What went right and what didn’t in Year 2 of the Spurs’ rebuild

Victor Wembanyama’s rookie season was a resounding success, but it wasn’t smooth sailing in other areas.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers

Now that the season is almost at an end, how satisfied are you with Wembanyama’s development this year?

Marilyn Dubinski: Very excited. The minutes restrictions earlier in the season made life tough for everyone, but finally seeing him unleashed over the last few months has been extremely exciting. I knew he could be the best rookie big man since Tim Duncan, but I didn’t think he’d be putting up historic stat lines, flirting with a quadruple-double, and having a legit case for Defensive Player of the Year in year one (even though he likely won’t get it). The cherry on top is he’s already showing improvement as a three-point shooter. I thought that would take another season or two.

Mark Barrington: I’m just blown away by the Wembanyama experience. I knew he was going to be good, I had no idea that he would change how I thought about basketball. He does things every game that amaze me and make me rethink what’s possible for the human form on the basketball court, and he’s exponentially better at the end of the season than he was at the start. And to think, this season is probably the worst he’ll ever be as a pro. He’s just going to keep getting better, and I don’t want to miss a minute of it.

Bruno Passos: The first impressions already, miraculously, lived up to the deafening hype that preceded him. We got all the two-way glimpses and, just as importantly, saw that he had the makeup to handle the pressures of NBA stardom. And more of that would’ve ticked plenty of boxes for year one. The fact that he leveled up through the season like he did, playing at a DPOY caliber after slotting up to center and showing a bottomless bag of tricks on offense is just incredible.

Jacob Douglas: How can you not be over the moon about Wembanyama’s performance? I was cautiously optimistic about his rookie season, but he’s blown every expectation away. To be considered for Defensive Player of the Year, and potentially All-NBA in his rookie season is beyond absurd.

To me, the biggest development has been his ability to make others around him better. He’s reading the game at a higher level than when he started the season. He’s going to draw a lot of double teams in his career and he’s already shown that he can make a defense pay for that, especially at the tail end of the season while some key players for the Spurs are out. He’s shown the signs of a true floor-raising superstar in this league as a rookie. The next step in his development is making sure he can just be on the floor for longer periods.

Jesus Gomez: It’s rare for a prospect with as much hype as Wembanyama to actually exceed expectations so quickly, but he did it. As soon as the experiments stopped and he accepted that he was a center, he became a star. At the end of the season, the Holgrem or Wembanyama debates are not only settled but seem silly in retrospect, which is impressive considering how good the Thunder’s big man is. There is still plenty of room for improvement, like finishing with his left hand through contact and making the right decision more often, but Wembanyama is just 20 and has shown as a rookie that he can score inside and out, pass the ball, and defend at the highest of levels. No one could ask for more.

How satisfied are you with the development of the returning young core of Devin Vassell, Jeremy Sochan and Keldon Johnson this year?

Dubinski: Beginning with Vassell, I would give him an A-. His shot has come a long way and he has proven he can be a reliable number two. He just needs to find a little more consistency since he’s still prone to multi-game droughts, where he’ll score in single digits a few times before breaking back out. I’d give Sochan a B to a B+. He got some unfair hate during the point guard experiment, but the defense is there, his shot is improving, and he is building chemistry with Wemby. Johnson had a bit of a letdown season, but he also went from main guy on offense to adjusting to the sixth man role. I still love the energy and hustle he brings and believe he still can play an important role going forward. B- for him.

Barrington: Devin is growing into a number one or number two scorer on a contending team. He’s really good at getting baskets even when the defense is focused on him, and once he gets surrounded by more players that can score, he’s going to be even more dangerous.

I’m impressed with Sochan’s growth this year, but he has a ways to go to become a reliable two way player. His effort on defense is always there, and he can be the guy you always put on the opponent’s best scorer. He still needs to be more consistent with his scoring, because he can disappear on offense when he’s needed. I don’t believe in his three point shot yet, although it improved from last season. If he can clean that up this off season, he’ll become a real focal point, instead of a glorified role player.

Keldon Johnson has been a disappointment this season, but I love his energy and drive. I think a lot of the problem is that the Spurs bench is pretty weak, and having Keldon as the sole focus of the offense just doesn’t work. His defense was also bad, and he just needs to play with better fundamentals. I’m hoping he’ll have a better year if the Spurs improve their depth next season and he’s not trying to do it all himself.

Passos: Vassell’s coming out of this season feeling more like an excellent third guy rather than a possible Wemby running mate, but I think I’d still consider that a success, especially at the number he was extended for. He’s proving to be a great tough-shot maker and his strengths should only continue to shine as the FO shores up the talent around him and Vic. B+.

Sochan turned out to, in fact, not be the team’s point guard of the future, but he’s improved in meaningful ways if you consider them in the context of Wemby’s arrival and the experiment at the 1. Tre Jones’ return to the starting lineup not only took the ball out of his hands but meant less defending at the point of attack and his shooting trended the right way. I don’t yet see him as a piece you lock in around Wemby, but he’s still young and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes after an offseason with the team’s new shooting coach. C+.

Johnson’s shift to a 6th man role seemed logical and maybe inevitable to me, and he did a great job sustaining his energy and ability to impact a game coming off the bench. It felt more like he was the odd man out rather than deserving of a demotion, but he would have had a better case for a starting spot if he was a more natural connecting piece, or if he was a more consistent defender. While he’s also still young, I do wonder how much he might evolve beyond slashing and shooting off the catch. C+.

Douglas: Vassell is clearly a dude. His improved driving has turned him into a legit three-level scoring combo wing. Overall he improved defensively off the ball. He’s lived up to his new contract and still has room to grow as a 23-year-old. This was a great season for his long-term development.

Ideally, Sochan would have provided just a bit more in year two. Granted, he was put in a tough situation, playing out of position, but even as a wing/forward I think many people were expecting more. The thing that impressed me the most was his defense. According to BBall Index, Sochan was a top-3 on-ball isolation defender this season. He’s a legit stopper on that end. He has to find a way to be a consistent contributor offensively. The jump shot is getting better, but still has a long way to go. His ability to play a sort of Aaron Gordon, connective wing-stopper role who is adept at cutting is something I’d like to see more of.

I still believe that KJ can be a key player for San Antonio. The defense was downright ugly at times this season. You can live with him being somewhat of a liability on that end if he’s going to be a spark plug off the bench. His jump shot mechanics look improved, and he shot close to 35% this season from deep. It was a bit of a shame to see him get away from the rim pressure he applied last season. I understand why a bulk of the fan base see him as trade bait.

Gomez: In general, very satisfied. Vassell has done enough to erase any concerns about his new contract. He’s a three-level scorer now and he has shown flashes of being disruptive on defense. The main problem is consistency, but if he ends up being the third option on offense, that shouldn’t be a huge issue. Sochan was held back by the point guard experiment but benefitted from the decision to send Keldon Johnson to the bench and showed off his versatility and boundless energy and strong defense. The big issue is his shooting, which needs to improve for him to be a fit next to Wembanyama. Johnson didn’t improve and it might be time to accept that he is who he is: a good scorer and energy player who doesn’t have the vision for a featured role or the defensive ability to make an impact on that side of the ball.

How satisfied are you with the job of the front office and the coaching staff this year?

Dubinski: I was really frustrated with all the experimentation to start the season. Some positives did come from it — despite some suffering, Sochan gained some ball-handling skills, we learned Wemby is better off at center than power forward, etc. — but it still felt too drawn out to the point it was unnecessary. Sochan even admitted it took a mental toll on him. That being said, the true tests will be this offseason. They now know the team’s strengths and weaknesses with Wemby, so there’s no reason to keep “experimenting” going forward. It’s time to start making moves aimed for future success, and that’s where the real judgement period begins.

Barrington: I think the grade has to be an incomplete at this juncture. They were in pure tank mode last year and tore down the team to have a shot at drafting Wembanyama. That move paid off big when the Spurs won the draft lottery, but it left them with a pretty threadbare collection of young players that weren’t ready and some castoffs that played hard but couldn’t compete in a star-packed western conference. It’s been a great year for development, and Wembanyama has been incredible, but the next year or two are going to be critical to see if the front office can put together a team that can compete for a title within Victor’s prime years, which will start in two or three years.

While Brian Wright has done a good job of stockpiling future picks, the Spurs can’t build the team completely through the draft, and standing pat won’t be good enough. The Spurs are going to need to add a star or two and several role players, and it will take some managerial virtuosity to pull that off without mortgaging the future. Let’s see what happens this summer before we give a grade to the front office.

The coaching staff has done a good job with player development on the current roster, evidenced by how much more competitive the team has been late in the season versus getting consistently run off the court earlier in the season, and especially by Wembanyama’s improvement as a player. But it’s still early in the rebuild, and I think there’s still a lot of work to do. I don’t want to be too complimentary to the coaching for a team that still regularly blows three-on-one fast breaks and can’t manage getting the ball inbounds late in games reliably. All of this really needs to get cleaned up next year, if not in the last couple of games this year.

Passos: It’s always going to be hard to grade a front office with our minimal line of sight into what they do or try to do, so I’ll base my eval on the results. Is the roster much more set up for success a year out from Wemby ostensibly resetting the timeline? No. Could they have put together a better product even for year one? Maybe. That said, I do think there were clear learnings and improvements on how the big fella was acclimated and used as the season went on, where we clearly saw a greater comfort level and confidence in what he can do on the floor. I didn’t hate the idea behind the Point Sochan experiment, but Pop made the right call in the midseason adjustment that brought Tre Jones back in and shifted Wemby up to the 5. Part of the stated goal for this year was learning what the team has in him, and we now know: a bona fide superstar who’s ready sooner than later to play winning basketball. We’ll see what the suits now do to work towards that.

Douglas: It’s tough to be too critical, as they didn’t really know what they had in Wembanyama. That said, there is a world where they could have added a few more shooting veterans around the fringes to make this team more respectable. Especially when there is no top prospect to tank for in the 2024 Draft class. I understand this was a “see what they have” year, but adding the necessary pieces around this young core would have helped them, more than it would have hurt.

Gomez: How you grade what PATFO did this year depends on whether you believed them when they said they weren’t trying to tank. If the goal was actually to be competitive, everyone should be fired because everything from roster construction to how the pieces were used was atrocious. In reality, being near the bottom of the standings was an acceptable byproduct of trying to figure out an identity and giving minutes to young players, and through that lens, the front office and coaching staff did well.

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