16th to 15th: Spurs Sign Williams

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Marcus WilliamsSaturday night I got all laudatory about Marcus Williams.  On Monday, the D-League crashed into the praise pile up –Williams was named to the D-League’s First Team, edging teammates Dwayne Jones and Malik Hairston, both honorable mentions.  Apparently Dell Demps and Dennis Lindsey were impressed too.  They made the recommendation, and Pop and Buford made the call. The always-in-front-of-the-action Ridiculous Upside is reporting that Marcus Williams is now a Spur.

Scott Schroeder breaks it down this way:

…Marcus Williams to the Spurs call-up.  Love it.  He was number one on our call-up list, and for good reason.  This season, he developed like crazy, adding a good amount of ball handing to his repertoire, while leading Austin in scoring and assists, along with sporting a long ball quite as ugly as it used to be.  This one seems to be what many are calling a ‘protection pick’.  I’m assuming that another team was going to call him up, but Williams have the Spurs the opportunity to keep him in their system before taking the call-up.  Spurs get a longer look in the Summer League, and Williams gets the money he’s been working toward all season.  Perfect.

To make room for Marcus Williams, the Spurs are waiving Malik Hairston. We’re collecting our thoughts on that story, and will provide comment it in a subsequent post. For now, we want to comment on the Williams signing with a eye toward the the bigger picture.

Metonymy, Alamo City

Beneath my recent Toros Watch: Ian Mahinmi, 48 Minutes of Hell reader NickyDubs said, “I’m still waiting for one Toro to make a significant, worthwhile contribution for the Spurs. Given the trend of the Toros thus far, hopefully that day comes soon.”  I want to use the Marcus Williams signing to provide a modest window into one way in which the Toros benefit to the Spurs.

Marcus Williams, as many of our readers know, was a 2007 2nd round draft pick of the Spurs. He didn’t make the team, but did accept allocation to the Toros.  In the course of his rookie season, the Spurs treated him to a couple 10-Day contracts, before he eventually accepted a contract with the Clippers. Things didn’t pan out in Los Angeles, and Williams found his way back to base, rejoining the Toros this season. He’s more or less had two full seasons with the Toros prior to today’s call up from San Antonio–two full seasons in the Spurs system, two full seasons with their chosen staff of coaches and trainers.

The Fruit of Genius

What the San Antonio Spurs have in Marcus Williams is the fruit of genius. They’ve made good on what heretofor would have been a throwaway 2nd round draft pick. They’ve found a way to develop players without burning roster space at the end of their bench. They found a way for guys to log heavy minutes in their system without playing on their court. The Spurs, in essence, have found ways to add value to all their draft picks. With the Austin Toros in place, the Spurs have rendered the expression “throwaway 2nd round pick” obsolete. Their program cares about those picks, it has a vested interest in developing precisely those kind of players.

In doing so, the Spurs’ program is making a promise to every subsequent draft pick. They’re saying, “We care. Trust us. We’re acting in your best interest. We’ll help you make the Association.”  This is not only the case with Marcus Williams, but also with Malik Hairston, last year’s second round selection that became a Spur via Austin. (Hairston has since been waived, but we’re not sure if that’s long term.) If the Spurs cut a player but request he accept allocation to Austin, who could doubt that they are extending a genuine opportunity his way? If context is acreage, the D-League bought the land. But it’s the Spurs who are building the house.

The places of genius here are the shared benefits between player, franchise, and league. Let’s take one such benefit: continuity. Assume a natural progression between the 4 steps of draft, summer league, training camp, and D-League.  Under normal circumstances, there is a significant shock to the system between steps 3 and 4, training camp and D-League. This is when a player is cut, relocated, and after some scrambling with his agent, thrown into a completely new situation. This where the basketball vagabond is born. It’s also a place where talent can be stumped by the external forces of circumstance. It’s the place where a player reverts to what he knows–i.e. being a top talent scorer–rather than growing into what he needs to become, such as a better defender or ball handler. For the D-League, this means it’s getting the best possible talent and, theoretically, the interest of fans in two markets.  If you haven’t noticed, it’s the position of this blog that every Toros story is, to some degree, a Spurs story. The Toros are an integral part of all that goes in the offices of R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich.

Seamless Transitions

Under the Spurs model, the ascension between these 4 steps is seamless. The same system, culture, and expectations follow the player along his pilgrimage.  Austin works in concert with the concerns of San Antonio–if the Spurs want, say, Ian Mahinmi to set better screens, then the staff in Austin will give attention to this detail.  By the time a player arrives in Austin, after summer league and camp activities, he is grappling with skills development and execution, not with understanding. He has time to figure how his amateur game can make the transition into the professional ranks, which brings us back to Marcus Williams. Many aspects of Williams’ game have improved during his D-League stint. He owes a debt of gratitude to his coaches and trainers. Until recently, Williams suffered from the fatal stigma of “tweener”.  His production was abundant, but his position was uncertain. Now, after two years of develpment, Marcus Williams is emerging as a point forward, which is just another way of saying tall point guard. His detailed understanding of the Spurs/Toros system is undoubtedly a great help during this process.  He’s past the point of thinking; he just has to play.

When Manu Ginobili went down for the year, the Spurs did not reach out to–choosing a player at random–Sam Cassell (or some other free agent), they reached down to Austin. Sam Cassell would not know the system, and he’s a very temporary band aid. Marcus Williams is well-versed in the Spurs system, and he might have a future with the team. Earlier this season, the Spurs used Malik Hairston in precisely the same Manu Ginobili injury stop gap fashion. Hairston’s play was intrigiung enough that Coach Popovich called his name as first off the bench in a short series of contests.

Malik Hairston is on the same path. He is an NBA wing, but he played out of position during college at power forward. He could make an NBA roster by developing his already sturdy defense into game changing defense, but that won’t matter unless he becomes less of an offensive liability. He needs time in Austin to develop his catch and shoot game, to extend his range, and further refine his defensive potential. If he wants to stick in the NBA, he’ll work around the clock at those things. The Spurs are providing Hairston with this opportunity without the impediment of a new system or city.

  • GMT

    I’m really liking this prospect, but who isn’t? It’s funny, I didn’t know that he was picked up until I looked at the box score at the beginning of halftime. It was definitely a surprise.

    I think everything you said about Hairston is spot on. I’m confused as to why he played PF in college, I guess his Portland team was undersized.

  • the little o

    Great article. It made me wonder how good Marcus Williams could be after watching him get a few minutes at the end of the spurs blazers game. Do you think he could be, after two years of development, the answer to our ginobili is getting old/brittle problem. Marcus Williams plays point forward much like Manu does off the bench.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    No. The Ginobili problem is much bigger than Marcus Williams. But I’m still bullish on Williams, nevertheless.

    I’m hoping Williams plays more of a point guard roll, and I’d be happy if he was able to make the team next season. If he does, I suspect he’d be at least as good as Udoka, if not better. When the Spurs call up a player from Austin, they’re looking for a future 8th men, not a future superstar. Does that make sense?

  • GMT

    I looked at the roster on spurs.com and it lists him as a guard, so that might be telling.

  • Rick Ashford

    I suspect that Hairston was released so he could be re-signed by the Toros. His contract was already fully-guaranteed for the season, so it won’t impact him financially to be cut.

    I strongly suspect that they told him they would let him go to create the roster spot, and that if he re-signed with the Toros he would have the opportunity to come to training camp, maybe some summer league, and earn a roster spot.

    Unless he’s done something to scare the Spurs off (on or off the court), I would say that his play this season was good enough to merit further consideration. He played good defense, and with a little more development offensively he could be a contributor next year.

    Just my $0.02.

  • Hollywood

    A very well written article. However, the model you created doesn’t jive with the eventual reality, at least in my opinion. I have an issue with projecting so much passion into models. This is the same rationale that politicians use when creating rationales for their success. (I’m sure McNamara’s calculator predicted success in Vietnam, however reality has a way of proving otherwise.)

    If anything, the Toros are growing players to blossom on other teams. Until the Spurs FO can get beyond their disturbing timidity and actually commit to some of the players they are developing, then what is the point?

    This never should have been Malik vs. Marcus. Given that our team is full of so much dead weight (the Big 3 are now reduced to the Big 1.67) why can’t the Spurs hold on to these prospects that we develop? Our roster is full of well-meaning dead-enders who are lucky to be in the league.

    The Toros are a great D league franchise. It’s too bad the Spurs don’t actually try to take advantage of it.

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  • http://www.ridiculousupside.com Jon L

    Great piece. One thing that suddenly comes to mind is wondering to what extent being based in Texas has influenced how the Spurs have used their affiliate. It’s my understanding (I’ve only lived here for three months) that most, if not all, of the Austin-area high school football teams run a reduced form of the UT playbook, and youth teams here run an even more reduced form, though it’s still based on the UT system. That way, when the college team gets all these Texas/Austin kids, they’re already well-versed in large portions of the playbook. I’m not really sure that’s found in many other states with big state school football programs. In the D-League, I know the D-Fenders run the Triangle, but that’s a unique case, I think.

    On why Hairston may have played PF in college, he has a slightly bigger frame than you normally see in shooting guards, particularly in the upper body, and for college programs, if your center is 6’8″, 6’6″ is big enough to play beside him.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Thanks, Jon.

    Good angle–I hadn’t considered that. But you might have something. Thanks for all you do at RU, by the way. Everything is top shelf over there.

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