Why you should expect the Spurs to play Vassell and Jones a lot this season

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Devin Vassell Tre Jones
PSN illustration. Photo credit: @spurs.

It’s rare when one NBA team can manage to snag what pundits deem to be two of the best defenders in the NBA Draft.

But that’s exactly what the San Antonio Spurs did with both of their 2020 draft selections.

Devin Vassell and Tre Jones have been in the NBA for one month. They’re at a dramatic disadvantage compared to previous rookies who had Summer League, training camp, and a normal preseason before making travel arrangements to Austin.

But nothing says the Spurs can only develop their rookies in the G League.

The Spurs acquired similar defensive talent through the draft in 2011. Kawhi Leonard was NBA-ready talent with the propensity to disrupt opposing teams.

Cory Joseph was the hard-nosed guard who had the potential to be a good role player with proper development.

While Joseph became the poster child of the Austin Spurs later that season, he still managed to log 29 games and one start during his first year. Meanwhile, Leonard took Richard Jefferson’s starting job two weeks into the season.

History has a chance to repeat itself with Jones and Vassell.

The COVID-19 era of the NBA has led to an expanded roster of 15 active players for 2021. The NBA jammed a 72-game schedule into 145 days and justified it by minimizing travel for teams.

If the MLB and NFL have taught us anything, it’s that coronavirus will make plans more difficult without a bubble environment like last season.

But the NBA has already seen its fair share of load management before the pandemic. The Spurs have four of their mainstays in LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills over the age of 30, so it’s fair to expect them to miss a handful of games.

Those factors give way to an increased workload and accelerated development for the rookies, despite their NBA tenure being 33 days at the time of this post.

But the biggest factor about why the rookies could see more game action is due in part to the abject failure of the NBA’s G League.

As the NBA suspended operations last season, the G League season was suspended as well and canceled without much fanfare. Players in the G League needing a way to keep some sort of income flowing went to play overseas as they usually do when the season ends.

The problem is, these players are now in a position where they can’t return to the United States because of travel restrictions. Additionally, reports of the G League entertaining a bubble in Atlanta that requires teams to buy-in for $500,000, makes it hard to see how this works.

No formal plans have been made, and roster construction seems difficult when the usual returning players are quarantined globally.

A bubble would also mean a quarantine period for players participating, which hampers two-way contracts in their ability to travel between teams while the bubble is active.

Two-way players are given only 45 days to stay with their NBA club. A 12-game G League season, spanning one month would make that rule nearly impossible to implement.

But it also means rookies like Vassell and Jones would waste two weeks of time quarantining to get in and out of the bubble if they were sent down for development.

San Antonio’s front office will be the ultimate deciding factor on how the two rookies get developed. A firm grasp of reality that they’re projected to miss the playoffs again, despite their successful 8-game run in the bubble, should be the kick needed to not let these guys sit for a year.

But this roster is still veteran dependent.

Aldridge, DeRozan, Gay, and Mills are all free agents at the end of this season. The balance between letting the vets showcase themselves to get another NBA job, versus developing cheaper and younger replacements, is one the Spurs failed to find last season until it was too late.

The Spurs have somewhat recreated their 2011 offseason. Their two newest additions can save the Spurs from repeating their 2020 results.

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