SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs were able to push into the 2022 NBA Play-In tournament against the Pelicans and although the team came up short, the franchise views the experience as a valuable developmental tool.
With the franchise currently in a rebuild, getting players better individually and collectively, the Play-In game provided them with a playoff-like atmosphere where they learned just what it takes to succeed in the NBA's second season.
"It's absolutely a key element," said Evan Wasch, Executive Vice President of Basketball Strategy & Analytics at the NBA. "It's a conversation I've had directly with teams including San Antonio."
The Spurs made it to the Play-In Tournament for the second-straight season but this trip was different for many of the young players.
In 2021, the team still had veterans like Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, and DeMar DeRozan to lead them in the elimination game while the young player took a step back.
In 2022, the young core was front-and-center and took much-needed lumps which should benefit the long term.
"So great lessons for our guys. I don't know if it's the enormity of the situation, the playoff kind of atmosphere or whatever, but for the first three quarters, we reverted back to the way we were three months ago," coach Gregg Popovich said following the loss to the Pelicans. "You know these are young guys and they’ve got to learn it. It's a process, but they bought in and they did a good job."
Wasch says there is no hard data on how the Play-In is doing its part as a developmental tool for teams since it is still in its infancy but admits this is something useful for the league.
"That is a tremendous developmental tool that a lot of times for a young team that exposure to that high-intensity, high-variability games with significant consequences to them is exactly what you need to get your young players to that playoff level of intensity," Wasch said. "To prepare them to ultimately be a championship contender in the future."
For the current Spurs squad, small, positive steps will be needed.
This was the youngest squad in Popovich's coaching history with an average age of 25 years old. Guard Joshua Primo was also the youngest player in the NBA at 18 years old when he was drafted.
The Play-In game represented a small glimpse into the NBA playoff level that most of the young Spurs have yet to experience.
"That Pelicans team has some players on it with a lot of playoff experience. I hope we can just watch how they approached it, learn from it, and get better this summer," Spurs' Josh Richardson said.
There were lots of lessons learned in the loss to New Orleans Wednesday night.
From Dejounte Murray learning to stay out of foul trouble and hitting his shots, raising the level of physicality, Keldon Johnson learning to step up for four periods despite a bad shooting night, and the team gaining the on-court maturity on how to play in a high-stakes NBA game will be crucial for their development.
"There's this tremendous opportunity to put your players in those high-stakes situations which our team basketball folks really feel has an outside impact on that player development," Wasch said.
He also added that he is hearing overall praise from most teams, like the Spurs, for how the Play-In is useful.
He hopes as time goes on, the data will show it does have an impact and he pointed out how it may start with San Antonio since it was the team's second trip.
"Not unanimously but the majority of our teams feel it [Play-In Tournament] is really beneficial in that player development," Wasch added.