The front office and everyone else associated with the San Antonio Spurs continues to celebrate the NBA draft lottery win that will eventually land Victor Wembanyama in South Texas. The Spurs have been planning for the French phenom for a long while — and, for the third time, lottery luck has granted a generational big man to the Spurs franchise.
I recently spoke with a Spurs source to try to get an idea of how the front office plans to build around Wembanyama.
“[Drafting Wembanyama] will impact roster decisions,” the source explained, “but patience and deliberate corporate growth will remain the operative theme. That doesn’t change. That stays the same. But, clearly, evaluating and reevaluating will be an ongoing process in the coming weeks and months.”
How will the addition of Wembanyama change the outlook of the roster? Let’s reevaluate each player on the Spurs roster through a Wembanyama lens.
Johnson should be thrilled with the Wembanyama news. While Johnson averaged 22.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists last season as San Antonio’s go-to scoring option, his efficiency took a big hit due to the extra defensive attention paid to him. He also struggled on the defensive end, particularly out on the perimeter.
With Wembanyama in the mix, Johnson can slide into a role that better suits his capabilities on the offensive end. He might lead the Spurs again in scoring but there’s no question that the opposition will enter games with the primary mission of trying to handle the French rookie. With more room to operate, Johnson should see a notable bump in his efficiency.
Defensively, Wembanyama’s length will erase a lot of mistakes. Johnson’s goal should be to try to become a league average defender with help from his new 7-foot-5 teammate.
Is Johnson a long-term fit on the Spurs? I don’t see why not. He has a very reasonable contract and he’s a natural-born leader who is loved by his teammates. As long as Johnson can rediscover his offensive efficiency and find a way to not be a liability on defense, he can be a foundational piece going forward.
Like Johnson, Vassell was forced to shoulder more of the offensive load and responded with a career year on that end of the floor. The 22-year-old averaged 18.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting a career-high 38.7% from three-point range.
On paper, Vassell is exactly the type of wing you want to pair with a big man like Wembanyama. He has good length, can space the floor, plays an unselfish brand of basketball and understands the game at a high level.
That said, I think winning the Wembanyama lottery probably changes the front office’s plan for Vassell. Previously, I expected San Antonio to work hard to come to terms with Vassell on a contract extension. Now? I don’t think the Spurs will be in as much of a rush to lock him up.
The main reason why the Spurs will possibly be cautious is Vassell’s health. He had knee surgery during the middle of the season and only played 38 games. The front office could want to see Vassell play an entire season before handing him a large extension.
Additionally, Vassell’s defense took a step backwards last season. That was understandable because of his expanded offensive duties — but Vassell’s long-term outlook isn’t nearly as bright if stout defense isn’t a 100 percent certainty. Plus, like Johnson, Vassell’s offensive efficiency needs to take a step forward for him to be a key cog on a winning team.
All in all, as much as I like Vassell as a player and a prospect, I wouldn’t blame the front office for taking a careful approach with regard to a possible contract extension. Then again, if he’s willing to take a Keldon-like discount, the Spurs may jump at that opportunity.
At first blush, one may assume that Sochan’s future with the Spurs could be iffy due to the fact that Wembanyama will likely begin his career at power forward. In reality, though, Sochan is another big winner of the forthcoming addition of the gigantic Frenchman. It’s safe to say these two players will be playing with each other for years to come.
Defensively, Sochan’s versatility will be super valuable next to Wembanyama. As a rookie, we saw him defend every position — from point guards to centers. That’s exactly the type of versatility you want next to Wembanyama in order to keep him in the most advantageous matchups.
Offensively, Sochan showed enough promise at point guard to test that alignment out more in his sophomore season. It’s also easy to imagine Sochan playing small forward next to Wembanyama. When the Frenchman shifts to center (which will likely happen late in games), Sochan can seamlessly shift to power forward.
Sochan needs to continue to work on his shooting but he’s a smart, physical, versatile chess piece who will thrive handling the needed dirty work around Wembanyama.
I think Jones’ future with the Spurs got more complicated following the Wembanyama bomb. On one hand, Jones is a gritty, gutty point guard who is respected in the locker room and sets a tone with his professionalism and work ethic. In his first season as a starter, the 23-year-old averaged 12.9 points and 6.6 assists while posting another sterling assist-to-turnover ratio.
On the other hand, Jones’ fit on the Spurs going forward isn’t as clear. At this point in time, it looks unlikely that he could be a starting point guard on a team that aims to contend. Jones just isn’t an accurate enough shooter or a dynamic enough playmaker to play that type of leading role. On a contending team, he’s likely a backup point guard who can give you 15 to 18 minutes per game.
Jones will be a restricted free agent this summer. Before the Wembanyama news, I thought Jones could be in line for something like $40 million over four seasons. Now I’m not so sure that’d be a wise investment by the Spurs. With Sochan potentially shifting to point guard next season and Wembanyama handling playmaking duties as early as his rookie campaign, that’d be a lot of money to be paying a spot player.
Jones could very well return to San Antonio with a new contract but a short-term investment now makes a lot more sense from the front office’s perspective.
While there’s talk that Wembanyama needs to be paired with a big, bad, bruising center, I actually like his fit next to Collins. Though Collins isn’t especially burly, he’s mean and feisty enough to make sure no one takes any cheap shots on San Antonio’s prized rookie.
On offense, Collins is a legitimate three-point shooter who will open the paint for Wembanyama to operate. He also passes it well and has a high basketball IQ for a center. Those traits will mesh well with what Wembanyama brings to the table on that end.
On defense, Collins has enough mobility to guard out on the perimeter when Wembanyama is manning the paint. He also rebounds well enough to allow Wembanyama to drift out of the middle when it’s needed.
That said, I think the front office will want to see how the pairing works on the court before giving Collins a contract extension. He’s due $7.7 million this coming season and will be in line for a hefty raise if it looks like he’s a long-term fit next to Wembanyama.
As a rookie, Branham averaged 10.2 points and split his time between point guard and shooting guard. Right now, the outlook for his role in his second NBA season is murky. If Sochan plays more point guard and Jones is re-signed, most of the point guard minutes will be accounted for heading into the season. Shooting guard minutes will mostly be manned by Vassell, with Johnson likely sliding over to that spot from time to time.
If the Spurs let Jones go, part of the reasoning would be to provide a path to minutes for Branham. A fivesome of Branham, Vassell, Johnson, Sochan and Wembanyama could theoretically become Pop’s preferred closing lineup.
Truth be told, Wesley was one of the ten worst players in the NBA last season. However, his struggles during his rookie year were no surprise because he was extremely raw. Wesley is a boom-or-bust prospect who clearly needs multiple years of maturing before he’s ready for the limelight.
Before Wembanyama, it looked like the Spurs had plenty of time to allow Wesley to learn, make mistakes and grow. After Wembanyama, San Antonio’s future timeline isn’t as clear. For all we know, the Spurs will be in the business of trying to make the playoffs as soon as next season.
Where does Wesley fit on a Spurs team with playoff hopes? Honestly, probably in Austin in the G League. I love how much separation he can get in the halfcourt and I think he has very real playmaking upside but Wesley needs a ton of work before he’s ready to help a team serious about winning.
The best case scenario is Wesley takes a giant leap forward in summer league and the preseason and then dominates in Austin early in the season. If that happens, he could potentially be in the running for a spot in the rotation by January.
McDermott’s role with the team won’t change much. He’ll come off the bench for about 20 minutes per game and provide three-point shooting and elite off-ball movement. McDermott is a bottom tier defender but there’s hope that Wembanyama will help make that deficiency less noticeable.
This will be the last season of McDermott’s contract. Before the Wembanyama news, it was likely that the Spurs would move him at the trade deadline. Now, trading him isn’t a certainty. In fact, McDermott is the type of shooter you want next to a young big man to provide spacing — so it’s possible he could be in line for another contract with San Antonio.
Graham, the most prolific volume three-point shooter on the team, is a fit next to Wembanyama. When on the ball, he pushes it well in transition and is a capable passer. Off the ball, he moves well and is always putting himself in position for his next three-point attempt.
Entering the final guaranteed season of his contract, Graham will likely be on the trade block at the deadline. Whether the Spurs look to move him will likely depend on how the younger potential point guards are performing — namely Branham and Wesley.
If it ends up that Wembanyama performs best with a burly center next to him, that’d be great news for Bassey. At 6-foot-9 and around 240 pounds, Bassey is strong in the paint and holds his ground well. He’s the closest thing the Spurs have to a bruiser who can free up Wembanyama to roam on the perimeter.
Last season, Bassey was San Antonio’s best rebounder and shot blocker on a per possession basis. Add in his underrated passing ability and it’ll be fascinating to see what he can do next to Wembanyama.
Bates-Diop is an unrestricted free agent coming off the best season of his career.
The case for re-signing Bates-Diop: The 6-foot-8 forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan averaged 9.7 points last season while hitting 55.7% of his two-pointers and 39.4% of his three-pointers. His length will be even more annoying for opponents next year with Wembanyama’s 8-foot wingspan clogging the airspace. Bates-Diop is also the type of high character, team-first player you want to surround the rookie with early in his career.
The case for letting Bates-Diop go: With the first overall pick, two second round picks and a mountain of cap space, the Spurs will need to open room on the roster. Bates-Diop was a good soldier but he plays a position (power forward) that will be filled by Wembanyama and Sochan going forward. He played well enough last year to be scooped up by a contender. Set him free.
Champagnie exhibited enough shooting and scoring potential late last season to bring him back. Preferably, he’d agree to sign another two-way contract. If Champagnie wants a full-fledged contract, it’d be difficult for the Spurs to say no.
In 15 games with the Spurs last season, Champagnie averaged 11.0 points and shot better than 40% from three-point range. Unless something goes wrong, the Spurs should be bringing him back next season.
Langford had moments last season but it’s tough to make a case that the restricted free agent should return. He’s a quality defender but Langford brings next to nothing on the offensive end. He’s not a three-point shooter and doesn’t pop as an athlete. Any minutes he would get next season would be better spent on Branham, Wesley or Champagnie.
As the Spurs trudged their way to the finish line of their 22-win season, Mamukelashvili’s play down the stretch was one of the silver linings. The 6-foot-10 big man is uniquely skilled. He can shoot, rebound, pass and think on the fly. He’s not a supreme athlete but he can move his feet decently well.
Wembanyama and Mamukelashvili will be another interesting pairing to watch. There’s a definite chance that he actually becomes the best big man sidekick for the young Frenchman. For that reason, Mamukelashvili is a restricted free agent who the Spurs should bring back into the fold.
Another free agent on the roster, Barlow is a 20-year-old big man who showed enough at the end of last season to re-sign. He’s a really good athlete who is improving at a rapid rate. If he’ll sign another two-way contract, it’d be a no-brainer to bring Barlow back. If he wants a real NBA contract, that’d be a more difficult decision and could depend on if there’s space on the roster.
Yes, there’s a guy named Khem Birch on the Spurs. He was acquired as part of the Jakob Poeltl trade and he has a guaranteed contract for $7 million next season. Birch missed almost all of last season dealing with a knee condition. There is speculation that he may be forced to retire due to the knee condition.
With all the big man options at San Antonio’s disposal, it’d be difficult to imagine Birch ever suiting up in silver and black. If he doesn’t retire, the Spurs will likely just wait out the final year of his contract or release him if they need the roster room.
Dieng was released and re-signed by the Spurs about a dozen times last season. An important leader in the locker room, there’s a good chance that the Spurs view him as a valuable mentor for Wembanyama. As long as there isn’t a dire roster crunch, Dieng is likely to return in a mentorship role.