21 Thoughts as the San Antonio Spurs Embark on the 2021-22 Season

The San Antonio Spurs will begin the regular season tomorrow against the Orlando Magic in the AT&T Center. San Antonio finished the preseason with a 3-2 record. What should Spurs fans expect when the games start to count? Here’s a rundown of how I see things.

1) I feel good about Dejounte Murray heading into this season. Last year, he made notable strides as a playmaker. His turnovers were down, his assists were up, and his knowledge and understanding of how to run an NBA offense improved profoundly. His orchestrating can still get better but last season’s jump is a good sign that he’s trending in the right direction.

With DeMar DeRozan gone, it looks like Murray is in line to be the number one option — and I think that’s the right move. He’s at his best when he’s attacking and Murray putting early pressure on the defense will be the easiest way to create space for the three-point shooters. It’s also the simplest way to keep the pace accelerated, which the Spurs will need to do if they hope to field an even halfway decent offensive attack.

What I’ll be focused on this season with regard to Murray is whether he can improve his scoring efficiency. His true shooting percentage last year was 50.9%. To become an All-Star level player, he needs to get that number closer to league average (last year, league average was 57.2%). I think he could average 20 points per game as the first option but that won’t translate to wins unless his efficiency improves.

2) This is an important season for Derrick White. He’s 27 years old so the time is now to put it all together and produce in his athletic prime. Last season, he seemingly never found a rhythm — mostly due to injuries. If the Spurs are going to make a surprise push for the playoffs, it’ll be because both Murray and White are living up to their potential.

Of anyone on the roster, White is the player most capable of being a positive difference-maker. He’s already shown that he’s able to score with above average efficiency. His passing and court vision are both strengths. His feel on defense is elite; he’s almost always in the right position. He has enough athleticism and length to compete against practically anyone in the league.

As has always been the case with White, it’s all about confidence. He needs to shoot early and often. He nearly doubled his rate of shooting three-pointers last season and, if he remains confident in his shot, he should shoot even more this season. He needs to believe in himself as a playmaker and trust his instincts on defense. White has all the tools to be the most impactful player on the team. Let’s hope everything clicks this season and he reaches his potential.

3) It’s still difficult to predict what Keldon Johnson‘s ultimate ceiling will be once he reaches his peak as a basketball player. I could see him being the best player on a winning team. Then again, his ceiling could be as an energy player who plays a complementary role.

Johnson played well last season. As a 6-foot-5, 21-year-old who spent a lot of time at power forward, he performed better than could have reasonably been expected. This season, I believe a key for Johnson is to keep it simple. He’s still young and he’s still progressing. Despite owning a gold medal that spends its days glistening in the San Antonio sun, he doesn’t need to try to do too much.

Offensively, Johnson must shoot more three-pointers. When he’s open, he has to let it fly. When he decides to drive into the lane, he needs to do so with patience. The league has adjusted to his big-bodied drives and the opposition knows to brace for impact. Now Johnson needs to finish with craft, learn to draw fouls and be a willing passer.

Defensively, it looks like Johnson will be asked to do a little bit of everything. When defending power forwards, he has to continue to learn how to use his muscular frame to compensate for his lack of height. When out on the perimeter, he needs to do a better job of moving his feet and cutting off driving lanes. 

Overall, this will be a fascinating year for Johnson. I just hope he takes it slow and doesn’t try to do too much too soon. 

4) Jakob Poeltl enters a season as an unquestioned starter for the first time in his career. Unless something goes wrong, he should start the entire 2021-22 campaign. 

Judging by preseason play, it looks like the Spurs will try to get Poeltl more involved on offense. I wouldn’t expect a huge offensive spike in production but I’d be surprised if he’s not a lot more involved. Poeltl averaging double-figures this season is doable and I also expect his assist rate to climb. 

Advanced statistics view Poeltl as an elite defensive player. The eye-test sees Poeltl as an elite defensive player who can protect the rim but also defend out on the perimeter as well as any center in the league. I expect the coaching staff to play him as many minutes as possible because his defense is one of the strongest individual attributes on this roster. 

Speaking of his advanced stats, it’ll be interesting to see how those numbers grade Poeltl this season. Last year, his advanced stats were spectacular early in the season when he was coming off the bench but became more pedestrian once he was a full-time starter. By the end of this forthcoming campaign, we’ll have a better idea of if Poeltl is truly one of the four or five best defenders in the league.

5) I wasn’t overjoyed with the signing of Doug McDermott in the offseason but it makes more sense after seeing how the Spurs used him in the preseason. Giving a three-year, $42 million contract to a 29-year-old who grades out poorly on defense according to advanced stats was tough to digest — but I’m okay with it now.

The Spurs apparently see Johnson as a long-term power forward. For that to work, they need to pair him with a sweet shooting small forward with enough size and bulk to aid in banging down low. Enter McDermott. He’s 6-foot-7, 225 pounds and fits the bill as a shooter.

For the starting lineup to survive, they needed a marksman. McDermott looks like a natural fit because he moves so well without the ball that he doesn’t necessarily need plays to be run for him. Instead, the Spurs will look to push the pace and take the first open look — most preferably an open McDermott three-pointer.

McDermott will need to answer two questions this season. First, can he be efficient and effective offensively even though the Spurs as a team are lacking when it comes to playmakers and passers? Second, can he improve defensively? He doesn’t have to be elite or even average on defense but the Spurs need him to be at least better than DeRozan was on that end. That’s a low bar — but it’s not a guarantee that McDermott can clear it.

6) While I agreed with the Spurs not giving Lonnie Walker IV an extension, I’m still hopeful that this will go down as his breakout season. He has every tool you could want — from athleticism to shooting to a team-first attitude — but he’s still trying to learn how to translate those tools into reliable production on the court. 

Walker’s possible outcomes are even wider than Johnson’s. I wouldn’t be stunned if Walker ends up leading this team in scoring. But I also wouldn’t be stunned if he’s completely out of the rotation by Christmas. 

Walker needs to make big jumps on offense and defense. He has it in him. This is the season he needs to show it. 

7) It’s early in his career but second-year swingman Devin Vassell is another player who is entering a turning point season. He has a sneaky amount of latent upside. In fact, at this point it’s still possible to imagine outcomes where he becomes a star player. 

As a rookie, Vassell played a 3-and-D role. I was really impressed with his defense, especially early in the season before he hit the rookie wall. He clearly has the wherewithal to become the best defender on the team. Offensively, his potential wasn’t as obvious but there were enough hints of specialness that his possibilities on that end continue to intrigue. 

I hope the coaching staff gives Vassell a long leash on offense. It looks like he can create off the dribble if given a chance. It also appears as if he has pick-and-roll potential. It’d be a shame to lock him into a 3-and-D box before at least exploring what else he can and can’t do. By the end of the season, we’ll have a much clearer read regarding Vassell’s future.

8) To the casual observer, the Spurs signing Bryn Forbes to a one-year, $4.5 million contract may look like a steal. Admittedly, he is a potent offensive weapon. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to state that pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch and touch-for-touch, Forbes is the best scorer on the team. 

However, there were two reasons why I was against bringing Forbes back into the fold. Primarily, my problem with him is on the defensive end. The last time he was in San Antonio, advanced stats graded him as one of the five worst defenders in the league. I thought his defense would improve going to the Milwaukee Bucks because they’d be better able to hide him and cover his shortcomings. But, instead, last season he graded out as the worst defender in the entire league. The absolute worst. With him on the court, the Bucks — the team that won the championship, mind you — were barely able to tread water. 

By every measure, Forbes is a historically bad defender. That, too, isn’t hyperbolic. During the Bucks’ championship run, Milwaukee gave up an eye-popping 11 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. And that’s when he was surrounded by multiple elite defenders who allowed him to guard the weakest player on the court. So, yeah, the 28-year-old is a lost cause defensively. 

The other reason I didn’t want Forbes to be re-signed is it clogged a guard rotation that already had more than enough players that needed minutes. Even without Forbes, it was going to be difficult to give Murray, White, Walker and Vassell enough minutes — and that’s before accounting for up-and-comers like Joshua Primo and Tre Jones. 

Going forward, what’s the best way to use Forbes? Using him as a hired gun for 16 to 18 minutes off the bench could alleviate some offensive stress on the rest of the reserve unit. Forbes is going to leak points on defense, that’s a given, but he could potentially help the youngsters thrive on the other end by spacing the court and absorbing some of the pressure.

To help reduce the guard glut, the coaching staff played Walker at small forward and Vassell at power forward in preseason to make room for Forbes at shooting guard. That’d be suboptimal long-term but it’s an acceptable solution in the here and now.

If Forbes is kept in a specialized role off the bench and his minutes don’t come at the expense of other guards with more upside, I won’t have many complaints. But if things devolve into what we saw the last time he was in San Antonio, that’d be an utter waste of time.

9) The Spurs caused many a head to be scratched (including yours truly) by drafting Joshua Primo 12th overall even though he was expected to be selected at the end of the first round or the beginning of the second round. Primo quieted some of the doubters by playing well in summer league. Then he played even better in preseason. Now the only doubt left in the mind of the average Spurs fan is which year specifically will it be that he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame.

What can be expected of Primo this season? Austin. A lot of Austin. As much as I’d love to see him play with the big boys this season, I begrudgingly agree with giving him a lot of time in the G League. Even though he has shown a lot of promise since the draft, the 18-year-old is the youngest player in the league, had a bit role in his one season at Alabama and only played sporadically in high school because he attended five different schools. Primo really just needs to play as much basketball as possible right now.

In the G League, Primo can play point guard and work on some of his weaknesses. He’s not a good ball-handler yet, so that’s an area where he can actively improve in Austin. He has expansive court vision but he could use reps as a passer and facilitator. 

But, big picture, it’s justifiable to be excited by Primo. He looks like a player. He’s 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6 yet he moves like someone who is 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2. He’s ultra coordinated, his jumper looks smooth, he understands the game at a high level already and plays with the self-assuredness of someone far older. Hopefully Primo plays so well in G League that the Spurs are forced to call him up and give him minutes in the second half of the season.

10) Tre Jones missed all of training camp and preseason with an ankle injury. That was unfortunate timing because he was really good in summer league. If Jones had been healthy, he could have made a push to earn a spot in the rotation right out of the gates. 

Jones will still be heard from this season but that process could take some time. Then again, he’s the purest point guard on the roster. In summer league, he looked ready to play a steady 15-minute role off the bench.

Whether Jones will make it in the NBA will largely depend on if he can shoot it straight. He can defend, make plays, score at the rim and plays a smart brand of basketball. If he adds anything close to a league average three-point shot, he’ll be in the NBA for at least a decade. That’s how complete of a prospect he is outside of his shaky jumper.

11) The Spurs have only one player older than 30. His name is Thaddeus Young and he’s 33 years old. While Spurs fans might not be familiar with him, there’s a legitimate argument that he’s the best player on the team right this second.

Last season with the Chicago Bulls, he averaged 12.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists in only 24.3 minutes per game, while hitting 55.9% of his shots from the field. He was one of the best, if not the best, bench bigs in the association last year.

In the preseason, the coaching staff had an interesting strategy when it came to integrating Young into their schemes: They ignored his existence. Young got a pair of DNP-CDs and even when he did play, no plays were run for him and he hardly touched the ball. 

Now, maybe the coaches were saving a veteran for the games that count. Maybe we’ll see their true plans for him once the regular season begins. But, conversely, it’s also possible that Young is on the outside of the rotation and will remain there until the Spurs either trade him or buyout his contract. I don’t know what to expect — but it’s why I contend that the best move is to trade Young as soon as possible before his value evaporates. 

12) While it’s possible that Young will be the backup center when the regular season tips off, it looks more likely that Drew Eubanks will have that gig. Eubanks produced at a high clip in the preseason and there are reasons to be optimistic about his development. It looks like he has the green light to shoot three-pointers and his awareness on offense was better than ever. For example, Eubanks assist rate in preseason was more than triple his assist rate from last season.

With Eubanks, whether he’s able to produce isn’t in question anymore. He can stuff a stat sheet more than adequately for a backup center. What Eubanks has to prove is that he has enough feel and a high enough basketball IQ to positively impact the proceedings. His defense needs to be more timely. On offense, he has to show that he understands what the team is trying to do at all times. His drastic improvement in his assist rate in the preseason is a good sign that he’s making progress in that regard.

13) Even though Jock Landale missed a big chunk of preseason after suffering a concussion, I liked what I saw. He’s a smart center who can shoot and pass. He’s a below average athlete but he’s tough and skilled.

You can think of Landale as the opposite of Eubanks. Eubanks is a really good athlete but his knowledge of the game is limited. Landale knows how to play but could run into some physical limitations. That said, between Landale and Eubanks, I’m confident that at least one of the two will emerge as a stout backup center.

14) As much as I disliked the re-signing of Forbes, at least it was somewhat understandable because this team desperately needs shootings. The signing of Zach Collins to a three-year, $22 million contract still has me perplexed. Sure, only about half that already modest contract is guaranteed … but, like, why sign him?

Back before the same bone in his foot broke multiple times, Collins was never that good for the Portland Trail Blazers. At his best, he was a somewhat helpful fifth option whose mobility and decent perimeter skills allowed him to stay on the floor. But … outside of a few games here and there, Collins was never anything to write home about on either end. He shot well in college but that hasn’t translated to the pros. His defense was pretty good but nowhere near elite.

The only way the Collins signing makes sense is if the Spurs see him as a possible replacement for Poeltl. The front office has talked about wanting all their players to be able to dribble, shoot and pass. Poeltl is never going to fit that bill. Collins, if he heals from his latest surgery, has a chance to be the multi-talented center the front office is envisioning will be a necessity down the road.

Even looking at the Collins signing in that light, I still don’t love it. But hopefully I’m wrong and when Collins suits up (at some point after Christmas), he shows why the Spurs decided to invest in yet another center.

15) You have to be happy for Keita Bates-Diop. He played so well that the Spurs cut three players with larger guaranteed contracts (Al-Farouq Aminu, Luka Samanic and Chandler Hutchinson) to carve out a spot for him on the roster.

Bates-Diop is never going to be a star but he can be one of those connective tissue players who makes life easier for everyone around him. He can defend multiple decisions. He can dribble and pass well for his size. The coaches have been on him to be more aggressive on offense and he appears to be listening. 

If Bates-Diop can become a trustworthy three-point shooter, he could become a rotation player. As it is, he has value as a deep bench reserve who can provide steady minutes when called upon.

16) After a lot of struggles, Joe Wieskamp ended his preseason action on a high note. He’s going to play the entire season in Austin and we’ll see if he’s a worthwhile project at the end of the G League campaign. If all goes perfect for him, he could be a McDermott replacement in a few years. If he falls flat on his face, San Antonio may decide not to offer him a second two-way contract.

17) The Spurs opted to hand Devontae Cacok their other two-way contract. Cacok is a 6-foot-8 big man who’s a rebounding expert. He’s burly and hustles nonstop. In the G League, he’ll be one of the most effective bigs from Day 1. But since he’s not a shooter and doesn’t block shots, I don’t see how he’d make it in the NBA. Undersized hustle bigs are a dying breed. 

18) If the Spurs perform better than expected, I expect Pop to get a lot of the credit — and rightfully so. He has his hands full because making the playoffs in the NBA without a verified star is practically impossible. But I’m excited to see what Pop will do. He’s been handcuffed in recent years because he’s had egos that needed to be managed. With this team, there shouldn’t be any egos that are allowed to get in the way.

19) Defensively, I think the Spurs can be better than they were last season. It’s maybe even possible for Pop to carve a top ten defense out of this roster. However, for that to happen, players like Walker and Johnson will need to make notable strides. Also, McDermott and Forbes would need to play a reasonable amount of minutes, while Poeltl and Vassell would need to be given extended minutes.

20) On offense, being league average would be a big win for this group. For that to happen, at least a couple players would need to take a giant leap forward on that end. Candidates who may be up to the task include Murray, White, Johnson and Walker, with Vassell the dark horse.

21) Vegas has the Spurs winning 28.5 games this season. I’m more optimistic than that. There will be growing pains, undoubtedly, but there is enough talent and enough youthful vigor to squeeze out more wins than what pundits anticipate. I’ll predict 38 wins and the Spurs staying within earshot of the playoffs for a majority of the season.