The Spurs Are Finding Their Offensive Identity Around Victor Wembanyama

Devin Vassell, Victor Wembanyama

Key Highlights

  • The San Antonio Spurs have a plus-10.3 net rating in 1,268 possessions with Victor Wembanyama, Devin Vassell and Tre Jones on the floor
  • Wembanyama has assisted Vassell nine times in five games since the All-Star Break after doing so just 30 times in 44 prior games together
  • Jones is shooting 72 percent at the rim this season, which ranks in the 95th percentile among guards, according to Cleaning The Glass

Holding a six-point lead with 2.5 minutes remaining and locked into a shootout against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs turned over the keys to their best players, Victor Wembanyama and Devin Vassell, for a crunch-time victory.

Across three consecutive possessions, the lanky, long-limbed duo combined for seven points and sealed an impressive 132-119 win over the West’s No. 2 seed. By night’s end, Vassell had logged his third straight 20-point performance with 28 points, nine dimes, three rebounds, two blocks and one steal — only to be swept away because of Wembanyama’s 28-point, 13-rebound, seven-assist, five-swat, two-steal masterclass.

As San Antonio navigates a 12-win season, Wembanyama and Vassell have solidified themselves as cornerstones of the Spurs’ prosperous future. Wembanyama is already a star, averaging 20.7 points (56.5 percent true shooting), 10.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 3.3 blocks and 1.3 steals. He’s been on a tear since mid-December and should garner legitimate Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

The 23-year-old Vassell, meanwhile, has continued his 2022-23 breakout and adapted beautifully to playing alongside the French phenom, averaging 19.3 points (58.2 percent true shooting), 3.9 assists and 1.0 steals.

How Do Victor Wembanyama And Devin Vassell Work Together Offensively?

Although Wembanyama and Vassell have never really clashed stylistically, their offensive partnership is rising to a new level this month. San Antonio is recognizing how to amplify this tandem and figuring out the best spots on the floor to facilitate actions through them.

Primarily, that’s been empty corner dribble handoffs moving from left to right. In five games following the All-Star Break, the Spurs have spammed this set for a variety of snazzy results. It’s what defined their surprise win Thursday night. They’ll often clear the opposite wing and load the weakside corner to let Vassell and Wembanyama boogie in space.

Most defenders chase Vassell over the top because he’s a high-level shooter (37 percent from deep, 36.4 percent on pull-up threes this season), and Wembanyama’s unprecedented roll gravity wrangles defenders into a bind. That usually opens up lanes inside for Vassell, whose 6-foot-10 wingspan enables lofty release points for jumpers, and he’s quite bold in tossing lobs to the big fella. There’s not much to do other than hope Vassell misses a midrange pull-up or the screen navigation is slippery because most low men aren’t equipped to bother Wembanyama at the basket.

Vassell’s made a concerted effort to get downhill and finish with newfound aggression this year. He’s shooting a career-high 72 percent around the rim (87th percentile among wings) and has a career-high 22 percent rim frequency. San Antonio scheming more actions for him and Wembanyama has reinforced this trend.

During this five-game run, his rim frequency is 28 percent and he’s shooting 77 percent there. It’s clear Wembanyama’s presence emboldens him for the betterment of his own shot profile and San Antonio’s offense. So much attention is devoted to the 20-year-old in the paint, which allows Vassell to leverage his size, length and vertical pop to score inside.

It’s been fun to watch them mix in different reads, whether that be dives, pops and short rolls, off-ball rejections, hard drives to the tin or quick pop-gun jumpers. As San Antonio adds more shooting around these two and they incorporate intricate counters, slowing the Vassell-Wembanyama empty corner DHO will become even more challenging to stymie.

This is the start of another two-man staple in a league full of good offense built around a singular prolific pairing. Just imagine if or when Wembanyama starts making consistent contact on his screens, too.

Before the All-Star Break, Wembanyama dished out 30 assists in 44 games (0.68 per game) to Vassell. Since the All-Star Break, he’s tallied nine helpers in five games (1.8) to Vassell. They are beginning to directly thrive together rather than merely benefiting one another by virtue of their talent and existence on the court. That’s a meaningful difference the Spurs should revel in.

How Else Is San Antonio Building Its Offense Around Victor Wembanyama?

Vassell’s 2020 draft mate, Tre Jones — who was pivotal Thursday with 17 points (6-of-9 shooting) and eight assists (zero turnovers) — is also enjoying his finest season to date, averaging 9.9 points (59.7 percent true shooting), 5.9 assists (1.5 turnovers), and 1.0 steals. He entered the starting unit 26 games ago and has been even better, averaging 12.0 points (66.0 percent true shooting), 7.0 assists (1.5 turnovers) and 1.2 steals.

Aside from ball-screen bravado and point-of-attack pestering, two of Jones’ standout traits are his screening and finishing. He can neutralize defenders on his picks, reads openings well as a roller, and is shooting 72 percent at the rim (95th percentile, according to Cleaning The Glass).

All of that complements Wembanyama’s atypical penchant for passing in small windows, and San Antonio has leaned into these strengths over the past month, dialing up numerous inverted pick-and-rolls between the two.

Jones isn’t the sole partner for Wembanyama, but he seems the most frequent. During their first 33 games together, Wembanyama assisted the former Duke Blue Devil 13 times. He’s done so 14 times over the past 16 games.

Sometimes, Vassell joins the party and embraces the funk of an inverted attack, too. Given the wide-ranging offensive portfolio of he and Wembanyama, continuing to explore this space would be a prudent decision.

Nikola Jokic  is probably the lone other center who could creatively deliver passes with either hand through small creases like Wembanyama is doing lately. San Antonio understands the rare skills its generational star touts and is increasingly showcasing them as a pillar of the offense.

His height, length, flexibility, pull-up game and passing acumen grant him playmaking windows few contemporaries can access. He is genuinely unique in a world that label is too liberally given. The Spurs must take advantage. They’re on their way.

With 12 wins and 48 losses to their name, the Spurs are a very bad team staring down another top-five pick. They’re last in the West and 26th in net rating (minus-8.2). Yet when Wembanyama, Vassell and Jones share the hardwood, the Spurs sport a plus-10.3 net rating in 1,268 possessions. When any one of them is off the floor, San Antonio’s net rating has plummeted to minus-13.3 in 4,604 possessions.

That dichotomy speaks to the lack of congruent rotation-level options around those three. The Spurs are in talent acquisition mode. They need significantly more to be playoff mainstays again. The production of that trio illuminates the blueprint for success with Wembanyama at the helm: a secondary scorer and pick-and-roll guard who don’t make their center’s life tougher defensively. Sprinkle in some depth, shooting and two other starting-caliber wings — one of which may ultimately be Jeremy Sochan — and San Antonio won’t be a basement dweller for long.

Imagine Vassell in three or four years operating a similar role and a higher-volume scorer/playmaker in Jone’s stead. Jones has absolutely played well enough to stick around long-term, but a No. 3 starter feels overly optimistic.

Juiced-up versions of their archetypes — whether it’s future versions of themselves or external upgrades — as well as Wembanyama’s own blossoming, will have he and the Spurs winning a whole lot. It’s not like Vassell and Jones are All-Stars right now, and they’re still helping San Antonio smoke teams during Wembanyama’s stints.

Early on, his offensive usage and decision-making felt scattered. The possibilities were such a vast and intriguing playground that narrowing his deployment might do a disservice to his ceiling. Nowadays, he still holds endless freedom, just with more concrete ways to channel and maximize it.

Summiting the mountain of winning remains steep for these Spurs, but Wembanyama’s sprawling strides may expedite the process. This recent offensive evolution is ensuring the responsibility won’t rest entirely on him, though, and it’s quickly framing a winning future into focus.