The San Antonio Spurs dismantled the Orlando Magic in the regular season opener. After a rough start, the Spurs found the winning tracks and rolled to an emphatic victory. A majority of the players performed well. Here are ten things that caught my attention in the opener.
1) The season opener was a microcosm of exactly why I was against the Spurs re-signing Bryn Forbes. He’s an outstanding shooter and a really good scorer in general but, at the end of the day, his weaknesses aren’t a fit with the type of team San Antonio is trying to field.
First of all, his defense is always going to be terrible. It’s not a lack of effort or a lack of knowing where to be on the court. Forbes is just too small, too unathletic, too slow and his reaction speed is too delayed for him to ever be even an average defender. These Spurs want to trap and switch more than any team in recent franchise history. In those situations, Forbes’ defense sticks out like a sore thumb because if he gets switched onto the wrong player, it’s an automatic bucket for the other team.
Secondly, as efficient as he is as a scorer, Forbes has only rudimentary court vision and doesn’t process the game quickly enough to always make the quick, smart pass. Last night, Forbes either shot the ball or aimlessly dribbled before passing it away. That’s … what he does.
Forbes was eventually benched after being a liability on both ends. While that may sound like common sense coaching, that just didn’t happen much during Forbes’ first stint with the team. If Pop is going to use Forbes in a highly specialized role and have a quick trigger on the eject button when things aren’t working, then this signing might not impact the Spurs negatively. In fact, if Forbes is used extremely carefully, he could actually help the team. But it’s up to Pop to push the right buttons and not fall back into bad habits.
2) Who is the go-to scorer on the Spurs? If last night is any indication, it could be Keldon Johnson. The coaching staff dusted off a handful plays that used to be run for Kawhi Leonard and ran them for Johnson. I was surprised to see it — but it worked out pretty well.
Isolating Johnson in the low post and mid post will undoubtedly accelerate Johnson’s development. I’m not 100% sure he can handle that offensive workload but it looks like the coaching staff wants to find out sooner than later.
3) So, uh, what exactly are the Spurs planning to do with Thaddeus Young? He was the only player on the team that didn’t play last night. Considering he might be the best player on the team … that was a weird decision. Interestingly, I was told by a source close to the matter that Young was surprised he didn’t play.
At this point, it looks like the Spurs may just not play him and hope that contender comes knocking. I’m not sure that strategy is going to work, though. As good as Young is, he’s not a proven playoff commodity. I don’t think contenders will bend over backwards for someone like him when he’s not actively playing. We’ll see but this is why I wanted Young to be traded before the start of the regular season.
4) Going into the season, I wanted the coaching staff to give Devin Vassell a long leash on offense — and that’s exactly what he was given. He looked really polished in that role. His sneaky offensive upside was on full display as he scored off the dribble and even created looks for his teammates.
Given his skillset, I believe Vassell has a road to stardom. It’s fair to say it’s unlikely that he gets there but that possibility is in the cards at this point in his career. The great thing about him is he’s already a strong defender with otherworldly instincts so his floor is high as long as he shoots somewhat straight.
5) In preseason, the Spurs unveiled various sets where Jakob Poeltl was the initiator. Against the Magic, Poeltl racked up seven assists and showed why the Spurs want the ball in his hands more often.
Big man Domantas Sabonis averaged 6.7 assists last season for the Indiana Pacers and a lot of his assists resulted in Doug McDermott buckets. McDermott is an elite cutter and Poeltl is probably the best answer the Spurs have for feeding him when he cuts. He has the height and the touch to make those passes. Hopefully we continue to see the Spurs keep Poeltl involved on offense, if for no other reason than to make good use of McDermott’s movement.
6) I liked the way Lonnie Walker IV looked, especially after he wasn’t given a contract extension. Instead of trying to do too much or trying to be too perfect, Walker took what the defense gave him. Given his explosive physical tools, he can almost always create advantageous situations. If he can stack smart play on top of smart play, he can be a really powerful offensive weapon.
He got turned around and lost focus a couple times on defense but that will probably always be a part of what you have to live with when playing Walker. It’s unlikely at this point that he’s ever going to develop natural basketball instincts — but as long as he stays aggressive, he can overcome not having that innate ability to read the game. For example, someone like Vassell needed no instructions to always understand where to go on defense. Walker isn’t going to be that type of player but he can still be good if he’s always dialed up to full volume.
6) Pop was riding Keita Bates-Diop extra hard — and I love that. Bates-Diop reminds me a bit of early-days Danny Green in that he hasn’t made it in the NBA yet because he’s too nice, too easy-going and too deferential on the court. Pop got on Green early and often and helped turned him into a monster. Bates-Diop doesn’t have that type of potential, I don’t think. Then again, Bates-Diop is 6-foot-8 with arms longer than the longest DMV line and enough perimeter skills that he could play guard if he had to. So, yeah, who knows what he can be if Pop can light a fire inside of his belly.
7) Speaking of Pop, he unleashed halfcourt and fullcourt traps that I’ve never seen him use. Given his personnel, that’s exactly what he should be doing. This team features a lot of switchable defenders who can pressure the ball. With Poeltl and Drew Eubanks ready and willing to defend the rim, there’s no reason not to try to suffocate the opposition.
8) It’s too bad that Tre Jones didn’t play in preseason because there was a chance he could have won a spot in the rotation. But it was good to see that Pop knew full-well that Jones exists and played him a couple minutes before completely emptying the bench.
Jones is a natural born point guard and he didn’t skip a bit once he hit the hardwood. I’m hoping there comes a time this season where the Spurs give him a night-in, night-out role so we can get a better idea of where he is in his development.
9) Joshua Primo! He might be prepubescent but the kid oozes swagger and the whole arena senses it. It’s fun to experience.
10) Last but not least, Dejounte Murray and Derrick White looked like grizzled veterans out there. It looks like Pop fully trusts those two and Murray and White are ready to be the leaders of the team. For these Spurs to make a playoff push, they need this pair to live up to their capabilities. It was only one night against a team that will dwell in the cellar but so far, so good.