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Spurs ready to move into new era with talented group of youngsters

San Antonio saw its record postseason run end, but brighter days could be on the horizon thanks to a talented cast of prospects.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Dejounte Murray is one of several young Spurs who impressed during the restart in Orlando.

From the Twin Towers era of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, San Antonio shifted to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and morphed into the Beautiful Game Spurs along the way.

They captured five titles and maintained the longest postseason streak (22 years) in pro sports, before finishing last season out of the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Yet bursting from the NBA bubble in Orlando might just be the newest iteration of the San Antonio Spurs, if you ask coach Gregg Popovich.

He’s certainly ready to see it all take shape.

“The strategy, the philosophy, the way we play is gonna stay the same [as in Orlando], and everybody’s going to have to adjust to that because the guys did a great job,” Popovich said. “They enjoyed it. We changed our approach as far as practice was concerned, how we wanted to teach. The young players really took time to understand what we were doing.”

Most importantly, San Antonio won games, simultaneously mocking up the blueprint for the way the team wants to play for 2020-21 and perhaps beyond.

If you go back to when the NBA tipped off its restart on July 30, the Spurs ranked 12th in the Western Conference with San Antonio stressing a focus on development and maintaining the momentum behind causes for racial and social justice as they touched down in Orlando missing three starters in Bryn Forbes (quadriceps), Trey Lyles (appendectomy) and second-leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge (shoulder).

Popovich also made the decision to sit Patty Mills, the club’s longest-tenured player, to preserve him for the future while developing the youngsters.

That led to San Antonio tipping off the bubble experiment with a four-guard starting lineup of DeMar DeRozan, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV to play off center Jakob Poeltl. That small-ball lineup fueled an up-tempo offensive style and a swarming, pestering defense that often turned into offense, as the Spurs won five of their first seven seeding games, before falling to Utah in a meaningless finale with their record postseason run already snapped.

Through those eight games in Orlando, promising young contributors emerged in Keldon Johnson, Quinndary Weatherspoon and Drew Eubanks, while veterans DeRozan and Rudy Gay adapted their games for an increased emphasis on defense and a faster pace offensively.

“People like DeMar and Rudy were great in mentoring these guys, and actually ended up changing some of the ways they have played over the years pace-wise; making defense more of a priority,” Popovich said. “They bought in. They really enjoyed the young guys and melded together with them. Those two guys I was really proud of because they became leaders in that sense. So, the growth that took place there in some ways was unexpected, but it happened. We’re just gonna go forward from what we did there.”

You can expect a few bumps in the road as White, Johnson and Weatherspoon will be limited to start training camp Friday due to what Popovich called “bumps and bruises.” In fact, Popovich anticipates there’s a good chance none of those players will be available for the start of the regular season.

Complicating matters is Aldridge, a seven-time All-Star and one of the game’s best midrange scorers, who missed all of San Antonio’s time in the bubble. How will he adjust to San Antonio’s new style of play? Will he actually buy into it?

“Trey [Lyles] wasn’t there either for the most part. And we’ve got a couple of new players,” Popovich said. “We’ve got a couple of players that won’t be there to start that were there in Orlando. So, it’s a little bit of a mishmash in that sense. And I think that L.A. will have no problem adjusting to how we play because he wants to win. We want to get back in the playoffs, and he is committed to taking another huge step as far as becoming more of a 3-point shooter, which is necessary in this league for success we all know.

“He took a big step last year, and he’s taking even a bigger step this year. His workouts all summer long and into the fall have centered around that. He’s bought into that and knows how much that can help us. So, I’m excited for the whole group to come together.”

Aldridge (18.9 ppg) fired up a career-high 157 attempts from 3-point range last season, knocking them down at 38.9% to improve San Antoni’s spacing and help slashers such as DeRozan, Murray and Walker to thrive.

Led by leading scorer DeRozan (22.1 ppg), San Antonio features six returners averaging double digits in scoring in Aldridge, Murray (10.9 ppg), White (11.3 ppg), Mills (11.6 ppg) and Gay (10.9 ppg). Johnson averaged 9.1 points last season as a rookie and racked up 20 points or more in three games inside the Orlando bubble, including 24-point nights in his last two outings.

So, it’s understandable why Popovich and the rest of the Spurs organization continue to express optimism about the future.

They all know it’s time to move into the next era of San Antonio basketball.

“The bottom line in all frankness is I don’t remember winning a championship last year,” Popovich said. “I don’t remember being in the playoffs. So, it’s time to make a change, play a different way, demand it, and move forward.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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