The Spurs’ Play-in Push and Budding Young Core Deserve Way More Attention

About three weeks ago, the San Antonio Spurs looked dead in the water. But heading into the final four games of their season, they have a two-game lead on the Los Angeles Lakers for the final spot in the NBA play-in tournament.

How did this happen?

The Spurs have absolutely been the beneficiaries of an epic Lakers collapse, with LA going 4-15 since the All-Star break. However, Gregg Popovich’s crew deserves credit for making a big push in recent weeks. Now, on the cusp of a play-in berth, San Antonio demands your respect.

This team has flown under the radar all season. Point guard Dejounte Murray was a notable All-Star snub before being named an injury replacement. But the Spurs’ core has found its stride at the right time. It’s a group that should garner plenty of intrigue in the years to come.

The Spurs have a shot at making the NBA play-in tournament

On March 18, the Spurs got blown out by the New Orleans Pelicans, falling to 27-44 on the season and looking like a lock to join the teams in the top 10 of the 2022 NBA Draft.

Since then, San Antonio has won six of its last seven games. It has snuck up to the No. 10 in the Western Conference standings, the final spot for the NBA play-in tournament.

The Spurs have been fortunate to play a fairly weak schedule in that stretch. Half of their wins came against a tanking Portland Trail Blazers team. They had the good fortune of playing the Golden State Warriors without Stephen Curry and beat a Houston Rockets squad that might end up with the No. 1 overall pick.

Still, San Antonio deserves credit for even giving itself a chance, and the Spurs have gradually shown signs of building sustainable success thanks to the growth of their young players.

Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson highlight a blossoming young core

San Antonio Spurs wing Keldon Johnson celebrates during an NBA game against the Golden State Warriors in March 2022
Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs celebrates after he got an offensive rebound and put-back bucket to take the lead in an NBA game against the Golden State Warriors on March 20, 2022 | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Because of the Spurs’ seemingly annual success over the course of the last two-plus decades, they’ve rarely picked near the top of the draft. However, some of their late first-round choices are beginning to show their quality.

Chief among those players: Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson.

Murray has legitimately been one of the best guards in the NBA. In 67 games, he’s averaged 21.2 points, 9.3 assists, and 8.4 rebounds on a career-high 53.3% true shooting while also leading the league at 2.0 steals per game. The 25-year-old excels at getting downhill in pick-and-roll and makes plays from anywhere on the floor. He uses his length to harass ball-handlers and pick their pockets, also creating a steady amount of deflections on the defensive end.

Johnson, meanwhile, has been one of the rising wing players to watch. He’s been especially good since the All-Star break, averaging 20.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists on 58.1% true shooting. The Spurs forward is one of the best catch-and-shoot options in the league and has shown more juice creating his own shot and getting to the rim off the bounce.

Other players are starting to make their presence felt. Devin Vassell, the No. 11 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, is averaging 13.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.5 steals in his last 13 games. Lonnie Walker IV has averaged 15.3 points on 56.3% true shooting since the All-Star break.

None of these guys project immense star power. But they’re part of a foundation that could eventually reignite the Spurs as one of the more successful organizations in the NBA.

San Antonio must continue to build

Spurs fans aren’t likely to be happy with consistent NBA play-in tournament appearances. They’d probably prefer to get back to winning 50 games almost every season.

For that to happen anytime soon, San Antonio needs continued growth from its young players. The Spurs also need more pieces.

Murray gives the team a defensive playmaker, and Jakob Poeltl is an excellent rim protector. But the team defense is lacking. The Spurs actually have decent balance, ranking close to league average in offensive (15th) and defensive (17th) ratings. Their expected win-loss also puts them at 39-39, which would be good enough for eighth in the West.

But the reality is that the Spurs, as currently constructed, are a sub-.500 team overly reliant on guys in the nascent stages of their careers.

San Antonio might be a team to watch during the offseason. If it hits on draft picks and can add via free agency, this is a team that can rapidly climb the Western Conference standings. The pieces are in place.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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