After picking a defensive specialist with size in the top 10, the Spurs turned their eyes to the other end of the floor by picking guards Malaki Branham with the 20th pick and Blake Wesley with the 25th pick.
The selections were a little surprising, but the Spurs said they were going for the best player available no matter what, and taking two more guards in the first round and just a few picks apart shows that they meant it. The addition of the two rookies won’t help the backcourt logjam that is already in place, but it represents an infusion of scoring and ball handling that was missing on the roster.
Let’s start with Branham. He’s probably a safer choice than most fans would have preferred, but one that could pay off sooner rather than later for San Antonio. The 19-year-old guard might not have the elite physical tools to become a star, but his combination of shooting ability and self creation could come in handy off the bench, especially if Lonnie Walker IV leaves in free agency. The Ohio State product shot an impressive 41 percent on three-pointers and was even better as a mid-range shooter in his sole year in college, which could make him an immediate contributor despite his young age. With a smaller usage, his efficiency numbers could improve, which could make him a steal this late in the first round.
The main question about Branham is whether he’ll be able to adjust to the new role he’ll likely be asked to fill in the NBA. The ball won’t be in his hands as much, at least early on in his career, so he’ll have to trade in some pull-up jumpers for spot-up threes. Similarly, he will have to always be dialed in on defense, which is something that might not come naturally to him as a rookie. There will definitely be work to do for Branham, but the talent is there for him to make an impact early in his career if he’s given an opportunity.
Wesley might take a little longer to develop, but he might be worth the wait. The Notre Dame guard was painfully inefficient in his sole season in college and might simply lack the shooting touch to get minutes right away, despite his considerable upside. In his defense, he played a huge role on offense for his team, but 30 percent from beyond the arc is just not good enough. As a main ball handler, his inability to make long balls wasn’t as damming, but considering his modest assist numbers, it’s extremely unlikely he gets as many touches in that role early in his career. The fact that he only made 37.5 percent of his unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities, according to Synergy Sports, simply doesn’t bode well for his ability to get minutes as a rookie.
The hope with Wesley is that he’ll eventually become more consistent. He has tremendous upside as a scorer who can make simple reads and defend multiple positions, but he might take some patience to help him reach his full potential. In that sense, the selection of Branham could actually be seen as a positive for Wesley, as it could take away the pressure to contribute right away if a couple of veterans depart in the offseason. A few months in Austin could be all it takes for him to be able to harness his impressive tools and actually enter the battle for minutes in what should be a crowded but young and talented backcourt.
After the Josh Primo selection of 2021, most fans probably didn’t want to see one, much less two, first rounders go to guards in 2022, but at least the skill sets of the players selected is different than what San Antonio already had on the roster. Ball handlers who can create for themselves are necessary for an offense to have variety and adaptability, and the Spurs didn’t really have many before Thursday. Now they have two who happen to be 19 years old, long, and talented.
Late in the first round, it’s all about getting good value, and the Spurs did accomplish that. Figuring out how to get everyone in the backcourt minutes could prove to be hard, but that’s a concern for another day.