San Antonio Spurs 2022-23 NBA preview: Keldon Johnson set for surge; tank for Victor Wembanyama underway

The San Antonio Spurs are in position to properly tank for the first time since the start of the Tim Duncan era. Will they do it? It’s hard to imagine a Gregg Popovich team overtly throwing in the towel, but the ability to draft Victor Wembanyama, a 7-foot-2 talent many consider to be a generational prospect, could be at stake. Either way, the Spurs don’t project as a very good team. This season is about development and another lottery pick — maybe the lottery pick — in 2023. 

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Top of the Key: Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell

After letting DeMar DeRozan walk and trading Dejounte Murray in consecutive summers, the Spurs are officially, finally, committing to a youth movement. We’ll get to the rookies shortly, but first and foremost let’s see what the Spurs really have in Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell, who are the two non-rookies the Spurs are most hopeful to increasingly develop as this rebuild takes shape. 

Johnson is proven as a secondary option; a catch-and-shoot/slashing ace who can flow into pick-and-roll. But what can he do with what figures to be a significant usage spike? 

From a financial standpoint, San Antonio seemingly got ahead of what it believes is going to be a strong season for Johnson, whom it signed to a four-year, $80 million rookie extension this summer. If he builds on a junior campaign that saw him post over 17 points, six boards and two assists per game on 40-percent 3-point shooting — something in the 20-22 ppg range on similar efficiency — that contract will look like a bargain and the Spurs will know they have a true foundational piece moving forward. 

For Vassell, is he more than a 3-and-D guy? He wants to be, but 80 percent of his buckets last season were assisted. He should get more opportunities this season to create. He’s talked about his belief in the value of midrange scoring, and indeed he connected on 43 percent of his 14-24 footers last season, per Cleaning the Glass. To me, that’s where Vassell can grow: using the increased threat of his 3-point shot (36 percent last season) to put the ball on the floor and get to his midrange spots. We saw DeAndre Hunter make this leap in his second season. Vassell has already started the process. 

Even if Vassell, who is likely to move into a full-time starting role this season, simply further solidifies himself as a 3-and-D weapon with a few more sprinkles of self-creation — a Mikal Bridges-type, if you will — he’ll have big value for the Spurs moving forward given his defensive versatility and overall upside. 

Next up: The rookies

The Spurs had an excellent 2022 draft. Everyone is excited about Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio’s highest 2022 first-round pick (No. 9 overall), but don’t sleep on Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley, the latter of which could be competing for the starting point guard job with Tre Jones. 

Physically, Sochan looks a lot like Obi Toppin looked coming out of college: 6-9 and extremely athletic as a floor runner and finishing around the rim. What is Sochan’s offensive upside? Can he develop a jumper? Those are the key questions, because the defense stands to be elite in time. I once had a scout tell me that lateral movement is one of the most unteachable traits in a player; you either have it or you don’t, and Sochan has it. This is a guy who looks like an instructional video who has come to life, what with him sliding his feet on the perimeter. It’s an invaluable skill in today’s era of switching big men. Combine that with Sochan’s elite length and athleticism as a shot blocker and tracking defender who stays connected to the hip of penetrators, and it gets pretty impressive pretty quickly. 

Branham, meanwhile, is right up my alley. A lot of writers these days like to explore the nuances of different skill sets and end up with a greater appreciation for the little things. I can be down with that kind of evaluation from time to time, but mostly I like the big things. Like putting the ball in the basket. It is not hard to imagine Branham in the Khris Middleton ilk. Not terribly explosive, he creates his own jumper with footwork and handle that flow together easily. He can spot up, pull up, catch off movement and fire, and his back-to-the-basket work for clean fade-aways is straight up silky. Studying a lot of this guy the past week, he’s become one of my most intriguing rookies to watch. 

That’s what this season is about for the Spurs. Can Johnson and Vassell take their next respective steps, and is this pretty heralded rookie class worthy of the optimism? 

One more thing: Will Pop embrace the tank?

Popovich let loose with the following media-day quip on Monday: “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’ll say it anyway … what the hell: Nobody here should go to Vegas with the thought of betting on us to win the championship.” 

In this one stating-the-obvious joke, Popovich more or less set the tone for a Spurs season that isn’t going to be judged by wins and losses. Well, it actually might be judged by the losses. But not the wins. Those will be few and far between. There’s a realistic chance that San Antonio ends up with the worst record in the league, and again, this is largely by design. That’s why Derrick White was sent to Boston last February and Dejounte Murray to Atlanta this summer. No more DeRozan or Rudy Gay. All these guys have been sent elsewhere so the guys mentioned above can have what amounts to a proper tryout as the organization quietly sets its aim on Victor Wembanyama at the top of the 2023 draft. 

All of that said, is Pop cut out for that kind of approach? The man is wired to win. My guess is the Spurs play it straight for most of the season and simply won’t be good enough for it to matter. They’ll be in line to win fewer than 20 games, and down the stretch of the season you’ll likely see Keldon Johnson, at least, sitting a lot of games out, allowing Pop to coach with an honest mind toward getting the most out of the guys on the court. Keep that in mind if you’re thinking about picking up Johnson in your fantasy league; he could be a classic big-numbers/bad-team guy if you can withstand the late-season DNPs. 

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