From Pop’s future to Keldon’s rise. Here’s the 6 biggest questions Spurs face as season tips off

This week’s Spurs newsletter previews upcoming season

(AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Eric Gay, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

It’s been a long and winding road but four seasons after Kawhi Leonard burned every bridge out of San Antonio, the Spurs have finally embraced a full on youth movement as the regular season tips-off Wednesday night at the AT&T Center. Welcome to our Spurs newsletter.

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The Spurs enter the 2021-22 regular season with a new-look squad where 25-year-old Dejounte Murray is the most tenured player on the roster with five years under his silver-and-black belt. A total of 12 players on the current roster are 25 years old or younger.

LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and adopted San Antonio son Patty Mills (sigh) are no longer with the team. But 72-year-old Gregg Popovich has returned for his 26th season as head coach for the Spurs. That stretch is seven years older than Josh Primo, who will turn 19 in late December!

With Pop back and this new-look roster in tact, let’s take a look at the six biggest questions facing this year’s San Antonio Spurs.

1. Who will be the team or locker room leader?

(AP Photo/Darren Abate) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

For decades, the Spurs used the phrase “corporate knowledge” as a way of integrating new players onto a roster normally filled with veterans. Patty Mills held that role after the Big 3 called it a career, and well, Patty is now in Brooklyn.

Hopefully the Spurs corporate knowledge has been passed on to the likes of Murray and Derrick White, the two players who have been here the longest. But my sense is that Murray is the one that has to take up the mantle.

DJ has improved every year he’s been in San Antonio and keep in mind he lost a full season with an ACL injury three years ago.

Last season, he averaged career highs in points (15.7), rebounds (7.1), assists (5.4) and is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. It’s not a stretch to say he might end up as the team’s leading scorer.

But can he lead through the lows and carry the Spurs during key moments? The Spurs have missed the playoffs two consecutive seasons and if they manage to get back to the postseason, Dejounte will have to lead them there.

Who is the most important player and who’s taking the clutch shots?

(AP Photo/Darren Abate) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

I combined these two because I think the answer is the same person: Derrick White. But this comes with another major question, can D-White stay healthy for the season?

White posted a career high in points per game (15.4) last season and was one of the Spurs best 3-point shooters at 35%, but played in only 36 games. With DeRozan gone, White is now the team’s best facilitator, especially in the pick-and-roll. He’s a solid defender and can play multiple positions on the perimeter. He will see time at point guard as well.

I sense the ball will be in his hands during close, late-game situations so he will be the de-facto Spurs “go-to guy” down the stretch, a role that was DeRozan’s during his tenure in San Antonio.

But it all comes down to Derrick staying on the court. Two seasons ago in the Orlando bubble, White was given the green light to go full throttle on offense and he showed glimpses by averaging nearly 21 points during a six-game stretch before, you guessed it, suffering an injury.

3. How high can KJ fly?

(AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Expectations are through the roof for Keldon Johnson after his Olympic experience and his breakout sophomore campaign where he averaged nearly 13 points and six rebounds per game.

It’s crazy to think KJ was selected No. 29 in his draft and Luka Samanic was picked ten slots before him! But let’s not talk about Luka for now.

After a fast start to last season, Johnson, AKA “the mustang,” was corralled a bit down the stretch. Defenders let KJ operate outside in an effort to slow down his drives to the basket and points in the paint, and it worked.

KJ said his goal this offseason was to work on his mid-range and outside offensive game and he’s shown flashes of that in the preseason, including the addition of some nice fade aways and step backs to his repertoire.

If Johnson can be consistent in that area, then he has a chance to run loose this season and reach a new level. He’s already been pegged by many NBA executives and media members as a breakout star candidate for the Spurs.

4. What other player will be key to a potential successful season?

(AP Photo/Darren Abate) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

I know Spurs fans are really digging Josh Primo but he’s only 18! Give him some time. And while Jakob Poeltl, Lonnie Walker and Devin Vassell will all be valuable contributors this year, this definitely goes to Doug McBuckets…I mean McDermott.

This was a very underrated signing for San Antonio this offseason. The front office brought in a veteran player who just knows the ebbs and flows of the NBA game and should fit right in with what should be a free-wheeling offense.

The Spurs have struggled mightily from 3-point range in recent seasons and the addition of McDermott along with once former Spur Bryn Forbes should add some much needed scoring punch from that area.

McDermott is also coming off a season where he averaged a career high 13.6 points per game and shot 53% overall. He’s a smart player and will get the green light to shoot from outside.

5. Will Pop break the all-time regular season coaching record?

(AP Photo/Darren Abate) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Coach Pop is just 26 wins away from breaking Don Nelson’s all-time career wins record so my answer is yes, he will break it unless something goes horribly wrong for the Spurs this season. The bigger question is how much longer will Pop be roaming the Spurs bench?

A recent report by reporter Jordan Schultz indicated this season or next would be his last as head coach for the Spurs and the “organization has initiated an extensive search into finding his replacement.” That includes in-house and outside candidates. Just my feeling, but I believe Pop wants to get the Spurs back into the playoffs before he rides off to a winery in Italy.

He’s said multiple times he enjoys coaching, molding and learning from this generation of young players. Pop has accomplished it all after his Gold Medal coaching victory, so he’ll likely get the wins record this season and evaluate where this team is headed into the this offseason.

6. Will the Spurs make the playoffs, any bold predictions?

The Spurs will…hit the over in wins if you partake in those things. The Las Vegas over/under for Spurs wins is 28.5 and San Antonio is predicted to finish 13th overall in the West. That’s way off in my opinion.

People are underrating this team and if they can continue to improve defensively, which they did last year, it will make up for some potential offensive bumps in the road.

I like this group and more important, they seem to like one another and want to play for one another. Pop and the staff will get them to compete, but the West is loaded again.

I have the Spurs finishing around 37-45 and sneaking into the play-in tournament. I wouldn’t mind eating crow if they somehow land a No. 7 seed. It all gets started Wednesday at home against Orlando.

About the Author:

RJ Marquez is co-host of KSAT News Now and reports for Good Morning San Antonio. He's been at KSAT since 2010 and covered a variety of stories and events across the San Antonio area. He also covers the Spurs for on-air and digital platforms, including his Spurs newsletter. RJ has reported stories for KSAT Explains.