SAN ANTONIO – Practice time is over.
After seven days of scrimmages, the NBA officially restarts their regular season schedule Thursday night with a game between the Jazz and the Pelicans. In a symbolic way, the season picks up right where it left off in mid-March, as Utah center Rudy Gobert was the first player to test positive for the coronavirus. That test was essentially responsible for shutting down the entire league.
The Spurs do not play on opening night. Instead, San Antonio will take the courts in Orlando for their first regular season matchup on Friday night against the Sacramento Kings. Fans will have to adjust to a very different Spurs team, as big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles will both miss the entirety of the eight-game restart due to injuries. Over the course of their three scrimmages, San Antonio has utilized a new, smaller starting lineup featuring DeMar DeRozan, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV. This is all part of head coach Gregg Popovich’s plan to use this restart as an opportunity to develop the younger players on the roster.
With that in mind, here are three Spurs that fans should be watching the most in the coming weeks as the team battles for playoff position and builds towards the future.
1. LONNIE WALKER IV
After seeing playing time in only 17 games during his rookie campaign, Lonnie Walker IV has blossomed into an impact player on both sides of the ball during his second season. In the early stages of March, Walker was finding consistent minutes and started in four games. He might have averaged only 5.6 points per game, but he consistently injected life into each contest with highlight-reel dunks and game-changing steals.
Since the Spurs entered the NBA bubble, Walker has packed on more muscle and has delivered consistently as a member of San Antonio’s new-look starting lineup. He scored double-digit points in each of the team’s three scrimmages and made exactly half of his shots from the floor. Walker is also still adding a new dimension to his offense: assists. The actual number of assists, eight in three games, might not jump off the page, but the pinpoint passes he delivered to his teammates during the team’s final scrimmage show that he has plenty of room to grow. The restart has provided a golden opportunity for Walker to showcase his potential against the league’s best.
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2. DERRICK WHITE
It’s hard to believe that one of the Spurs’ most important players is still flying under the radar, even after displaying his talents with Team USA over the course of last summer. That’s the situation point guard Derrick White currently finds himself in.
After starting in 55 of the 67 games he played in last season, White transitioned into a leader off the bench with the return of Dejounte Murray from injury this year. Even in playing fewer average minutes per game, White’s offensive output has remained relatively the same and arguably become more efficient. His performances in the scrimmages have shown that he’s still as versatile as ever. Against the Nets, White led the Spurs in scoring with 22 points. He then followed that up with an all-around effort against the Pacers in which he recorded three blocks, five rebounds and five assists. Now that he’s entrenched in the starting lineup, White has another prime opportunity to secure his spot with the Spurs for years to come, especially considering he’s about to enter the final year of his initial four-year contract with San Antonio.
3. KELDON JOHNSON
Of the Spurs’ most recent draft picks, Kentucky guard Keldon Johnson, has established himself as the one to watch. Aside from the praise he’s received from teammates regarding his vibrant personality, Johnson has shown he can also deliver on the court. In San Antonio’s final scrimmage against Indiana, Johnson led the team with 21 points in 25 minutes on just 7 of 8 shooting.
That scoring touch has been difficult to maintain during his limited playing time. Prior to the shutdown, Johnson only averaged 10 minutes and 4.6 points per game in the nine games he suited up, highlighted by a 13-point performance against the Nets back on March 6. With that said, the coaching staff has made it clear how much they love his effort and energy, so you can expect Johnson to get his fair share of playing time over the course of the next eight games to prove that he is the steal of the 2019 NBA draft.
Lonnie ➡️ Keldon Johnson DUNK 🔥 pic.twitter.com/k9ODX6wJgL— Spurs SA Belgium 😷 (@SpursBelgium) July 28, 2020