Spurs’ youthful guards flash in their 2022 Las Vegas Summer League debut

The San Antonio Spurs lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers 90-99 and missed a last-minute comeback after falling 22 points behind in the dying moments of the third quarter. While results are mostly irrelevant during the Summer League, starting their Las Vegas campaign with a win would have been an encouraging sign for the Silver Blacks.

Unsurprisingly, this mishmash of youngsters with little or no work experience put together a somewhat disorganized outing. For a group that only had days to build chemistry, however, the good guys were a relatively cohesive unit, especially considering they lost Jeremy Sochan and Joe Wieskamp days before their debut.

PATFO dealt a tremendous blow to Josh Primo with their 12th overall pick a year ago, and they returned to the talent pool hoping to hit three more homers in the 2022 NBA draft. Fans will have to wait for their first glimpse of Sochan, but Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley have shown us the future of Spurs basketball could be exciting.

Head Coach Mitch Johnson returned to Las Vegas for his second stint as the Summer League Spurs’ lead play caller, and he was honest with his assessment of their 2022 debut in Sin City when asked for his first impressions of their performance.

“There were some really good moments where we saw the talent shine through,” Johnson told reporters. “Some of the stuff that they lay the groundwork for and play with their potential. And I think there were some moments when the youth was young.”

Mistakes will always be part of the equation when you first bring together so many unfamiliar faces in an organized environment. The most important part of the equation is providing the right context for these positive and negative sequences.

Josh Primo (20 points, 5 assists, 1 block, on 7 of 12)

Josh Primo is only 19, but as one of the few players on the roster with NBA experience, there was some expectation that he could get the green light as Spurs’ top scorer. Despite finishing as the top scorer for San Antonio after a fourth-quarter explosion, the young combo guard spent a lot of time off the ball.

While letting Blake Wesley handle the ball for long stretches, Primo made sure the pairing worked, going beyond the arc to catch and shoot three-pointers from the corners and over the break. He also put on a show in the final few minutes of the contest, nailing a stepback triple, pulling from the deep and sinking a featherweight floater.

Like any teen who’s mastered their craft, Primo had some well-known growing pains as a distributor. He telegraphed passes, threw a few questionable one-handed deliveries and haphazardly left his feet. Aside from that, he also had a handful of excellent assists, including a hard ten from a high assembly that hit Dominick Barlow right in the hands for a one finish.

The Canadian swingman likely would have finished with more assists had his teammates converted their open shots, and his willingness to make the extra pass was encouraging. Aside from a few mistakes and ill-advised middle-class jumpers, Primo has been solid as the Summer League Spurs’ elder statement, and Mitch Johnson praised his leadership.

“Primo as a vet is the one trying to[be a leader],” Johnson said. “That’s positive and we have to be careful not to overdo it. We want that to happen naturally but I think he did a good job.”

Blake Wesley (20 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, on 7-of-16)

While Blake Wesley may have surprised fans with 20 points, picking the team as the team’s top pick, the 25th overall pick of the 2022 NBA draft was almost everything we expected of him on his Summer League debut. The 19-year-old guard is incredibly quick and he used that ability to his advantage, putting two feet in the paint at will throughout the game.

Wesley was keen to shoot for seemingly every possession early in the contest, but became more careful with his shot selection when head coach Mitch Johnson benched him midway through the first half. That break was apparently just what he needed as the scrawny swingman began checking out his teammates more often.

The rookie finished the matchup with five assists, consistently bowing down defense with his speed while showing his view of the court as a drive-and-kick threat. A few passes missed their target and there were some undeniably poor decisions from the six-five playmaker, but his ability to execute live dribbling passes with both hands stood out.

Although Wesley split ball handling responsibilities in his only season with the Fighting Irish, Wesley received the most touches to get the Spurs on their halffield offense. Few experts labeled him a point guard, but that’s exactly how he sees himself.

“I’m a point guard,” Wesley said. “Point guards pass first and then score second. Involve others, then I like to hit or attack.”

Wesley might have been the best full-back on the floor in the first game for San Antonio. He was engaged regularly, working tirelessly chasing shooters across screens, communicating through switches and applying relentless ball pressure to opposing guards. The Notre Dame graduate is in the works as a fullback, but there are positive signs.

Malaki Branham (15 points, 3 rebounds, on 6th of 15)

The early parts of the game were shaky for Malaki Branham as the 19-year-old swingman missed several wide-open looks. It can be difficult to gauge who gets the stone when you have numerous playmakers on the pitch and Branham was the outsider for most of his minute. With that said, he found a way to recover as the matchup progressed.

Hard hitting was perhaps the Spurs’ most enticing ability when selecting Branham, especially considering the team had plans to move away from Dejounte Murray. While the rookie struggled to make the breakup on a few holdings, he relied on his sturdy physique to pick his way to spots before nailing turnarounds and ten-foot jumps.

Branham was one of the most efficient spot-up shooters as a freshman at Ohio State, but he seemingly switched roles with Blake Wesley, as the latter made almost every catch-and-shoot attempt that came his way successful. The former Buckeye eventually knocked down a couple of threes and his shooting should improve with a more extensive rehearsal.

As for his defense, Branham had some frustrating sequences. As we noted in his scouting report, the six-five guard often plays too upright and close to his man, though he lacks the foot speed and lateral agility to get back into the game. Those problems showed up occasionally against Cleveland, although he also had a couple of promising strobes that shielded drives.

Dominick Barlow (9 points, 7 rebounds and 6 fouls, 3 of 5)

The Silver and Black took a positive flyer from Dominick Barlow by signing him to a two-way contract after he went undrafted a few weeks ago. The 19-year-old big man has undeniable talent, although his performance has made it clear that he needs to round out his repertoire at both ends before he’s ready to contribute at the NBA level.

Barlow looked lost on defense throughout the game, turning too late to provide help, watching the ball, getting handy on the rim and falling for pump fakes, leading to nasty troubles in 20 minutes. Despite his weaknesses as a defender, the Overtime Elite product showcased his shot feel and unique fluidity. Keep an eye on this kid.