Joshua Primo’s Rookie Season: The Good, the Bad and the Future

The San Antonio Spurs shocked the basketball-playing universe when the franchise selected Joshua Primo with the 12th overall pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. The Canadian guard by way of the University of Alabama was expected to be a late first round pick or even a second round selection — not a lottery pick. 

Considering Primo was the youngest player in the NBA during his rookie season, it was expected that he’d play most of the season in the G-League. However, while he suited up for 19 contests with the Austin Spurs, Primo ended up playing 50 games in San Antonio and even started 16 times for the Spurs.

At the end of his rookie season, there remain more questions than answers, as Primo’s counting stats in the NBA weren’t especially notable. He finished with averages of 5.8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 19.3 minutes per game, while shooting 37.4% from the field, 30.7% from three-point range and 74.6% from the free throw line.

Was Primo’s rookie season a success? What can Spurs fans expect from him going forward? Let’s dive in.

The Good from Joshua Primo’s Rookie Season

Individuals within the Spurs organization were very impressed with how Primo carried himself during his rookie campaign. All accounts are that Primo played with an extreme amount of confidence since Day 1.  He drew rave reviews for maturity on and off the court and for his advanced feel for the game.

A Spurs staffer had an interesting way of describing the rookie’s confidence: “Primo acts like he has seen this movie before and he knows how it ends. He knows he will be great and that he just needs to take the steps one at a time on his way to becoming a star.”

On the court, Primo’s confidence was most apparent by the unusual amount of poise he played with as a teenager. Even when he made mistakes and the missed shots mounted, he rarely showed signs of being flustered. 

Shifting from intangibles to his tangible skills, Primo’s most obvious strength is his three-point shooting. He gets very good elevation on his jumper and his form is pristine. Furthermore, he’s capable of shooting three-pointers on the move and off the dribble. Primo has all the markings as a modern day three-point sniper who can shoot threes accurately and at a high volume.

At Alabama, Primo had only 25 assists in 30 games and finished with nearly twice as many turnovers. After the Spurs drafted him, one of the team’s main goals with him was unlocking what they believed were latent passing and playmaking abilities. As it turns out, it appears like the Spurs were right. Primo’s passing was much better as a rookie than his Alabama numbers foretold. 

In the G-League, Primo averaged 5.5 assists in 30.7 minutes per game. He shifted from playing off the ball at Alabama to playing point guard in Austin and the results were as positive as could have been reasonably expected. 

In San Antonio, Primo primarily played off the ball but his passing and playmaking still impressed. He averaged 3.0 assists per 36 minutes, which — to put that number into perspective — was significantly higher than the rates posted by Devin Vassell (2.5), Keldon Johnson (2.4), Bryn Forbes (2.2) and Doug McDermott (1.9). 

Defensively, it wasn’t a surprise that the youngest player in the league struggled coming out of the gates, but Primo improved rapidly at that end of the court as the season went along. From the beginning, his rotations were crisp and he could reliably be found in the right spot a majority of the time. As his rookie season progressed, it looked like he got stronger and that allowed him to better hold his ground.

As long as he keeps getting stronger, I think Primo is going to be a plus defender. He has reasonably quick feet, his advanced feel should allow him to be an excellent team defender, and he’s already sturdy for a player who’s officially listed at 6-foot-4 and 189 pounds.

Statistically, there’s evidence of Primo’s burgeoning defensive chops. He averaged 0.9 blocks per 36 minutes, the best mark of any perimeter player in San Antonio this side of Derrick White. In the G-League, he blocked shots even more frequently. Primo stocks (steals plus blocks) rate of 2.84 per 36 minutes in Austin would have ranked second in San Antonio behind Jakob Poeltl.

The Bad from Joshua Primo’s Rookie Season

Even after Primo played more than expected as a rookie, a scout for a team in the Western Conference still wasn’t convinced that he was a wise selection as a lottery pick.

“I just don’t see how Primo is going to score enough to justify a major role in the NBA,” he told me.

That’s not an unfair concern after Primo’s rookie season. He averaged a team-low 10.7 points per 36 minutes, quite a bit less than the second most infrequent scorer (Keita Bates-Diop, 12.6). 

The biggest red flag in Primo’s scoring profile is his low two-point shooting percentage combined with his low free throw rate. Primo hit just 44.4% of his two-pointers as a rookie and got to the line only 2.2 times per 36 minutes. In the G-League, he posted similar numbers: 43.4% two-point percentage and 2.4 free throw attempts per 36 minutes.

The average two-point percentage in the NBA this season was 53.3%. Primo, if he would have had enough shots to qualify, would have been in the bottom ten in the league in that category. His free throw rate would have been in the lower third of the league.

It goes without saying that Primo needs to improve both of these areas, particularly his two-point percentage. Considering he hit 61.1% of his attempts within three feet of the rim, the most obvious path to improvement would be to drive the ball to the hoop more often and shoot less often from the midrange.

When watching his Alabama tape, I wasn’t wowed by Primo’s athleticism. He appeared to be a decent athlete but far from special one. As a rookie, I thought Primo looked more athletic than he did in college. He ran faster and jumped higher than advertised — but I still wouldn’t classify him as better than an average NBA athlete for his size.

That average athleticism could complicate the hopes of Primo becoming a competent finisher at the NBA level. That said, he’s young enough that his body could fill out a lot more and he could take another step or two athletically.

While his three-point shot appears to be a strength he can build his offensive repertoire upon, Primo’s accuracy as a rookie was inconsistent. He hit 38.1% of his threes at Alabama but only 30.7% in San Antonio and 35.7% in Austin. NBA-wide, the average three-point percentage was 35.4% this season, so the goal would be for Primo to at least return to that college accuracy.

In terms of the quantity of three-pointers attempted, Primo still has plenty of room to improve. He shot 5.1 threes per 36 minutes, which put him between Keldon Johnson and Dejounte Murray. To max out his potential as a shooter, that number needs to rise to at least around 7.5 to 8.0.

Finding a long-term position for Primo is also a question mark. While he’s a much better playmaker than anticipated, it’s unclear if his future is as a full-time point guard. He averaged 5.5 assists in the G-League playing point guard but he also averaged 4.3 turnovers. He has an impressive amount of court vision but his ball-handling is highly questionable as a lead guard. Primo also has a bad habit of telegraphing one-handed passes when he’s the primary ball-handler.

If Primo isn’t a point guard and his official height remains at 6-foot-4, that limits his utility. Head coach Gregg Popovich basically utilized him as a miniature small forward for a lot of his rookie season — but that’s not a sustainable long-term solution. The clearest path to success is for Primo to drastically improve his scoring rate so that he can be deployed as a multifaceted shooting guard who can handle secondary playmaking duties. 

What the Future Holds for Joshua Primo

I believe Primo’s rookie season should be considered a success. He exhibited growth as an all-around talent, got better as the year progressed and didn’t look out of place even though he was the youngest player in the league.

Going forward, Primo’s youth will remain a source of hope for a while longer. Currently 19.3 years old, Primo is younger than seven of the top ten players on Tankathon’s Big Board for the 2022 NBA Draft and six of the top ten players on my Big Board 1.0, including top prospects Paolo Banchero (19.4), Chet Holmgren (19.9) and Jaden Ivey (20.2). 

A lot of Primo’s issues as a rookie could be explained as simply being a product of his youthfulness. It makes sense that he could become an improved finisher and better able to get to the free throw line as he physically matures. Experience playing with the ball in his hands more often should only aid the development of his ball-handling and decision-making, especially because he did so little of that at Alabama.

The next time we’ll see Primo will likely be during Summer League. If the Spurs don’t draft a point guard and Tre Jones graduates from Summer League play, Primo is in line to be the team’s full-time point guard. That should help speed up his development and give the Spurs a glimpse of what should be expected in his second year in the league.

So, was Joshua Primo a good pick by the Spurs in the lottery? Clearly, the jury is still out. There’s a chance that his development flatlines and he becomes a minimally efficient combo guard who tries to stay in the league by limiting his mistakes, playing smart defense and shooting three-pointers in bunches.

However, there’s also a chance that the movie indeed ends with Primo becoming a star player. If he continues to improve as rapidly as he did from his one year in college to his first year in the pros, Primo could become something special. This isn’t the likeliest of outcomes for Primo — but I wouldn’t bet against him.