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Devin Vassell Is Turning Into A Crucial Player For The Spurs

After coming off the bench in 28 of his first 29 games this season, Devin Vassell started three games for the San Antonio Spurs before entering health and safety protocols last week. During that stretch, he averaged 17 points, four rebounds, 2.3 assists, and one steal on 58.7 percent true shooting (.465/.385/1.000 split). On the year, he’s averaging 11.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 0.9 steals on 55 percent true shooting (.448/.344/.750).

Vassell’s opportunity as a starter was the unfortunate result of Doug McDermott entering health and safety protocols. Despite McDermott’s value to the team, when he regains his footing after his own stint in health and safety protocols, Vassell should remain in that role. Those numbers weren’t some little hot streak. They’re very similar to his per-minute, season-long production, just magnified with expanded usage. It indicates an important step forward for a player who is integral to the Spurs’ long-term vision.

As a rookie, Vassell carved out a rotation spot largely on the basis of defensive acumen that belied his first-year status. There were some scoring flashes, but they escaped him too often, which made anything more than a reserve gig tough to justify as long as a veteran like DeMar DeRozan was piloting a playoff push. Now, DeRozan is a Chicago Bull, meaning San Antonio’s focal point isn’t an established veteran. Vassell is laying the foundation to become the sort of two-way wing everyone seems to salivate over as an improved offensive player who touts those tantalizing defensive chops.

Vassell hasn’t made some sizable leap in his pull-up frequency (approximately 32 percent both years, per, but he’s certainly diversified how he generates shots off the bounce this season. Last year, many of his attempts came working off the catch. He’d toss a little fake at a late arriving defender and step into an open jumper. This year, he’s conducting more pick-and-rolls and getting to his spots as a creator. The volume is more complex and less reliant on the services of others, and he’s still taking positive steps forward. An example: After his true shooting percentage was 4.8 points below league average last season (52.4 percent), it’s just 0.7 points below this season (55 percent), despite being tasked with greater ball-handling responsibilities.

The Spurs bestow him side pick-and-roll reps, where he craftily utilizes screens to maneuver into quality looks. His high release point prevents most defenders from flustering him, while Vassell’s economical, varied footwork empowers him to shoot from an array of angles. Among 115 players with at least 90 pull-up attempts this season, Vassell ranks 40th in effective field goal percentage at 47 percent, up from 42.9 percent in 2020-21. That’s certainly not some elite placement, but it’s encouraging for a 21-year-old in his second season adapting to a different means of accumulating pull-up volume.

Unless you’re an elite pull-up shooter, it’s not easy to warrant consistent on-ball touches in a high-level offensive context when you’re asked to do the things the Spurs as of Vasselel. Fortunately, he looks like he’s going to pair the scoring juice with tenable playmaking for others.

While he’ll miss some passing windows or is slow to process openings at times — both of which are things that can come with more reps — he’s exhibited a knack for finding rollers and corner shooters. This isn’t to predict he’s going to evolve into a premier facilitator, but between the scoring and passing outlines, encouraging indicators exist to suggest he’ll lather up the offense and make prudent decisions as a creator in his prime. Scoring will get his foot in the ball-handling door and passing will enhance his utility in that role.

San Antonio isn’t putting Vasell through any sort of trial by fire as an on-ball initiator. The team is being very smart about how it’s balancing on and off-ball reps for the No. 11 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. And much of what renders him a beneficial presence offensively is Vassell’s malleable off-ball scoring and ability to seamlessly splice in a few self-creation reps amid all that.

With long strides and economical routes around screens that manufacture separation, he’s excellent at flowing into handoffs around pindowns and bounding inside. To avoid precarious situations against rim protectors and still score in the paint, he’s added a floater to his bag this year. When the ball swings his way, he’s prompt in launching from deep or attacking off the dribble — occurrences that composed much of his rookie season scoring. He’s a savvy cutter and will relocate around the perimeter for better looks beyond the arc.

From Murray, to Johnson, to Lonnie Walker, to Tre Jones, the Spurs have a plethora of guys they aim to let control possessions. Vassell’s knack for blending into the background off the ball helps facilitate those efforts and ensures he can play in a variety of lineups without inhibiting anyone, himself included.

The importance of versatility on both ends can assuredly be overstated in analysis. Still, Vassell simplifies lineup construction and appears to be the sort of offensive player who, long-term, functions quite effectively with and without the ball in his hands. He’s already good at the latter and a blueprint of the former has begun.

Offensive development from Vassell this season amplifies the longstanding defensive prowess of his game. It was evident at Florida State and has popped from virtually the outset of his NBA career. The bedrock of his defense resides off the ball, where instincts, physical tools, and awareness coalesce for a borderline elite team defender.

According to Cleaning The Glass, Vassell’s block (1.5 percent, 83rd percentile) and steal rates (1.6 percent, 64th percentile) place him in rosy territories among forwards — think of players like Mikal Bridges, Nicolas Batum, and Kyle Anderson. Despite constant defensive activity, Vassell rarely fouls. Thanks to discipline and stellar body control, he averages just 3.8 fouls per 100 possessions.

He touts rare recovery speed and the capacity to concisely cover ground; pockets of space are an illusion around him. He’s a menace playing the nail and wields quick vertical pop off the ground to provide impactful help-side rim protection. When he’s the primary defender, opposing players shoot 5.5 percent worse than their average within 6 feet of the hoop, per, an impressive feat for a perimeter-oriented player.

He’s not confined to one premier skill as an off-ball defender. Most duties are within his wheelhouse. Conversations about his name appearing on All-Defensive Teams are not far away.

Although he struggles to contain jittery creators on the ball and is susceptible to getting hung up on screens, he’s a good on-ball defender as well. He applies his 6’5 frame, 6’10 wingspan, and graceful body control to pester ball-handlers in pick-and-rolls.

A significant size and strength advantage are typically required to best him. Even then, those traits don’t guarantee anything. He’s not going to lock up everyone in isolation, but throw him in a ball-screen and his merits will materialize. The dude’s great in so many different defensive scenarios.

The Spurs exist in an odd position. The roster is fine, existing in a place where neither a playoff berth in the Western Conference nor a top-three pick in the 2022 NBA Draft are likely. They have intriguing young guys whose skill-sets are worth exploring. Yet most of those guys’ skill sets are not so intriguing that an entire plan should be rerouted to accentuate them. Balancing such a dynamic can be tricky.

Whatever direction they gravitate toward, though, Vassell must occupy a prominent spot. His year two performance has been encouraging, both from a short- and long-term perspective. Six-foot-five, 21-year-old wings who can conveniently toggle on and off the ball and offer versatile, high-level defensive impact don’t come around often. Vassell is going to be a fantastic player and San Antonio should do everything possible to maximize what exactly “fantastic” means in the coming seasons.