In the first nine games of the 2021-22 season, the San Antonio Spurs have only three wins. That said, given their difficult schedule, a slow start in the standings was expected. More importantly, the Spurs have seen a number of their players perform well and there are definite signs that there are better days ahead. Let’s take a look at player grades through nine games.
Good: With the departure of DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs needed Murray to step into a bigger role offensively — and he’s done just that. On a per minute basis, Murray’s scoring is up 9% and his assist rate is up a whopping 40%. Additionally, his shooting efficiency is up over last year and his assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 4-to-1.
After a few hiccups early in the season, Murray is getting better and better at running the team. His decision-making during pick-and-rolls sets and in transition is pristine. He has also become the team’s go-to scoring option in the fourth quarter.
Defensively, Murray has been really good. He’s applying consistent pressure without too many needless gambles. His defensive rebounding has also been a huge help on a team that spends a whole lot of time playing miniature lineups.
Bad: Murray’s clearly having the best season of his career so it’s difficult to be too negative about his play. That said, it appears as if we’re witnessing the upper limits of his ceiling. I’m not sure he can get much better — and, as it is, he’s clearly a tier or two below the All-Star level players who can carry his team to the playoffs.
San Antonio needs Murray to look to score in fourth quarters. The problem is his shooting efficiency is still below average and he very rarely gets to the free throw line. The truth is that Murray as a go-to player late in games is only a temporary fix until a more efficient player is ready to step into that role.
Overall: Murray is having a very good season. He’s maximizing his potential across the board and he’s playing like a wise veteran who simultaneously continues to learn and grow.
Good: Physically, this is the best I’ve seen White. Compared to last season, his movement is much improved. He looks like he’s five or ten pounds lighter and, after battling foot problems for a couple years, it no longer appears like he plays with pebbles in his shoes.
With White moving better than ever, his defense has been excellent. Both individually and help-wise, he’s consistently in the right spot. He’s also competing with force on that end on a possession to possession basis.
On the other end, White’s aggression level has usually been adequate. He has taken on some of the playmaking slack and is averaging a career-high in assists despite starting at shooting guard. He’s also limiting his turnovers and ill-advised shots.
Bad: White’s scoring rate isn’t where it needs to be. Compared to last season, it’s down nearly 19%. Without DeRozan around, the Spurs need White to score more — not take a backseat to inferior offensive players.
Most glaringly, the rate at which White shoots three-pointers has plummeted. While that’s somewhat understandable because the Spurs lost playmaking in the summer, White has to search out more opportunities to fire from deep.
While White starts at shooting guard, he’s been the primary backup point guard. That alignment hasn’t been fruitful, to put it kindly. With White running the show, the Spurs are having trouble scoring the basketball. Considering that he has outstanding court vision and is a capable scorer, there’s really no excuse for him to not be able to successfully run the offense for the reserves.
Overall: White’s season has been a mixed bag so far.
Good: Johnson has exhibited glimpses of immense offensive prowess. He no longer relies on kamikaze missions to the hoop. Instead, when the lane isn’t clear, he has unveiled an array of floaters and learners while utilizing expert footwork. Not only is Johnson scoring at a higher rate, he’s also getting to the line more and handing out more assists.
On defense, Johnson has spent the majority of his time at power forward — and he doesn’t look out of place. Yes, at 6-foot-5 he’s short for the position … but it seems to work well enough.
Bad: More often than not, Johnson can be found trying to do too much on the offensive end. As a result, his efficiency has cratered. His turnovers are up and his shooting percentages are down.
His biggest issue right now is he can’t hit three-pointers. For the season, he’s 3-for-21 from deep. To make matters worse, he’s consistently turning down open three-point opportunities. His free throw shooting has also tumbled to 65.7%. The hard truth is that Johnson just isn’t skilled enough as an offensive player to be effective without an outside jumper. Until his jumper returns, he’ll mostly be a liability on offense.
Defensively, Johnson is always willing to throw his body around. His decision-making can be questionable on that end, though. He needs to continue working on making quick switches and understanding where to be in scramble situations.
Overall: Johnson has had a lot of ups and downs already this season. Right now, the most important thing is for his three-point shooting stroke to return.
Good: Since the start of preseason, it’s been obvious that the Spurs have made it a priority to involve Poeltl in the offense. Thus far, the returns are highly favorable. His scoring rate is up nearly 44% and he’s averaging 13.9 points per game. Despite the increased workload, Poeltl is still shooting 64.8% from the floor — which could potentially mean the Austrian could shoulder an even bigger role.
In addition to scoring, Poeltl has become a key distributor. His ability to find cutters is valuable and helps to keep defenses honest.
Defensively, Poeltl has been especially impressive when it comes to defending the perimeter. The quickness of his feet is perhaps his best trait as a basketball player. He has also been reliable in terms of guarding the rim.
Bad: Offensively, Poeltl has been a revelation. Defensively, though, he has room to improve. His rate of defensive rebounds and blocked shots are down, while his foul rate is up.
While it’s admittedly a tiny sample size, the Spurs have been their worst defensively this season when Poeltl is on the court. That’s bound to change but it points to a larger issue: Poeltl isn’t nearly as effective defensively as a starter as he is as a reserve. That was the case last season (he had a 98.2 defensive rating off the bench and a 111.6 defensive rating as a starter) and it’s even more pronounced this season.
Overall: Poeltl has been very good but is he a long-term starter? That’s still a very legitimate question.
Good: McDermott is shooting north of 40% from three-point range so he’s doing his job on that front. His movement without the ball has been really helpful. Even when he’s not scoring, his unceasing movement opens up lanes for his teammates.
On defense, I think McDermott has been a little bit better than advertised. He tries hard, he’s physical in the paint and isn’t a total oaf when trying to move his feet out on the perimeter.
Bad: Offensively, McDermott is still trying to carve out his niche. He had 25 points and seven three-pointers in 32 minutes in the third game of the season. In the other 122 minutes he has played, has 33 points and a total four three-pointers. So, yeah, outside of that one outlier, McDermott hasn’t done much on offense.
Defensively, while McDermott can survive in most matchups, he’s still a player who can be exploited. When teams target him, they typically have success.
Overall: It’s understandable that the transition to San Antonio hasn’t been seamless for McDermott. There have been enough positive signs to be pleased with his progress to this point.
Good: I believe that the brightest spot this season so far has been Vassell’s play. While it’s not always pretty, it’s possible to make the argument that he has the highest ceiling both offensively and defensively on this team.
On offense, Vassell has a sneaky amount of potential that isn’t always clear to see. He can create for himself, he can find teammates, he makes good use of his athleticism and his high release point allows him to get his shot off in most situations.
On defense, Vassell is a wizard when it comes to reading what’s happening and offering timely help. His playing of passing lanes is continuously improving and he’s also becoming a rim protector. In one-on-one situations, he uses his length well without needlessly reaching.
Bad: As promising as Vassell is as a basketball player, his lack of grace and nimbleness as an athlete is worrisome. For example, he’s not someone who you can trust to dribble multiple times and then finish with any level of coordination. He has slick moves but he might always be someone who needs to operate in isolation. If that’s indeed the case, that would limit his upside.
Overall: Vassell looks like a starter in the making. As long as he continues to gain confidence and isn’t satisfied by a 3-and-D career, the sky’s the limit.
Lonnie Walker IV
Good: Walker has quietly taken a notable leap in the right direction. He’s shooting more three-pointers than ever. He has become a legit playmaker, as evidenced by him nearly doubling his assist rate. When the chips are down and the Spurs desperately need someone to create, he has been able to produce in those tough situations.
Walker is never going to be a great defender but he has been better this season so far. His focus is much improved and he’s more willing to get his hands dirty.
I agreed with the Spurs not giving Walker a contract extension but he’s played well enough so far this season for him to still be in the team’s plans going forward.
Bad: Walker has always been an inconsistent player and that hasn’t changed this season. It’s impossible to know what to expect from him. Sometimes he plays like the most lethal offensive weapon on the team and sometimes he blends into the background.
I think the ship is starting to sail on the idea that Walker is a long-term starter in the NBA. He can be a valuable player off the bench but I don’t think he’s a player you want playing more than 20 to 25 minutes a night.
Overall: Given his tantalizing skills and explosive athleticism, Walker will always be a player who leaves fans wanting more. But, hey, I think he’s doing well this season. As a playmaker who can space the court and create something out of nothing, he’s quite useful.
Good: Early in his career, Eubanks had bad hands and bad timing when going for blocked shots. Now, his hands aren’t a problem and he’s a really good shot blocker. He can be counted on to play hard, be physical in the paint and not back down from contact.
Eubanks is also showing a little bit of promise as a passer. We saw that in preseason and it has translated to the regular season.
Bad: All in all, I don’t think Eubanks has played to the level he’s capable of playing. At times last year, he was a highly productive player off the bench. This year? Eh, not so much. His production is down in many categories and he’s less efficient.
On both ends of the court, Eubanks struggles when it comes to processing speed. It doesn’t take much for him to get hopelessly lost during a possession.
Overall: Eubanks is still a work in progress as a basketball player. For his sake, let’s hope he regains his footing soon because he’s a few more underwhelming performances away from losing his spot in the rotation.
Good: In today’s NBA, Bates-Diop is a very useful cog. He’s tall, long, coordinated and has very good instincts on the defensive end. When he’s on the court, San Antonio’s defense always looks a lot better because he can plug just about any hole that develops. On the inside and outside, Bates-Diop is proving to be a really valuable defender.
Offensively, he’s unselfish and it’s obvious he knows how to play. He’s also improving in terms of not being bashful about trying to impact the game on that end.
Bad: While I already fully believe in Bates-Diop as a defender, whether he sticks in the league will depend on his offense. So far this season, there have been more negative returns than positive returns. In 117 minutes, he has one three-pointer and one assist. For a guy who spends most of his time out on the perimeter, that’s just not going to get it done.
Overall: Bates-Diop is a hugely helpful piece defensively but he has to figure things out offensively to keep his spot in the rotation.
Good: When McDermott was sidelined with a knee injury, Forbes stepped up and helped fill the void. The Spurs desperately needed shooting without McDermott and Forbes’ presence was beneficial.
And though it’s difficult to quantify, he seems to be someone the youngsters can look to for leadership.
Bad: Outside of that McDermott-less stretch, Forbes’ return to San Antonio has been ugly. His defense has been really bad. Offensively, even though he’s shooting 40% from three-point territory, his usefulness is limited because he’s a reluctant passer without much court vision.
Overall: The Spurs have been really bad offensively and defensively when Forbes is on the court. It’s a small sample size … but it also wouldn’t be surprising if that remains the case for the rest of the season.
Good: Young is like that old guy at the gym who just knows how to play the game. He knows how to use angles and body positioning to finish at the rim. He has also mastered shooting on the way up to catch defenders off guard.
Young’s passing has been excellent. As he plays more minutes, he’s getting better and better at finding open teammates.
Even though he’s playing exclusively at center, Young has done reasonably well on the defensive end. He has racked up steals and blocks in bunches and can be counted on to box out.
Bad: Young’s fit on the offensive end isn’t a natural one. He’s not shooting three-pointers, so he doesn’t spread the court. When he has the ball away from the hoop, he’s almost always looking to pass — and defenses fully understand that.
It became obvious in the preseason that he’s not really capable of defending power forwards any longer. The 33-year-old is 6-foot-8 so he’s a bit short for the center position — and that can become painfully obvious at times.
Overall: After being forgotten about in preseason and early in the regular season, the coaching staff is beginning to figure out how to best use Young.
Good: Jones is a natural born point guard. He knows how, when and where to pass the basketball. The offense always seems to run better when he’s on the court. He’s also showing that he can score with either hand in the lane.
Defensively, he pressures the ball and rotates reasonably well.
Bad: Jones has trouble finishing amongst the trees at the rim and he is a very reluctant three-point shooter. Even if his man completely backs away while he’s dribbling, he just won’t shoot threes … and that’s a problem. Jones has to start shooting if he’s going to make it.
Overall: Jones is showing flashes but he needs to do more if he’s going to win a larger role on this team.
Good: Landale isn’t afraid to dunk the ball or shoot threes. That’s a good start.
Bad: He’s the fourth center right now and will probably become the fifth center when Zach Collins returns.
Overall: Landale looked pretty good in garbage minutes but it doesn’t look like real minutes will be coming his way anytime soon.
Good: Primo shined in preseason, looked good in garbage time and got off on the right foot in the G League.
Bad: His stint in the G League will probably not be a short one.
Overall: Will Primo play any important minutes in San Antonio this season? We can hope … but probably not.
Good: I’ve agreed with Pop’s starting lineups. He’s leaning heavily on Vassell, both in terms of minutes and drawing plays for him, which is awesome. Walker has also been kept in the mix, even when coming off the bench. Playing Young at center is probably the right call. Limiting Forbes’ minutes wasn’t something I was sure Pop was capable of … but so far, so good in that regard.
Bad: There have been occasions when Pop has been slow to counter adjustments by the opposition. Being quicker to take out bad defenders or add more size to his lineups could have possibly resulted in another win.
Overall: I’m really pleased with Pop’s coaching so far this season. He is successfully tiptoeing the line between trying to win ballgames and trying to develop his young talent.
Good: The Spurs have the 19th ranked offense in the league. That doesn’t sound great but they had the 19th ranked offense last season. Losing DeRozan, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay and not losing any ground on the offensive end? That’s impressive.
Bad: The Spurs are 29th in three-pointers attempted and 28th in free throws attempted. That’s not a winning combination. Unless the Spurs improve in one of those two areas, it’d be close to mathematically impossible to finish with a top 20 offense.
Good: The Spurs have the 11th ranked defense. That’s an improvement over last season’s defense that ranked 17th. To put it simply, their success has been due to causing turnovers while also keeping opponents off of the free throw line.
Bad: Under Pop, the Spurs have never been a team that has relied on forcing turnovers to survive on defense. We’ll see if that’s a reliable long-term strategy.
The Spurs have weathered a difficult early season schedule. A 3-6 record doesn’t sound great but San Antonio has to be pleased with their play. If they keep playing the way they’re playing, they should be able to stay within earshot of .500.