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Devin Vassell is a product of fire
But can that flame forge a contender's second-best player?
"Greatness is forged in fire, shaped by the challenges that we overcome. In every step, in every cut, we become stronger. It takes more than just talent. It takes resolve; it takes steel. I am a product of fire. The next generation. Watch me rise.”
— Devin Vassell (in an ad for a manufacturing company)
In a wild NBA offseason filled with drama, the Spurs made an under-the-radar move. You might not have heard, but they drafted Victor Wembanyama with the first overall pick in the draft.
This is not an article about Wembanyama, although, as always, he lurks in the background, the not-quite-audible undertone in any Spurs conversation. I don’t know if he will be an avatar of the basketball gods, a bust, or something in between; nobody does, and we won’t have a clue until the season tips off.
But let’s assume, for the sake of the Spurs (and this article), that he’s capable of eventually becoming the best player on a contending team somewhere down the line. That’s the hope for any first-overall pick. And if that turns out to be the case… the Spurs need to figure out who can be their second in command.
No matter how preposterously talented, every great big man needs a ballhandling sidekick to win a championship. The most recent examples, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic, were no exception. Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton and Denver’s Jamal Murray both rose to the occasion during their respective championship runs, at times seizing the reins and carrying their teams to victory.
Middleton, in particular, is an instructive case. At his best, he was a two-way wing with playmaking chops who leaned upon an old-school midrange game while honoring the new-wave three-pointer.
You can replace “Middleton” with “Vassell” without your nose growing longer. Vassell has the same armory of weapons at his disposal, but it remains to be seen just how sharp he can hone them.
For starters, Vassell must get more comfortable shooting triples off the dribble. He shot a superb 43% on catch-and-shoot threes last season on high volume. He is an expert at relocating without the ball along the three-point line, finding cracks in the defensive shell before firing up lasers:
Unfortunately, Vassell hit just 28% of his roughly two pull-up triples per game, leagues worse than his solid 44% mark on pull-up midranges (and significantly worse than Middleton or Murray typically do from deep). It’s a small sample, to be sure, but he didn’t look comfortable shooting them. He often rushed, with wonky and inconsistent foot placement.
The pull-up three tends to develop with experience. Few young players have the confidence to try them, knowing a miss will earn the coach’s ire. Shot mechanics change at that range, and the footwork is completely different. Murray shot 32% on pull-up triples in his third year, and Middleton hit 29%. But in their respective championship seasons, Murray hit 39%, and Middleton hit an outrageous 41%. The pull-up three separates great perimeter players from good ones.
In the meantime, Vassell’s midrange effectiveness is his primary weapon. He doesn’t have the balletic hooves of the Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan or the flitting zig-zag maneuvering of the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Instead, he uses terse, powerful movements, stomping jump-stops and sudden side-hops, to get to his spots:
He’s consistently effective (an excellent 47%) even when well-defended; Vassell’s 6’10” wingspan creates a high release point. But he shoots a whopping quarter of his total shot attempts between 14 feet and the three-point line. Unless he becomes Kevin Durant’s doppelganger next year, that is too high a share from that range. Vassell shoots plenty of triples, so these midranges are coming at the expense of forays to the hoop. He cannot get to the rim easily and doesn’t finish particularly well when he gets there (61% at the cup isn’t a disaster, but it leaves plenty of room for improvement).
Vassell isn’t much of a leaper and doesn’t have a blistering first step. He gains advantages on defenders with guile, moving smartly off the ball and utilizing the threat of his shot to create separation. But he averages just 3.7 points off 8.8 drives per game. For context, on the same volume, the diminutive and ancient Mike Conley also averaged 3.7 points, Anfernee Simons averaged 5.8, Mikal Bridges averaged 6.3, and Durant averaged 8.3. Vassell garnered slightly more assists on drives than most of those guys, but that’s a function of being forced to pass out more often than his contemporaries.
He has a poor floater game, and even with his propensity to drive and kick, it still feels like he forces up some ugly layups:
Part of the issue is San Antonio’s abysmal spacing, and Wembanyama’s presence next year seems unlikely to improve that (he should eventually threaten defenses from deep, but his enthusiasm currently outweighs his accuracy). Vassell needs avenues for internal improvement. There are certainly ways to mitigate limited athleticism, particularly with improved ballhandling. Vassell has a pilsner handle — safe, but unexciting. He doesn’t turn it over much, but it rarely creates opportunities for him. To take the next step, he needs the ball yo-yoing on a string.
Perhaps surprisingly, that handle doesn’t seem to hold him back as a playmaker for others. Per Synergy, Vassell ran 361 possessions of pick-and-roll in his abbreviated season, and the Spurs scored an elite 1.08 points per possession on those plays. Part of that was unsustainably hot three-point shooting by teammates off his passes, but it hints at a developing playmaker who can and should explore that side of his game more. Vassell doesn’t necessarily have a point guard’s vision, but he does have an innate ability to manipulate defenses by throwing passes a beat earlier or later than they expect. I love the way he holds the ball here for a split-second longer than normal to suck the defense in before spraying to the now-open corner man:
Both Middleton and Murray worked on this in their careers, too. Murray changed positions in part because his passing and ballhandling leveled up so dramatically, while Middleton went from a guy averaging 1.5 dribbles per touch his third year to someone averaging double that (and more than five assists) in his ring season. Being able to create for others is a must.
Unlike many young wings playing for big contracts, Vassell is a more than willing passer. He rarely forces up bad shots (partially because he’s just a so-so isolation player playing in a system that emphasizes ball movement and quick decision-making). At times last year, particularly after he returned from his knee injury at the end of the season, it felt like he was passing maybe a bit too much (not a problem Murray or Middleton often encountered).
One thing he didn’t do much of: offensive rebounding. Vassell had eight offensive rebounds last season in total. That’s an astonishingly low number, even in just 38 games. Thankfully, he’s a solid positional defensive rebounder.
Let’s wash away that offensive (either definition works!) rebounding stat — frankly, it’s not an important skill for someone in Vassell’s position. Something to love about Vassell is his defensive know-how. Vassell isn’t a lockdown one-on-one defender, but he generally tries hard (although at least once per game, he slams into a screen like a toddler running into a glass door. He’s hardly the only one guilty of that on the Spurs, so perhaps it’s a systemic issue.). He chases off-ball shooters with his peculiar, hunched-over gait, Victor Oladipo cosplaying a horror-movie villain. Vassell jumps passing lanes with aplomb but also knows when to help and when to stay home:
He is a positive team defender and reasonable-to-good individual defender, and for a guy with his offensive talents, that’s more than enough. After being one of the worst defensive teams in NBA history last season, the Spurs hope that Wembanyama’s presence and greater health can bolster this team into middle-of-the-pack territory.
Vassell may be a product of fire, but the heat in San Antonio is about to rise. Generational players like Wembanyama don’t have long before the media and public get antsy about their future. Fair or not, San Antonio will be expected to field a serious team by Wemby’s third year, if not sooner. That audacious goal will be much easier to attain if Vassell can follow Middleton’s path and bloom into a bonafide second banana, flourishing in the shadow of a colossus.