Playing the Austin Lottery

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Pops Mensah-Bonsu, high flyer

Pops Mensah-Bonsu, high flyer

As Graydon mentioned in today’s Notebook, the Spurs have signed Pops Mensah-Bonsu to a 10-Day contract. What follows is possibly the most ink ever spilled over a D-League call up.  But I’m up to the task.

If one counts Ian Mahinmi (time served), Pops Mensah-Bonsu will become the 3rd Toro on San Antonio’s current bench. I honestly believe that all 3 players–Mahinmi, Malik Hairston and Mensah-Bonsu–stand a good chance of being rotation quality players for the Spurs next season.  Some will say I’m reaching on Mensah-Bonsu and will point out that the Spurs swung and struck out on Anthony Tolliver and Blake Ahearn, both of whom signed with San Antonio this season before seeing assignment stints in Austin. Both were also cut after a prolonged audition. By my count, 5 players have passed back and forth between Austin and San Antonio this season.  In itself, that says something significant.

Mensah-Bonsu joins the Spurs after spending a month in their system, albeit the junior version in Austin. One wonders–or, in my case, fully suspects–this signing was on the radar as soon as Pops set foot in Austin.  I wouldn’t want to say that promises were given, because I doubt that’s true. Why would Mensah-Bonsu work out for the Raptors, for example, if he already had a promise from San Antonio? No, more simply, Pops and his agent are just good at reading the score. Strong play for the Toros is, in effect, a strong audition for the Spurs. This is the D-League’s open secret.

As our readers know, I’ve pimped Mensah-Bonsu for the better part of this month. This is signing is something I wanted to happen. And although his current contract is only 10 days in length, it’s not a stretch to assume a proper deal is close. The Spurs, I’d wager, signed Mensah-Bonsu to protect him from being scooped up by another team, but limited themselves to an initial 10-Day in case an unexpected buyout occurred between now and the first of March. Of  course, even if the unexpected were to occur, the Spurs could opt to waive Vaughn and/or Udoka and retain Mensah-Bonsu.  This is a good move by Buford and company. Before I wax poetic on all the “he could be…” stuff, I’ll start with by cataloguing Mensah-Bonsu’s deficiencies.

Pops Mensah-Bonsu is not a move that is meant to measure against the Celtic signings of Mikki Moore and Stephon Marbury. He is not the knowledgeable veteran for hire one signs to shore up the bench for a late season push. If Mensah-Bonsu contributes anything significant this season, the Spurs will be exceedingly satisfied. The other thing you won’t see from Mensah-Bonsu, at least not immediately, is great man defense. His post defense is still developing, and he can get pushed around. The effort is there, and this is not an issue of a player not caring. So there is hope that he can become a decent man defender. But you won’t see him on Shaq’s back anytime soon. That’s not his game.

What Pops Mensah-Bonsu does bring to the Spurs is much more athletic version of Francisco Elson. In terms of potential, I see Elson as his floor. That is, Pops Mensah-Bonsu can be at least as good as Francisco Elson. He’s a player who can score around the hoop, pogo stick his way to high energy rebounds, and block shots, especially on weak side help.  I’ve been surprised to see him occasionally knock down elbow-area pick and pop jumpers, as well. But most of his scoring comes from out-smarting his opponent with clever, sharp cuts and or by using his quickness to get from the block to a space near the hoop. In the open floor, Mensah-Bonsu could eventually give the Spurs the gazelle they had hoped for when they signed Elson–a big that could get out in front of the opposing team, someone to push the action. Say what you will about Elson’s tenure in San Antonio, but he did allow Pop to play fast without resorting to small ball. It’s a nice wrinkle. The Spurs offense will be better for it. Defensively, Mensah-Bonsu also gives the Spurs a big with the agility to stick with face up 4s, such as Dirk Nowitzki and David West.  Again, Pops adds a new wrinkle. Jerry West used to say that every player on the roster should provide the coach with a unique tool; he should bring something new to the equation. The Spurs just added a new offensive and defensive tool to Popovich’s box.

Assuming Mensah-Bonsu sticks with the Spurs, this signing could pay huge dividends for the front office. Going into the offseason, the team’s contracted bigs will include Tim Duncan, Matt Bonner, Kurt Thomas, Fabricio Oberto, Ian Mahinmi, and Pops Mensah-Bonsu. That’s a good list of players. I’d like to add James Gist to that number, and I’ll turn to him in a moment.

R.C Buford’s bullishness on Mahinmi, even though he’s never played a significant NBA minute, remains in tact. According to recent interviews, the Spurs are hopeful Mahinmi will return to the court yet this season. Hope which  shapes itself around a couple weeks of April rehab work the Toros.  If he is healthy to start next season, I expect him to receive rotation minutes and every opportunity to prove he belongs. Mahinmi’s athleticism rivals Mensah-Bonsu’s, although they are different players. Unlike Pops, Mahinmi has great size and should be able to clog the lane or seal the baseline with ease.  On offense, Mahinmi has the potential to be a double digit scorer in the NBA. Defensively, he’s fleet of foot, but with size enough to dwarf Mensah-Bonsu’s shorter, thinner frame. Mahinmi could become a tremendous one on one defender.

Okay, enough on Mahinmi. What’s this about James Gist? Gist, as Spurs fans remember, played well during summer league. Spurs coach Mike Budenholzer referred to him as “phenomenal,” so some such.  He brought the same game he played at Maryland, with one unexpected dimension. James Gist is a reliable perimeter shooter. He could become a floor stretching 4 in the Robert Horry tradition. Much like Horry, Gist, who is close with Roger Mason, also has some ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the hoop:

This embedded clip is from an Italian league game from a couple months back. The Spurs retained James Gist’s draft rights by arranging a deal for him to play for Angelico Biella this season. The expectation is that Gist will return to the Spurs after the season. It’s reasonable, then, to assume that Gist is a player who will get a real shot to make the team during training camp. His situation next summer might prove analogous to San Antonio’s handling of Anthony Tolliver, except that Gist is a better player. It’s worth noting that since his arrival in Italy, Gist has added muscle and played well for Biella. He’s a team leader in minutes and shoots a high percentage on both 2 and 3 point attempts. More than a quarter of his shot attempts come from the arc (which is closer than the NBA mark), but his 42% accuracy would seem to grant him this privilege.  In other words, on the conservative view he should be able to connect on 19 and 20 ft jumpers in the NBA. He’s not Matt Bonner, but he can shoot.

Am I suggesting that Mahinmi, Mensah-Bonsu and Gist will be on next season’s roster? Not quite. For as high as I am on Mensah-Bonsu, I realize that he might not stick. There is a thin line between hope and delusion, and I’m trying to walk it. Pops will have to prove he belongs.  Gist is a long shot, but if he plays well enough during camp I’d expect that the Spurs will try to give him the Toros treatment–see Ian Mahinmi, Malik Hairston, and Pops Mensah-Bonsu. His level of play will determine if this means an assignment or an allocation. But the exciting thing about this is that the Spurs are getting younger and more athletic (Hairston and Hill should be bigger factors next season, as well) .They have cards to play. And while Mahnimi, Mensah-Bonsu and Gist all share supreme athleticism, they possess different skill sets. Mahinmi is quick, but more or less a conventional 5-4; Mensah-Bonsu is an undersized, energy 4 in the Carl Landry mold; Gist projects as a perimeter 4-3 will a little handle (not enough to expect much action at small forward, however). In other words, each brings athleticism, youth, a unique skill set (relative to one another), and an inexpensive contract to the table. It’s been a long time since the Spurs have rolled out young, fast, and athletic. I concede that this is the stuff of shooting stars and wishing wells, but I have another interest in laying it before you. Perhaps you see where I’m going with it.

Obviously, if either Mensah-Bonsu or Gist work out, the Spurs will be overloaded in the front court. They’ll have too many guys. The Spurs won’t go into next season with 7 bigs on roster, so let me get to another important consideration. I’m hopeful that Mensah-Bonsu works out because it will afford the Spurs depth to make an offseason trade. Bruce Bowen and Fabricio Oberto will be down to partially guaranteed expirings and Kurt Thomas will be on the final year of his deal (although, he’s playing so well that I’d hate to see him go). Chad Ford recently wrote:

Once the regular season ends and teams are eliminated from the playoffs, trade season will reopen. Teams will then be able to trade until July 1, which marks the beginning of the trade moratorium, and after July 7.

A number of GMs around the league are already predicting a busy trade season this summer. And it will likely continue to revolve around teams trying to get their financial houses in order.

“There were so many deals that I think got pretty close,” one NBA executive said. “I think we all have a handle on what other teams need and want. Teams have more breathing room in the summer to make things happen. There are still a lot of teams who need major fixes to their payroll.”

Adding inexpensive depth in a player like Mensah-Bonsu allows the Spurs to take on a contract without being left with worries of killing their bench. It allows the Spurs to re-engage in conversations with teams like the Nets and Bucks; it gives the Spurs more assets. Of course, everyone’s attention shifts to whale-like, Vince Carter size fish. But it’s also possible the Spurs aim smaller. Bowen, Oberto and a draft pick might be enough to land, say, a Hawks sign and trade cap castaway in either Marvin Williams or Josh Childress.  But my point is not to zero in on any single person, but rather to say that even if only one player like Mensah-Bonsu works out for San Antonio, the Spurs are gifted with more roster flexibility than they had a week ago. Beyond this, the Spurs would be afforded sharper focus on their offseason needs. Suppose that Mensah-Bonsu and Ian Mahinmi both look like rotation players by July. The Spurs might be less tempted to sign, say, Rasheed Wallace and instead focus all their attention on finding an upgrade for Finley/Bowen at small forward. That sort of clarity can go a long way in shaping a roster.

Last offseason, ESPN’s David Thorpe said he thought the Spurs were one diamond in the rough D-League find away from competing with the likes of the Lakers–the Bynum Lakers. That’s kind of what I’m saying here. Mensah-Bonsu represents more than whatever numbers he’s able to give the Spurs. In situations like these, I let my excitement flare. I know very well that these moments of wishful thinking are often followed by a sobering disappointment. Nevertheless, one of the great joys of being a fan–a fan of anything, really– is letting oneself get caught up in hope. And that’s where I’m at this morning:  all caught up in hope.  Right now the Spurs are a championship contender based on the strength and experience of their core.  They’re legit, but their legitimacy is different than that of the Lakers. The Lakers are in contention by way of sheer, overwhelming talent.  In terms of talent, the Spurs are still an impact player away from that claim.  The Mensah-Bonsu signing moves the Spurs a step closer toward seeing the talent ante.

  • ThatBigGuy

    Mr. Varner, I will use your recently expressed gratitude for the open writer/reader relationship to respectfully disagree with you about Pops in one aspect and then buddy up with you on another.

    How is Pops going to help us if he can’t defend? I mean, he’s cheap for 6 fouls and a butt on the bench. If this is shaping up to be a signing to keep him out of the hands of other teams, then well played. If he turns out to be a Carl Landry, he’ll be worth it. I guess I just don’t see him making a big impact.

    I think you hit the nail on the head about using all these D-league type players as trade assets. If all these guys pan out to a certain degree, we basically have a stock pile of late first round picks. A poor man’s version of the Thunder, so to speak. Lord knows we haven’t had a high pick since some guy named Duncan was drafted. Plus we have great expiring contracts. Even though we didn’t make a trade splash this year, we still have the same chance of the title as before, since no one else made a move either. To top that off, we have some very enticing trade assets for this summer, when the real trade fun will begin.

    Man, I’m excited again.

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

    TBG,

    I hear what you’re saying. It’s a concern. My response…

    I don’t expect that Pops will ever play big minutes. He’s a situational-type player. If he can play within the defensive schemes, that would probably mask him enough to allow the positives to shine.

  • http://www.seekingandtelling.blogspot.com pollackj

    If we can play a lineup with Finley or Bowen functioning as the 4 then we can surely get away with lineups that include a player like Pops at power forward.

    We don’t have to worry about the specific weaknesses of a young guy like this, because we know with Pop running the show that those weaknesses won’t be allowed to negatively impact the team’s performance. (that statement does not apply to veterans with “savvy” such as Nick the not so quick or JV.)

  • Nico

    A poor man’s version of the Thunder! Hahaha. They had like 4 7-footers on their roster at the beginning of the season.

  • Ben Smith

    It’s interesting – with our potential stockpile of athletic bigs and our point guard(s) of the future in hand, we’re reminding me somewhat of the Pistons.

    Hill = Stuckey (potentially better, IMHO)
    Duncan > Sheed
    (healthy) Ginobili > Tay+Rip
    Pops/Gist = Maxiel
    Mahinmi = Amir

    As long as we don’t do anything as stupid (basketball-wise – I understand the lure of 2010 and AI’s expiring contract) as Billups->Iverson, we could be at least as good as the Pistons were last year almost indefinitely. Is that the best we could hope for, it being a league of stars and all?

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

    Ben,

    It’s a good comparison. The Detroit guys, to my mind, were better bets than the Spurs group. We’re long on maybes.

  • Mike T

    I was just thinking along these same lines the other night. The Spurs really are set up well for the future (and they look pretty good right now, too). These young guys may give them a lot of flexibility and at the same time they have expiring contracts that they can use this summer and they are still set up to be players in the summer of 2010.

  • http://ndeddiemac.blogspot.com NDEddieMac

    Great article. I look forward to seeing what Pops can do in his time up in the bigs. I was hoping he would get a little more burn last night but oh well. I hope he gets serious minutes next week against the Wizards.

  • Daniel

    One thing I noticed in the Cavs game and in clips– he’s a very intelligent shot-blocker. He could Josh Smith it and send every block to the third row, but he’s very conscientious in controlling the ball or creating space with his body to help get the ball to a teammate. That’s really the a great sign of a developing basketball IQ for a guy who just didn’t get it out of college.

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