The San Antonio Spurs’ highest-paid player projects to be a long-term piece. With such a small sample size of what he can do, just what is he on this team?
Everything’s trending upwards for the San Antonio Spurs. They drafted the best prospect since [insert Hall of Famer], they control all their future draft picks (plus extras) and they have a solid young core of intriguing players.
Entering the 2023-24 season, the future of the Spurs was a blank canvas. All we knew was that Victor Wembanyama was going to be manning the middle and the rest of the roster was up in the air. And then, just before the season started, they signed Devin Vassell to a five-year, $146 million extension ($11 million of that is in incentives) and their blank canvas gained its first brush stroke.
The deal has no options and signals that the front office was content with paying Vassell a lot of money to play and grow alongside the French kid.
The Spurs have also taken on a lot of risk. Yes, a team must assume some kind of risk if they’re signing any player to a long-term option, but now they better hope that Vassell can be the player they expect him to be since they put pen to paper a year before they had to. But just what is that player?
That player is one of the most efficient shooters and scorers in the entire league. Among all wings in this young NBA season, Vassell is the single most efficient wing/guard when it comes to points per shot attempt, according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s making 92 percent of his shots at the rim and 60 percent of his long mid-range attempts.
If he’s human, that’s going to come down (side note, not every player in a Spurs jersey this season is a human by the looks of that tall feller). But it’s clear that Vassell is a hungry shooter who’s happy drilling shots however they’re given to him: off the dribble, off the catch or even in the form of flaming bag of shit when the shot clock is about to run out.
We knew that Devin was an excellent scorer last season when he averaged 18.5 points per game for a miserable Spurs team. But the 38-game sample size due to injury (and the team’s desire to gather lottery balls), combined with the fact that someone had to take the shots for San Antonio last season, led to me not fully buying in.
But now, with pressure to perform due to contractual status and because everyone has hope at the start of the season, he looks pretty solid. Some of the shots he’s taking – and making – are insane, and on a roster where the 7’4” Frenchman is garnering more attention than Alec Baldwin with a prop gun, Vassell’s nose for openings in the defence is promising.
The Spurs aren’t a very organised team. Tre Jones is the team’s best point guard but he’s coming off the bench in an experiment that’s not working. Wemby hasn’t realised he can spam alley-oops every possession down and Zach Collins is playing 31 minutes a night. As a result, the offence often stagnates and players are left awkwardly looking around for a place to pass the ball. Vassell is more than happy putting his hand up and taking the bad shots that nobody else wants to:
The optimistic angle here is that he’s playing like another shot-making Devin, Devin Booker. In his early years with the Phoenix Suns, he was often the recipient of a late-clock attempt when a bad point guard shockingly couldn’t create an efficient look for the team.
I was low on Booker’s potential for most of his career. Yes, he made some incredible shots and he looked a lot like a Kobe Bryant/Michael Jordan/Allen Iverson type, especially on FreeDawkins, but I wasn’t sure there was a place for that player in today’s NBA. I’m happy to say that I’m wrong as the Suns have found success at some of the highest levels with Booker as the best player on the team and he’s deservingly an All-NBA player.
It’s too early to say that Vassell’s ceiling is a Devin Booker, but as an early-season report card, he’s taking tough shots and he’s making them. He’s going to start missing shots and we’ll see where his long mid-range percentage (nay, deep two percentage) falls and how that impacts the rest of his game.
One of the reasons why Booker is so effective is that his incredible shot-making opens up his inside game where he’s as crafty as some of the best to ever do it. Since the 2018-19 season, the Suns guard has been above the league average in terms of shooting at the rim and one of the league’s best in the short-mid. A lot of those short-mid shots are spinning fadeaways and pivots after creating space under the rim.
In the 2022-23 season, the 38 games that we have of Vassell as a heavy volume scorer, he was in the 35th percentile among wings at rim shooting accuracy and the 26th percentile in the short-mid range, per Cleaning the Glass. Vassell can’t do that at the moment and it’s clear.
A more apt comparison might be Khris Middleton, another shot-maker who has been tasked with putting the ball in the hoop from distance when everything else dries up. In the rare times where Giannis Antetokoumnpo can’t trample over his defenders and get some efficient offence working, Middleton is always running around off screens and being available for an outlet.
Middleton always had the defensive reputation that he does with a long frame and huge wingspan to hound offensive players. It helps that he has Brook Lopez to funnel players into and Giannis roaming as a two-time Defensive Player of the Year safety valve.
At 6’7” with a 6’10” wingspan, it’s realistic to expect this kind of defensive role for Vassell as well. The comparisons get even better when you think about how he’ll be funnelling players into his own version of Lopez, Wemby, when the rookie gets older and can withstand the beating as the lone big man (Basketball Reference has Victor down as a power forward in 85 percent of his minutes this season).
Should the Spurs be happy knowing that they’re paying their version of Khris Middleton just under $30 million for the next five years? Fucking oath they should. San Antonio are going to be bad at basketball for at least one more year and assuming nobody else on the roster grows to an All-Star level, they’ll have a few more drafts to find the “other guy” next to Wemby.
Vassell is also only 23 years old, and while that’s usually seen as a bit of a cap for NBA player growth, there’s reason to believe he can fully realise his potential this season. Booker first became an All-Star in his age-23 season, but that was also the first season he had a legitimate table setter guard next to him in Ricky Rubio.
The Spurs are nowhere near a finished product so if Vassell can prove that he’s an efficient shooter on a team with little-to-no elite playmaking, it should bode well for when Wemby grows into his MVP-level potential and the team fills out the supporting cast.
All stats referenced are as of 4 November 2023.