Spurs Q&A: A Further Look at San Antonio’s 2020 NBA Draft Decisions

Yesterday, the San Antonio Spurs added to their squad by selecting Devin Vassell and Tre Jones in the 2020 NBA Draft. While neither selection was much of a surprise, it was an interesting night for Spurs fans. Despite trade rumors swirling, San Antonio decided to stand pat and pick a pair of well-known prospects. 

Why in the world did the Spurs draft two guards? They have plenty of guards and giant holes in their frontcourt.

First of all, it’s obvious that San Antonio’s focus was on picking the best player available. They didn’t go out and draft guards in order to fill a perceived hole in the roster. This was a guard-heavy draft and due to a prioritization on value, the result was a pair of guards getting chosen.

Secondly, the Spurs don’t have any foundational pieces to build around at this point. While they have some promising players, there’s no one who can yet be described as a cornerstone. Thus, the best way forward is to just keep gathering as much talent as possible. It’d be unwise to pick with a specific position in mind because San Antonio’s roster is basically a blank slate until hopefully a player or two emerges. 

Finally, I wouldn’t classify Vassell as strictly a guard. He has the size to play the 2 or the 3 in today’s league. Vassell didn’t get officially measured prior to the draft but he’s likely 6-foot-6-ish, somewhere between 190 and 200 pounds, and has a wingspan in the neighborhood of 6-foot-10. If he bulks up a bit, there’s no reason why he can’t be a versatile wing that can play where he’s needed.

Didn’t the Spurs make a mistake by not swinging for the fences? They need a franchise player, not a pair of role players.

In a way, this is a fair complaint. You could make the argument that the Spurs should have gone for the highest upside players when it came their turn to draft. There are teams in the league that view the draft as a chance to take a swing at landing a potential superstar. The Spurs have never been such a team and Vassell isn’t a player you’d pick if you’re hoping to miraculously land a generational talent.

That said, part of the appeal of Vassell is he has more potential than first meets the eye. He looks like he’ll be a great team-defender, an above average individual defender and hopefully at least an average three-point shooter. But he exhibited enough multidimensional skills on offense as a sophomore at Florida State that there’s a chance that he’s more than a catch-and-shoot defensive specialist.

If Vassell keeps improving at shooting pull-up jumpers off the dribble and is given a longer leash to create for himself and others, there’s a chance that he could become a well-rounded offensive weapon. There were enough flashes of this at FSU to believe it’s possible. If that happens and he blossoms offensively, and his defense is as good as advertised, the Spurs would have a very good starter on their hands. In such a scenario, Vassell would undoubtedly be one of the best four or five players in his draft class.

Vassell is a much different prospect than a player like Saddiq Bey or Aaron Nesmith. Bey and Nesmith may be even safer picks than Vassell because their skills are extremely likely to translate. Bey will use his size well, defend with gusto, hit open shots and stick to his role. Nesmith will be a sniper who will be very good at utilizing screens. But if you’re judging Vassell, Bey and Nesmith by their hypothetical peak value, Vassell is the one who has the highest ceiling.

But what about Tre Jones, then? Even you said he’ll never be more than a backup point guard.

That’s true. Jones is much more difficult to paint as anything more than just a super safe second round pick. If the Spurs wanted to draft for upside, Jones wouldn’t have even been in the conversation. He’s destined to be a backup point guard in the NBA.

But, again, getting what appears to be a surefire NBA player in the second round is valuable. Even if he turns out to be something between Jacque Vaughn and Cory Joseph, that’d be a big win considering how few second rounders ever amount to anything.

An optimist wouldn’t totally give up on Jones having untapped potential. There are a few reasons to believe that he’ll be better than expected.

A) Jones almost declared for the 2019 NBA Draft following his freshman season at Duke. If he would have stayed in, many scouts believed he would have gone in the first round. Instead, he stayed for his sophomore season and Duke understandably had ups and downs after losing Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft. Without those three lottery picks, opponents could focus more on Jones and he couldn’t always handle the extra load.

However, in the NBA, with more talent around him, Jones can return to the complementary role that made him a prospect that was worthy of a first round pick. He’s never going to be a star, so it’s not a surprise that he stumbled when too much was put on his plate.

B) One of the biggest knocks against Jones is his athleticism. He just never looked that athletic at Duke. He was a good enough athlete to be a mean defender in college but it always appeared that he’d be a sub par athlete in the NBA. 

But there’s a chance that Jones is a better athlete than what was seen at Duke. Prior to both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Jones had corrective hip surgeries that didn’t allow him to workout much in the offseason. Leading up to the draft, he was finally able to build up his body and work on his conditioning. And though Jones didn’t participate in the combine (so no concrete figures), there are reports that he greatly improved his speed and jumping ability since the end of the college season. 

Jones’ jumper is another area of worry but, with a chance to concentrate on working on his mechanics in an offseason for the first time since high school, he supposedly has shot the ball really well in private workouts.

C) You always have to take what college coaches say with a grain of salt. They are incentivized to paint the rosiest possible picture of their players headed to the NBA. But Coach K really, really speaks highly of Jones. He loves everything about him — from his playmaking to his leadership.

Typically, such talk from a college coach in the media should go in one ear and out the other when judging a draft prospect. However, Coach K is one of the few coaches who doesn’t always blow smoke. For an extremely pertinent example, 20 years ago, the Spurs used, ironically enough, the 41st overall selection in the 2000 NBA Draft to select Chris Carrawell out of Duke. At the time, I was thrilled because Carrawell was projected to be a first round pick — with talk of him even going in the lottery. 

After the Spurs drafted Carrawell, I remember trudging along via dial-up internet to find what Coach K thought about Carrawell and his future in the NBA. To paraphrase the quote I read two decades ago, Coach K said he thought Carrawell had a chance to be a journeyman. A chance. To be a journeyman. Not exactly a glowing recommendation.

Where’s Carrawell these days? He’s an assistant coach for Duke whose main task has been to aid in the development of Tre Jones. A full circle, of sorts. 

All told, even at a high-end outcome that sees Jones improve as an athlete, become a better shooter and live up to Coach K’s expectations, I still think Jones is a backup point guard. But if the Spurs can get an elite backup point guard with a second round pick, that’d be great value.

Won’t Devin Vassell and Tre Jones spend most of the year in the G League?

Will there even be a G League this season? That’s unclear. It appears as if the NBA is trying to piece together some sort of an arrangement to allow G League teams to play some games but the planning is, understandably, on the back burner for now. 

In the pre-pandemic NBA, it’s safe to say Vassell and Jones would have been stalwarts in Austin. Vassell may have been able to graduate early depending on the circumstances in San Antonio and his play in the G League, but Jones would have surely played the vast majority of his rookie season in Austin. 

Now, it’s difficult to say what will happen. But, perhaps by design, Vassell and Jones are both uniquely prepared to play in the NBA sooner than most rookies the Spurs draft. Both players are low-foul, low-turnover, high basketball IQ, defense-first types that shouldn’t have too much of an issue adjusting to the NBA, at least compared to just about every other type of rookie.

(How much did the front office factor in the NBA readiness of Vassell and Jones? It’s tough to say but in this current environment of no summer league and possibly no G League, drafting players who will be able to stay above water without those safety nets had to be considered, right?)

If Vassell is as good as you say, why did it take the Spurs so long to draft him? I was watching the draft and it seemed like it took a minute or two of overtime before the NBA got word of San Antonio’s selection.

I’ve heard that there were two teams desperately trying to trade up for Tyrese Haliburton. The Spurs, who were locked in on Vassell, attempted to extort quite a bit from those two teams looking to move up. After their demands were turned down, San Antonio happily went with Vassell. If what I heard is to be believed, the Spurs wanted Vassell enough that it would have taken quite an overpay for them to move off the pick. 

Speaking of which, what do you think of Brian Wright’s first draft as general manager?

Pleasantly surprised. It’s safe to say that even though Wright is now in the GM seat, the Spurs are still as crafty and CIA-like as ever. Other front offices were absolutely convinced that Saddiq Bey was the player the Spurs were targeting. Add in some late panicking by rivals about potential Spurs interest in Desmond Bane and Theo Maledon and the Spurs were very successful at hiding their interest for Vassell.

I was told that Spurs worked out Vassell prior to the draft and then instructed him to tell no one about the workout. If other teams or the media asked, deny the workout ever happened. This tweet seems to back up that version of events:

Going into the draft, I was worried that the Spurs were suddenly running a leaky operation and that other teams knew exactly what San Antonio was up to. That, thankfully, turned out to be false. Well done, for now, Brian Wright.