Better than a blockbuster: The Spurs summer development program
The Spurs have a track record of scouting and drafting well, being fiscally responsible and creating a strong team culture, arguably the best since the Red Auerbach Celtics. Where San Antonio doesn’t get enough credit, and maybe the NBA as a whole isn’t praised for this enough, is in offseason player development.
Players do not enter the league as finished projects, nor do they naturally improve as they mature. While many of the NBA’s players are what you might call naturally gifted, they’re by no means blessed with all that skill. Like everybody else, they get what they put in when it comes to effort and development. One of the ways the Spurs have done such a smooth job integrating so many younger players into what was once a veteran-filled roster, is through targeted practice and development.
For the Spurs, it starts at the top down. Head Coaches don’t spend a lot of their own time developing players during the offseason, that is handled primarily by assistant coaches. Gregg Popovich is normally no exception to this, but even he spent some time working in the summer with Richard Jefferson couple of years ago, trying to help Jefferson fit seamlessly into the Spurs system. While the RJ era was a failure in the long-run, the short term impact of Pop’s work with Jefferson was a success.
Going back to Danny Ferry’s Q&A with Grantland from earlier in the week, there’s a nugget that sheds some light on the Spurs’ approach to player development:
“It’s not just ‘Throw them out there and go ahead.’ It’s working on specific things and having a development plan for the player, and a buy-in from Pop that he’s gonna work with them and help them grow as people and players.”
For the Spurs, Assistant Coaches Chad Forcier and Chip Engelland are central to the current offseason development process. They meet with certain players on and off during the summer to go over areas of improvement, work at them and leave the player with specific instructions to work on.
Assistant coaches have their own lives to live, so they can’t all summer working with their players, many of whom keep their offseason homes in places other than South Texas. Instead they travel and meet with a player a few times during the offseason to run through workouts and gauge progress, then those players will work with their own trainers using the feedback left behind by the assistants. For instance, Danny Green and Forcier worked out five times over a period of three days in Las Vegas during the Summer League, then Danny went back to New York to workout on his own and host his basketball camp.
Forcier, it must be said, has a growing rep as a coach excelling in player development. We all know Chip Engelland‘s exploits as a shooting coach, including his time-crunched work with Kawhi Leonard last summer, but Forcier is making a name for himself with the Spurs player development program. He was a big reason for George Hill’s improvement with the Spurs and helped along the continual ascension of Tony Parker.
Hill serves as “Exhibit A” in the body of evidence supporting Forcier’s skill in developing players…”Chad wants to see you improve even more than you want to improve,” Hill said. “You don’t see that from many coaches. From watching film to breaking down every single aspect of a move you’re working on or putting you in scenarios that make you better, everything he does is unique.
“Since Day 1 of my rookie year, he told me the corner 3-pointer was where I was going to make a name for myself, along with my defense. I give him all the credit for that aspect of my game.”
For small market teams like the Spurs, where the free agents rarely flock and the luxury tax is a thing to be feared, investing franchise money in player development can garner some of the best return on investment. While the necessary players are still required to make that improvement a success, good player development can reinforce, and even improve upon, the gains made during the season and turn rotation players into All-Stars and D-Leaguers into NBA players.