Over the past decade or two, the San Antonio Spurs have shown an uncanny ability to accentuate the strengths of their role players. They’ve done so with a variety of players, but they’ve had a bunch of success with big men. Boris Diaw, DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter, Dewayne Dedmon and Fabricio Oberto are all prime examples of 4s and 5s who found their niche in rotational roles with San Antonio.
If early signs continue, Joffrey Lauvergne is a lock to join that group this season.
Lauvergne struggled last season in Oklahoma City and Chicago. He averaged 5.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, an assist and just 0.1 blocks in 14 minutes per contest on a poor true shooting percentage of 50.9. His minutes and role were inconsistent with both squads.
There wasn’t a skill that clearly stood out. The 26-year-old Frenchman is decently mobile, somewhat active on the glass and made smart decisions with the ball. But his lack of length and burst off the ground hurt him when it came to finishing and protecting the rim.
After his unimpressive campaign, the Spurs scooped him up for just $3.2 million over two years.
Like the Spurs often do with role players, they have made Lauvergne look great early in San Antonio. He looks a player who can do several things pretty well instead of a guy without a major strength.
Counting a scrimmage on Sept. 30, Lauvergne has played three games for his new squad. He has been excellent in all three. Though statistics aren’t available for the scrimmage, he has averaged 8.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 15 minutes per contest in the other two games. He shot 5-of-7 from the field and 7-of-9 from the free-throw line. The Spurs were a plus-26 in his minutes and a minus-12 when he was on the bench.
It’s not that Lauvergne got dramatically better over the summer. It’s that the Spurs are using him in a way that maximizes his skills. As it turns out, he had some dormant dishing abilities:
Lauvergne has made a host of excellent passes as a roll man and from a standstill in the high and low post. The Spurs are using his passing skills similarly to how the Nuggets use Nikola Jokic. Obviously Jokic is galaxies better than his former Denver teammate, but the comparison is valid.
The big difference from last season is who he’s playing with. In Oklahoma City last year, he was usually the 4 next to a traditional big man (usually Steven Adams or Enes Kanter). In Chicago, he played in lineups with very little shooting that often included non-shooting guards like Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams and Dwyane Wade. Both squads had some of the worst spacing in the league and didn’t let their bigs do much playmaking.
For Lauvergne to be an offensive hub of a 5 that he can be for San Antonio’s reserve unit, he needs good spacing. The Spurs can certainly provide that.
The second highlight in the above video is a perfect example of this. Because the Spurs’ lineup is Lauvergne and four strong 3-point threats, the paint is available for cutters to attack. No one is going to help off Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Rudy Gay and Davis Bertans.
San Antonio is definitely going for a more 3-point heavy approach this season. Reserves Mills, Bryn Forbes and Bertans are all dangerous snipers who will play more than they did last season. Ginobili, Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge are all good bets to shoot more 3s this year. Newcomers Brandon Paul, Gay and Derrick White are all willing shooters from long range. Lauvergne is going to love playing with his new teammates, especially his sweet-shooting ones in the second unit.
Lauvergne doesn’t just pass well. He is a willing screener who sets a wide base, he’s a threat to both pop or roll off screens and his floater game is strong. The 6-foot-11 post has a good sense of where missed shots will land.
Per the San Antonio Express News’ Jeff McDonald, teammates believe Lauvergne’s game shows some parallels with that of former Spurs Diaw and Splitter. He displays the mobility and passing abilities of Diaw and the hard rolls, size and rebounding of Splitter.
Gregg Popovich is also a fan. San Antonio’s coach said, per the Express News’ Tom Orsborn: “His offensive awareness has been really good as far as choosing when to try to score, when to kick the ball, play with his teammates on defense. Rebounding-wise, he’s very willing. He’s got a good aggressiveness to him.”
Lauvergne will still have weaknesses in his new environment. He’ll never be a strong rim protector because of his physical attributes. Finishing against bigger, longer, stronger and more athletic bigs will be a struggle.
However, San Antonio can handle those weaknesses from a reserve big man earning just above $1.5 million this season.
Look out for Lauvergne this season as the Spurs continue to unlock the potential of yet another unheralded role player.
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