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Young Spurs eagerly await 'other pieces' in transition year

Young Spurs eagerly await 'other pieces' in transition year

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — San Antonio is going to have a difficult time adding to the NBA-record career victories held by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Take it from him.

“To be a championship program, you have to have a couple of superstars on your team. We have all known that for a long time. That doesn’t exist right now,” Popovich said. “That’s not a knock on these players, it’s just a fact. To avoid that fact seems kind of senseless to me. What we have is a bunch of guys that can all be parts of a championship team if the other pieces arrive at some point.”

The Spurs have talent. They are just young and inexperienced.

Forward Keldon Johnson, who celebrated his 23rd birthday Tuesday, is the team’s leader along with 26-year-old center Jakob Poeltl and 22-year-old Devin Vassell. San Antonio also has four promising 19-year-olds in rookies Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley, along with Josh Primo, who is entering his second season.

The Spurs open their 50th season in San Antonio on Oct. 19 at home against the Charlotte Hornets.

“We are going out there to win,” Johnson said. “I feel like we are capable of winning. We are not backing down from anybody. I feel like whoever we are playing, that is who we are going to go after. We aren’t taking a back seat to no one, and that’s for all 82 games.”

The Spurs will of course surely add to Popovich’s 1,344 career victories, but it be more difficult following the offseason trade of Dejounte Murray, the team’s starting point guard and lone All-Star.

Over the past six years, the Spurs have lost Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, DeMar DeRozan and Murray to retirement, trades or free agency.

San Antonio is projected to miss the playoffs this season and instead vie for something more coveted than an eighth seed in the Western Conference. Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-2 center from France, is projected to be the top pick in next year’s NBA draft. The Spurs, Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder are expected to scramble for the league’s worst record and the best statistical chance for the top pick.

The last time San Antonio held the No. 1 pick they selected Duncan, who guided the Spurs to five championships and league-record tying 22 straight postseason appearances.

MEET THE NEW BOSS

Johnson has emerged as team leader as much out of necessity as his play on the court. Entering his fourth season with the team, Johnson and Poeltl are the longest-tenured players with the Spurs.

“I definitely feel like a leader,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s leading by example or being vocal. I think with these young guys, I can definitely speak my opinion and show them the right way.”

RETURNING

Johnson and Primo missed the first three preseason games due to injury, but both were expected to play the final two contests in preparation for the season opener. Primo suffered a strained left MCL at the start of training camp and Johnson dislocated his right shoulder during a pre-camp workout.

KID GLOVES

The tough love Popovich meted on Parker in his rookie season has become notorious. Both can laughingly reminisce about the screams that drove Parker to tears as an 18-year-old, but don’t expect a repeat of that treatment for the Spurs’ teenagers.

“No, luckily that was a phase in the past,” Popovich said. “Because as I have told you often, I would be in jail if I treat anyone now like I treated Tony. For sure, I would be in jail.”

ZACH IS BACK

Zach Collins played 28 games last season for the Spurs after missing all but 11 games the previous two seasons due to shoulder and foot injuries.

“He’s still hesitant with his shot,” Popovich said. “He’s a good shooter. We want him to shoot it, but he doesn’t seem totally confident yet. But, I think he feels much healthier than he did last year. More confident in his body.”

The 6-foot-11 center averaged 7.8 points and 5.5 rebounds while starting four games in his first season in San Antonio.

NOT FORGOTTEN

The Spurs traded Murray to Atlanta in the offseason for three first-round picks and forward Danilo Gallinari, who signed with Boston after being waived by San Antonio.

Murray was 19 when he was drafted by the Spurs out of Washington in 2016. The 26-year-old was mentored as a player and a person by Popovich.

“He and his daughter, watching him grow as a father, and watching the things he would do in that regard, are much more in the front of my mind than the triple-doubles that he got or anything like that,” Popovich said. “So, the basketball sort of fades when you get to know these people over time, and he was here a good time.”

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