Thursday, June 1, 2023

Four Spurs players to watch during 2021-22 season: Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson among breakout candidates

For two-plus decades, the San Antonio Spurs were one of the league’s premier franchises. They made 22 straight playoff appearances and won five titles thanks to the likes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. Now, the glory days are over and the team is heading in a brand new direction. 

When they lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in tournament, it confirmed that they would miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. And with DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills off to seek more competitive situations, the Spurs are officially embarking on a rare rebuild. 

But because they have been so successful for so long, there’s no marquee prospect to build around. Even when they’ve missed out on the playoffs they’ve still been drafting in the back-end of the lottery and haven’t had a top-10 pick since they took Tim Duncan back in 1997. There’s no Zion Williamson or Cade Cunningham on this roster, no one to hold up as the future of the franchise nor bring in the fans.

Because of that the Spurs are not only going to be pretty bad this season, they’re also going to be largely ignored. For example, the Spurs only have five national TV appearances this season, and four of those are NBA TV, which doesn’t really count. That’s not the end-all-be-all of interest, but it gives a pretty good indication of who the league and the media thinks people will care about. 

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This is going to be a completely different Spurs team than we’re used to seeing, one filled with mostly young and somewhat unknown players — at least to the broader national audience. Ahead of training camp, here are four young Spurs players to keep an eye on this season:

San Antonio Spurs roster

1. Dejounte Murray

The team’s leading returning scorer, Murray enters this season as the Spurs’ best player. Which, no offense to him because he’s a really fun and versatile young guard, but that gives you a good idea of where the Spurs are at right now. 

After tearing his ACL and missing the entire 2018-19 season, Murray has continually improved since his return. Last season was his best yet, as he put up 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He’s set to take on an even bigger role this season, and it will be fascinating to see how he responds. 

We know Murray has the physical attributes and can do all of the little things. He’s long and athletic, has improved as a playmaker and gets after it on the defensive end. He’s just an absolute pest on that end of the floor and is going to make a few more All-Defensive teams before his career is over. 

But to take the next step and become a star, or even borderline star as a lead guard, you have to be able to put the ball in the basket on a regular basis. That’s going to be the challenge for Murray this season. Can he take advantage of this opportunity and carry this Spurs offense? A lot will depend on the state of his jumper, which has been inconsistent throughout his career. He was solid from the mid-range last season, shooting 45.4 percent, but only hit 31.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. 

2. Derrick White

A few years ago, in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, the Spurs nearly pulled off an upset against the No. 2 seed Denver Nuggets. That was thanks in large part to White, who had something of a coming out party in that series, which included a thunderous dunk over Paul Millsap in Game 1. 

Since then, however, his career hasn’t taken off in the way the Spurs might have hoped. He was solid in the pandemic-shortened season and had some great games in the bubble, but then was limited to just 36 games last season because of a streak of bad luck. He had offseason foot surgery, then fractured his toe, then got COVID-19 and finally suffered an ankle injury. 

This season will be a chance for White to start fresh, both from a health and role perspective. He’ll be starting alongside Dejounte Murray in the backcourt and will have more scoring and playmaking responsibilities than ever before. Much like with Murray, the question is what can he do with that opportunity?

When healthy we know he’s a super dependable player who can do a lot of things well. He knocks down 3s at a decent clip, is a solid playmaker and will defend multiple positions. Because of that, there’s a pretty high floor for his production. But whether he can take that next step and be more than a role player remains to be seen. 

3. Keldon Johnson

Many fans tuning in to watch Team USA this summer at the Tokyo Olympics were probably surprised and/or confused to see Keldon Johnson’s name on the team sheet. After all, he’s only played 86 games in the NBA, and even as an injury replacement he seemed like the odd man out on an American roster filled with All-Stars. 

The No. 29 pick in the 2019 draft, Johnson spent his rookie season between the Spurs and their G League affiliate in Austin. That extra development time paid off, as Johnson impressed in his sophomore campaign, putting up an efficient 12.8 points, six rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. His play caught the eye of USA Basketball, who invited him to join the Select Team, and eventually the National Team for the trip to Tokyo.

Johnson played sparingly in Tokyo, checking in for just 22 minutes across four games. Any actual playing time was always going to be a nice bonus, however. The real benefit for Johnson was just being able to make the trip, to practice against and be around some of the best players in the world for a month. That experience should only make him better. 

If Johnson ends up making a big leap this summer, it won’t be hard to figure out why. He’s already a solid all-around player who works hard and excels at getting to the rim and finishing — 59.7 percent on five attempts in the restricted area per game. He still has room to improve, of course, in particular with his defense and 3-point shot, but Johnson is too well-rounded not to continue being successful. 

4. Joshua Primo

With the No. 12 overall pick in this year’s draft, the Spurs selected Joshua Primo from Alabama. The youngest player in the draft class, many mocks didn’t even have him going in the first round, let alone the lottery. As a result, the Spurs’ decision was widely seen as one of the most surprising and confusing picks in years. 

But what if there was a method to the Spurs’ apparent madness? No one would tell you that Primo is not talented. The concern was more that it was too early to take someone so young, and who wasn’t even the best player on his college team. However, the Spurs are in desperate need of star power, and a home run swing on someone like Primo — who would have been a lottery pick next year if he stayed in college — is an understandable risk to take. 

Primo is already a strong 3-point shooter and has the tools to be a pesky perimeter defender. Those are two of the main skill requirements to make it as a guard in the league, and he flashed some much-improved self-creation during Summer League. Yes, it was only a few games, but there were some real positive signs this summer. 

At just 18 years old, and with a number of guards ahead of him on the depth chart, it’s not clear how much Primo is going to play this season. The Spurs have a renowned player development program, and it’s likely that Primo will bounce between the big club and the G League in order to get reps. But in any case, he’s certainly one to keep an eye on. 

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