”
There were MANY reasons the Spurs struggled offensively last season, but perhaps chief among them was their historic inability to get stops. When you’re taking the ball out of the basket half the time, and bringing it up against set defenses, scoring is going to be much more difficult. But with all that size and athleticism across the floor this season, San Antonio is in good position to create a boatload of transition opportunities — a godsend for a young team trying to figure out its halfcourt offense.
Sochan, his teammates and his coaches have all mentioned on numerous occasions this is going to be a work in progress. There will be plenty of bad nights, and they hope plenty of good ones to balance. But one thing has been clear through training camp: These guys all seem to unequivocally believe in Sochan taking the needed steps to occupy this role — or at least a similar one — over the long haul. And despite the viewing public not having much proof Point-Sochan is an idea that will be put into practice smoothly, the team wouldn’t be placing him in this position if it wasn’t seeing something tangible behind closed doors.
It’s part of what will make this season so interesting. The appeal of simply watching Wembanyama is obvious, but hoop-heads are going to have a field day dissecting how the Spurs piece all of this together with complementary players, and now is the time to experiment before the countdown clock really starts ticking.
San Antonio was not good offensively last season, but Jones was a steadying force who was as important to its small stretches of team success as any other player on the roster. While he may not have the exact same responsibilities, Sochan will still have to pick up where Jones left off to ensure his scorers are getting the ball where they like it on a consistent basis. It’s one of those tasks that’s simple, but not easy.
“It’s something totally different than what he was used to last year, and there are going to be ups and downs, and there’s going to be a learning curve. But I think he’s doing a great job, and I think he’s making the right strides to handle those things,” Johnson said of Sochan. “We continue to encourage him and support him, and let him know it’s not easy being a point guard. That’s one of the hardest positions on the court. And that’s it — be there, support him, and have his back.”
Barring any last-minute development, the Spurs will have their full complement of players Wednesday against Houston, and with that a likely preview of the starting lineup. Regardless of whether he and his coaches believe he’s fully ready for the job, the ever-confident Sochan has never been afraid of being thrown into the fire. He wasn’t brought along slowly last season, so there’s no reason to switch gears now even if the journey is bumpy.
“It’s gonna be a process for sure,” Sochan said. “But I’ll get there.”
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