There’s only so much you can ask for before it starts to seem greedy. Which is why, as he wound down the third-worst season in the august history of the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich knew better than to ask for more.
"We deserve no more luck ever in the history of NBA basketball," Popovich said before the end of the regular season, according to Spurs reporter Matthew Tynan. “Quit your crying. ‘Poor us. We have to start over again.’ It's baloney. I'm just grateful for the good fortune I've had.”
But blessedly for Pop, team CEO R.C. Buford, general manager Brian Wright, and everybody else in San Antonio silver-and-black, when it comes to the NBA Draft Lottery, it turns out deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
Losing 61 games in 1989 brought the Spurs David Robinson. Losing 62 games in 1997 brought them Tim Duncan. And now, losing 60 games in 2023 will bring them — spoiler alert for Krysten Peek’s post-lottery mock draft! — Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 French goliath tipped by many evaluators as the most tantalizing draft prospect since LeBron James entered the league 20 years ago.
“Our future was already bright,” Spurs chairman Peter J. Holt told reporters after the lottery-night victory. “Now it’s going to be through the moon.”
This latest bout of generational good fortune sparked thousands of new season-ticket orders in the first hours after the lottery win — just one indicator of how excited fans in San Antonio are for the arrival of a new tentpole talent around whom to build the next competitive iteration of a franchise that has won five NBA championships in the last quarter-century.
Once the pick’s actually in, though, Spurs brass will have to start answering the million-dollar question: What kind of team do they want to build around Wembanyama, and how exactly do they build it?
So many paths to choose
The Spurs enter their brave new world with only two contracts that extend beyond 2024, as much as $43.5 million in salary cap space to spend, and control of as many as 15 first-round draft picks and 26 second-round selections through 2030, including unprotected Hawks first-round picks in 2025 and 2027, thanks to last summer’s Dejounte Murray deal. No team with pre-existing contracts and player-development investments is a complete blank slate; San Antonio’s about as close as it gets, though.
As it stands, the only sizable contracts on San Antonio’s books beyond the end of next season belong to forward Keldon Johnson, who signed a four-year, $74 million contract extension last summer, and guard Devonte’ Graham, who came over from the Pelicans in a trade-deadline deal for Josh Richardson and will make $24.8 million over the next two seasons. While Graham offers the kind of high-volume long-distance shooting — 35.6% on more than nine 3-point attempts per 36 minutes of floor time for his career — that could prove useful for a Spurs team that ranked in the bottom third of the league in 3-point makes, attempts and accuracy last season, that’s also the kind of contract that seems tailor-made to serve as salary-matching ballast in a deal that returns a player whom San Antonio’s brass might see as a better long-term fit alongside its new main man.
Devin Vassell, the 11th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, is eligible for an extension of his rookie deal this summer. Considering the last three such extensions the Spurs handed out (Dejounte Murray in 2019, Derrick White in 2020, Johnson in 2022) were four-year deals starting at between 13% and 15% of the salary cap, it seems reasonable to guess that a re-up would earn Vassell somewhere around $80 million through 2028.
Tre Jones is up for a new deal, too. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Spurs like the second-round-pick-turned-starting-point-guard and his unsurprisingly strong assist-to-turnover ratio (he is Tyus Jones’ little brother, after all) enough to sign him to an extension, or if they’re content to extend him a $5.2 million qualifying offer, let him hit restricted free agency and let him get an offer on the market before deciding whether to keep him around.
Rotation vets Doug McDermott, Zach Collins and Khem Birch will all be unrestricted free agents after next season (Collins’ $7.7 million deal for 2023-24 is unguaranteed until the day of the 2023 NBA draft). San Antonio’s trio of 2022 first-rounders – Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley – are all on cost-controlled, rookie-scale deals through at least 2027. A handful of two-way-ish prospects — big men Charles Bassey and Sandro Mamukelashvili, and wings Romeo Langford, Julian Champagnie and Dominick Barlow — dot the fringes of the discussion.
Which is to say: There’s nobody in the fold that the Spurs couldn’t move on from if they decided doing so would be best for the business of building around Wembanyama, no millstone salary so onerous that they couldn’t excise it if necessary — no real impediment to crafting the kind of team they decide makes the most sense. That means Wright and Co. can afford to blue-sky their approach to what the ideal supporting cast for the next big thing might look like.
What do you get the giant who has everything?
The beauty of bringing a skyscraping rim protector who can dribble, pass and shoot, with the skill set to play on the perimeter on both ends and the size to dominate on the interior, is that you can construct virtually any type of team around him that you can envision. The responsibility that comes with it, though, is to do so in a way that commits to exploring the full utility of such an overflowing toolkit.
"Victor will not be put in a box," Wembanyama’s Dallas-based agent, Bouna Ndiaye, recently told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Jonathan Givony. "People will have to adapt to him."
Translation: You’re not just going to tell him to stand under the rim with his arms up on defense and get his ass on the low block on the other end. A player with the handle to face up and attack from the wing, the footwork and shooting touch to comfortably launch from long distance, and the agility and length to handle himself switching out onto guards on the perimeter requires a more flexible approach to roster building and lineup construction. It ought to be fascinating to see how fluid Pop’s willing to be with his new prized pupil.
The fully realized version of Wembanyama, with a few years of NBA strength and conditioning under his belt, profiles as a blot-out-the-sun force at center. At first, though, you’d imagine him starting at power forward. Even if injuries might not be as large of a concern as you’d expect for a player so large and so thin, saving your brand-new generational prospect both the pounding that comes with guarding up a position and the primary responsibility for anchoring your defense every second that he’s on the court seems like a reasonable starting point.
Besides, if you’ve got a beefier 7-footer who can bang on the block, protect the rim and do a little playmaking alongside your just-drafted dauphin, deploying them together could go a long way toward transforming a terrible defense. Just ask J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cavaliers, who paired eternity-armed No. 3 draft pick Evan Mobley with stalwart pivot Jarrett Allen in 2021, and promptly saw a unit that had finished in the bottom five in points allowed per possession for five straight seasons transmogrify into one that finished sixth in defensive efficiency in 2021-22 and first last season.
If San Antonio thinks along those lines, Collins might be a pretty strong introductory frontcourt partner for Wembanyama. The former first-round pick out of Gonzaga showed flashes of two-way production with the Trail Blazers before a spate of injuries — to his left shoulder, his left ankle (twice) and his left foot — limited him to just 39 appearances in the span of three seasons. He played well for San Antonio in his return last season, though, averaging 11.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 22.9 minutes per game, shooting 57% inside the arc and 37% beyond it.
He might not be quite as imposing a force on the glass as you’d like to pair with the reedier Wembanyama — he’s grabbed 22.5% of opponents’ misses across two seasons in San Antonio, a good-but-not-elite rate for a 4/5 type — but he can hold down the fort on the interior. He's held opponents to 54.9% shooting at the rim last season, the 11th-lowest mark among 269 players to guard at least 100 up-close tries during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking. (It doesn’t hurt matters that Collins is the kind of, let’s say, always willing combatant who’ll be more than happy to get in the face of any opponent that decides to take liberties with the bright young thing.)
If the Spurs elect to play a traditional 5 alongside Wembanyama, the next intriguing question will be how they flank him on the perimeter. Vassell feels like a tailor-made fit. The 6-foot-5 wing can guard multiple positions, took significant steps forward last season as a ball-handler and shot-creator, and shot 43.2% on catch-and-shoot triples, 14th out of 169 players to put up at least 150 spot-up threes, according to Second Spectrum. I’m maybe more bullish on Vassell than is warranted — I believe I suggested early last season that, if you squinted at him, you could kind of see Year 3 Paul George, which, I’ll grant, feels strong — but if the goal is to surround the big fella with shooters who can defend, Vassell’s the best man for the job on the current roster.
Sochan, too, feels like a perfect complement — a hard-charging board-crasher capable of taking the toughest perimeter assignments every night; his list of most frequent defensive matchups as a rookie reads like an All-Star ballot. The second-year forward also provides utility as a complementary ball-handler (he spent a lot of time as a rookie functioning as a point guard; the only Spurs to bring the ball up the court more often last season were Jones, Branham and Wesley, according to Second Spectrum), playmaker (3.5 assists per 36 minutes, seventh among rookies who logged at least 500 minutes) and, um, stuff-stirring irritant to ratchet up the defensive intensity and physicality on a team that could use much more of both. Here’s hoping Sochan is spending his offseason launching a million jumpers; if he can improve from a 25% 3-point shooter defenses can ignore to a near-league-average marksman that they have to at least honor, it’d dramatically vault his, and San Antonio’s, offensive ceiling.
The most bankable present-tense commodity on the roster is probably Johnson. The Kentucky product has increased his scoring average in each of his first four pro seasons, saw his touches and usage rate increase after San Antonio shipped White to the Celtics at the 2022 trade deadline and became the Spurs’ No. 1 option last season after Murray headed to Atlanta, averaging a career-high 22 points per game while shooting 52% inside the arc and generating nearly six free-throw attempts per 36 minutes. His shooting efficiency tailed off considerably last season, from 39.8% from deep in 2021-22 to 32.9% last season; with a new centerpiece in Wembanyama in place, though, it’s worth wondering whether those numbers might tick back up in a more circumscribed role.
Will Pop let his freak flag fly enough to test-drive a mammoth lineup — Collins, Wembanyama, Johnson and Vassell, with Sochan running point — and see if it has enough collective shooting and playmaking to allow the defensive possibilities of all that size and length to shine through?
If he prefers to stick with a more traditional lead guard to make sure San Antonio can get into its sets and the top pick can get service without wings-masquerading-as-points kicking the ball all over the court, who goes to the bench? Could Pop sell Johnson on going from three seasons of starting and one of being the No. 1 option to being a sixth man? If that proves an awkward adjustment, is it worth finding out what a 23-year-old 20-plus-point scorer with upside might be able to return in trade — whether by himself, or with some of those many, many picks attached?
Can Jones shoot well enough (and frequently enough) to avoid the kind of offensive congestion that so frequently plagued the Spurs last season? If not, might Wright and the front office go hard after another table-setter better equipped to level up that offense? Like, say, Fred VanVleet, who’s got a player option for next season that he could exercise to hit the open market and who might look pretty good in silver and black. Or do they decide it’s a bit too early to start splashing the cash, preferring instead to let a rotation likely to feature at least a half-dozen players age 23 or younger simmer on the stove for a while to see what develops before looking to kickstart the drive to contention in earnest?
That is … a lot of questions. That’s what a talent like Wembanyama brings, though; with limitless possibility comes an endless array of doors to open, paths to choose and decisions to make. One day, pingpong-ball deliverance; the next, the difficult work of turning dreams into reality and potential into wins.
“You gotta get lucky,” Wright recently told reporters. “But you gotta put yourself in position to best capture that luck.”
In San Antonio, that process will likely start with deciding who’s playing which position, and which positions will need to be filled by something more than luck.