When it comes to preseason play, it’s never smart to draw too many conclusions. The reality of the situation is that preseason action is basically glorified exercise for veterans and structured practice for the youngsters. That said, a handful of interesting storylines emerged from the 111-85 victory the San Antonio Spurs enjoyed over the Utah Jazz on Monday night.
1) It’s clear that rookie Joshua Primo stole the show in the preseason opener. The 18-year-old poured in 13 points in his first ten minutes on 5-for-5 shooting from the field, including a trio of three-balls. He finished the game with 17 points in 18 minutes while running the show as the point guard and defending with an edge. By the end of the game, Primo was so impressive that he had Spurs fans chanting his name.
From a pessimistic view, you could chalk up Primo’s sizzling performance as a hot shooting night against the dregs of Utah’s training camp roster. It’s true that the rookie didn’t enter the game until midway through the third quarter, which was after Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley had departed for the night. Additionally, one of Primo’s three-pointers banked in — so luck did play a role in his scorching performance.
While I think it’s unwise to get too euphoric about Primo’s play, I think there were some definite positive takeaways. Most notably, the teenager’s fluidity and coordination are really impressive. He’s not going to always shoot it that straight but Primo’s ability to operate with and without the ball with precision and natural knowledge of what needs to be done is great to see. He looks like someone who could possibly develop into a go-to offensive weapon at some point down the line — and that alone is worthy of excitement.
It’s too early to say the Spurs hit a home run with their lottery pick but it’s a really good sign that they were able to see through his nondescript play at Alabama and see someone with potentially a special amount of playmaking ability if given the chance.
2) We witnessed glimpses of the coaching staff’s plan for this season. On offense, the team pushed the pace early and often. When DeMar DeRozan was at the steering wheel the last few years, there was a lot of holding the ball and isolating. Against the Jazz, there was almost none of that.
The change in philosophy makes sense. DeRozan was a very good orchestrator in halfcourt sets. Without him, the Spurs need to share the ball to thrive. Getting the ball up the court and looking for the first clean look will usually be the best answer with this group.
Defensively, San Antonio’s guards pressed and trapped much more than we saw last season. That too is a DeRozan-related change to the game plan. For all of DeRozan’s talents on offense, he’s one of the least dependable help-defenders in the league, to put it kindly. He also didn’t have the footspeed to apply pressure defense on the perimeter.
By pressing and trapping on defense, that could also help create opportunities in transition. The last time the Spurs finished in the top ten in the league in pace was in 2014. If things go as planned, they should crack the top ten in that category this season.
3) Will the Spurs be better offensively or defensively this season? That’s tough to say. San Antonio’s offense will be less isolation-oriented and there will be more transition highlights but there are sure to be struggles as the team learns to swim on that end without DeRozan.
Defensively, the departure of DeRozan will help — but some of his minutes will be replaced by players who are just as bad as him defensively. It’s not hyperbolic to state that Doug McDermott, Lonnie Walker IV and Bryn Forbes are arguably three of the 10 to 15 worst defenders in the league. I think the Spurs could have a better than average defense this season but that’s far from a certainty given the players who appear to be in line to be in the rotation.
4) Until garbage time in the second half, Pop was staggering Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, which was nice to see. Starting Murray and White and then making sure to always have one of them in the game at all times would really help the defense. It also is a way to make sure that both players get ample touches on offense. Specifically, that alignment gives White time to run pick-and-rolls as the lead ball-handler.
With Walker and Forbes slated to come off the bench, the Spurs need to pair that twosome with a point guard who is very sturdy defensively. Murray and White both fit that bill.
5) Interestingly, the power forward off the bench in the preseason opener was Devin Vassell. That’s playing him a position or two away from his natural position … but I support the idea. The Spurs need to give Vassell minutes and if that means playing him at PF, so be it.
Vassell is also a strong defender so that’s another way to stop teams from exploiting the Walker and Forbes pairing.
6) Who was the team’s starting power forward? That’s actually difficult to answer right now. The Spurs started Keldon Johnson and Doug McDermott at the forward positions. In these modern positionless times, positions don’t matter nearly as much as they used to — but it’s not totally a pointless question. If the other team starts two bigs, either Johnson or McDermott will need to defend one of the bigs.
Versus the Jazz, it looked like McDermott was at power forward but it was difficult to say for sure. It’ll be interesting to see what the coaching staff decides to do. Will Johnson just defend the better of the two forwards? Will McDermott always guard the bigger of the forwards? We’ll see.
7) Speaking of power forwards, Luka Samanic not entering the game until ten minutes remained on the clock isn’t a promising sign for his future with the team. Heck, Keita Bates-Diop hit the floor before Samanic did. Maybe things will change before the regular season tips off but it doesn’t look like the Croatian is anywhere near the rotation at this point. For him not to play until garbage time even though Thaddeus Young (quite possibly the best PF on the team right now) was held out is worrisome.
The Spurs have until Halloween to pick up the fourth year option on Samanic. If they do, he’ll get a guaranteed $4.5 million next season. As it appears right now, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Spurs decline that option. If Samanic hasn’t proven to the coaches that he’s ready after two seasons, why keep investing in him?
To be fair to Samanic, the timing of the pandemic-caused upheaval couldn’t have been worse for him. He was a developmental pick who couldn’t develop as planned due to G League and summer league disruptions. Maybe the Spurs still believe in him but it sure didn’t look like it judging by the first preseason game.
The Spurs need to make a couple cuts before opening day if they don’t make a trade before then to thin the roster. One likely cut is Al-Farouq Aminu. The second cut looks like it’ll be between Bates-Diop and Samanic.
8) When it comes to trades, Thaddeus Young not playing is either a sign that the Spurs are actively shopping him or they’re committed to a youth movement. The former makes a lot more sense than the latter. If San Antonio is still actively considering a deal involving Young, sitting him out in preseason is a wise plan.
Sitting Young into the regular season is a much more difficult plan to follow. Doing that would only hurt his trade value and it would simultaneously hurt the team’s chances of winning games. Young is a really good player who was one of the most productive bench bigs last season.
If the coaching staff decides to dust off Young once the regular season starts and put him in the rotation, the odd man out looks like it’d be Vassell. Excluding Vassell from the rotation would be suboptimal, so this situation is understandably touch and go.
What could the Spurs get for Young in a trade? My guess would be a pair of second round picks and a young prospect with a moderate amount of upside. For example, getting Jalen Smith from the Phoenix Suns along with a couple second rounders would be a good enough haul for Young. Getting a first rounder for Young would be amazing, although that’s probably unlikely at this point.
9) Thaddeus Young played quite a bit of center last season but that’s unlikely to be his position with the Spurs. Instead, Jakob Poeltl is the unquestioned starter and the battle for the backup gig promises to be a fierce one between Drew Eubanks and Jock Landale. In the preseason opener, Eubanks and Landale were both given opportunities with the reserve unit. Both did well enough to keep the status of the competition as too close to call.
Eubanks and Landale are completely different players, which makes the battle all the more fascinating. Eubanks plays with more power and has more athleticism. Landale has a more advanced feel for the game and has higher upside as a passer and shooter.
I’d give the slight edge to Eubanks because he’s the incumbent and because he can be extremely productive when he plays with a sufficient amount of aggression. It looked like he turned the corner late last season in terms of being aggressive the vast majority of the time. That said, Landale’s versatility in pick-and-roll sets is already very intriguing and looks like it’d be a great fit with the bench unit.
Landale had some issues holding his ground against Hassan Whiteside in the opener but Whiteside is a large human being who has racked up a couple generations worth of career earnings by using his bulk to get to where he wants to go. The Australian also looked antsy at times and finished with five turnovers. That said, he showed enough all-around wherewithal to intrigue and it appears as if he’ll give Eubanks a run for his money.