Plop any NBA player onto the San Antonio Spurs, and the assumption is he’ll reveal value previously unknown. The brilliance of head coach Gregg Popovich and his staff, the surety of everything black and silver, doesn’t just transcend preconceptions. It negates them, reverses them, often wholly, always fractionally.
So had someone said that, after signing with San Antonio over the summer, Dewayne Dedmon would play more minutes than ever, registering career per-game highs in pretty much every category, the notion wouldn’t have been met with immense skepticism. The Spurs were not only transitioning into the post-Tim Duncan era, but the post-Boris Diaw and post-Boban Marjanovic eras. The frontcourt, by their standards, underwent an overhaul. Dedmon joined newcomers Pau Gasol and David Lee, two plodding finesse bigs heavy on guile, light on youth and, so we thought, mobility. The 27-year-old broke their mold—a hyper-athletic, off-the-ground, rim-running high-riser unlike anyone the Spurs have ever truly relied upon.
Dedmon beamed glimpses of good rebounding, shot-blocking and rim-rocking with the Orlando Magic. He did not enter San Antonio’s clutches unequipped or unsuited, just unknown. The blueprint was there for him to succeed, because the opportunity was, too.
What’s happened since, though, is nothing anyone could have foretold. Doing everything he did in Orlando, only more so, resulted in a starting spot——one he has yet to give back—after Gasol went down with a fractured left ring finger.
He has, quite legitimately, turned into one of the Spurs’ most important players—not the best, or even the most valuable, but someone making the team noticeably better.
Since entering the starting lineup for good on Jan. 31, Dedmon is averaging 6.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 0.9 blocks on 72.3 percent shooting in under 21 minutes per game. Modest production for modest court time that becomes ridiculous when extrapolated.
Among every player who has logged at least 1,000 minutes, just three are clearing 10 points, 13 rebounds, one steal and one block per 36 ticks: Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard and….Dedmon. No one is currently matching his defensive rebounding (31.1), steal (1.6) and block (4.0) percentages. Those benchmarks have only been hit for an entire season four times in league history, by Marcus Camby (twice), Ben Wallace and Howard.
Per-minute and per-possession output favors smaller sample sizes, and Dedmon isn’t even averaging 20 minutes per game for the season. But complementary pieces like him shouldn’t be leaving the dent he does—not on defense, and certainly not for a championship contender.
According to NBA Math, Dedmon has saved more points on the defensive end (68.98) than anyone on the Spurs, including perennial standouts Danny Green (68.90) and Kawhi Leonard (49.96), despite placing 10th on the team in total minutes.
Rim protection is Dedmon’s bread and butter, like basically every other San Antonio big ever. Opponents are shooting 45.1 percent against him at the iron—the sixth-best mark among the 94 players who’ve defended 200 or more point-blank looks. He trails only Kristaps Porzingis, Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Embiid.
And yet, this doesn’t do Dedmon’s interior presence justice. He’s not just a protector; he’s an actual deterrent. Ball-handlers pull-up for more long-twos when he’s on the floor, and offenses in general don’t get to the bucket as readily—an effect none of the other Spurs’ bigs share:
Dedmon distances himself from his frontcourt bros with adaptability. He isn’t switching onto a bunch of pick-and-roll ball-handlers, but he’s the first one who scrambles toward those scampering into the lane, and the only one capable of following lead playmakers end-to-end:
The Spurs, it seems, trust him to hold his own more than any other tower. They don’t send a ton of help when he’s defending in space against wings:
Opponents are shooting 3-of-27 in isolation when being defended Dedmon. He hasn’t guarded as many of those possessions as Aldridge, Gasol and Lee, but that’s a byproduct of playing time, not function.
That his foul rate (9.4) remains so low in these situations is a big deal. He paces the Spurs in personals per 36 minutes, and he doesn’t leave substantive gaps between himself and these attackers:
On those infrequent occasions when the Spurs trot out one big with Davis Bertans, Kyle Anderson or Leonard as the de facto 4, Dedmon keeps the middle on lock. Gasol is the only one with a better defensive rating as the sole spire—and he’s seen just 18 minutes in such lineups, compared to Dedmon’s 75.
If not for his move into the starting five, Dedmon would lead the pack in playing time as the lone big. It’s harder to stagger his minutes that way when he spends more time with Aldridge, but he’s still seen the most burn of any 4 or 5 playing in four-out lineups featuring Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and Bertans:
Up-and-coming bigs are doing more of this nowadays, but few 7-footers look so comfortable. And even fewer shimmy so seamlessly back to traditional defensive modes. The belfries you want absorbing isolation switches aren’t the ones you want as a primary line of defense in the post. They’re usually long and spindly, devoid of the strength and girth necessary to body up against brutes, both coordinated and unpolished.
San Antonio has no qualms about sticking Dedmon on back-to-the-basket beasts. He has defended more post-up sets than anyone and places in the 78th percentile of points allowed per possession. You cannot say the same for ostensibly similar players like Clint Capela, Ed Davis and Nerlens Noel, among others.
The magic is in Dedmon’s positioning. He spreads his feet without sacrificing verticality or maneuverability, allowing him to hang with matchups in which he’s giving up 30-plus pounds:
Incorporating this level of defensive versatility isn’t hard, even with Dedmon going through foul-happy stretches. And he makes it easier for the Spurs by staying in his own lane on offense. He doesn’t burn through possessions in the post like Drummond or Howard; he’s not featured nearly enough, but the need to branch out, to make that jump in usage, isn’t there. The Spurs have guys who can get buckets and drop passes from the elbows. Dedmon is content to set screens, slash toward the basket and chase rebounds. He doesn’t let the ball not finding him affect how long it takes to get back on defense or where he positions himself.
The latter is why Dedmon works within basically any lineup, dual-big or otherwise. When he sets high screens, his dives toward the bucket are calculated. He doesn’t impede the lane or vision of his teammate; he surveys the landscape a tick, then, if the defense allows, makes his beeline:
If he’s not darting ahead the ball-handler, he’s trailing him in the event of a miss:
And if he’s not directly involved in the play, he doesn’t cramp operating room; he lurks off to the side, just outside the paint—enough to make the defense adjust or collapse then perish:
Teams have to respect this. Dedmon is averaging 1.21 points per possession as a roller (84th percentile) and 1.29 off cuts (59th percentile). He isn’t going to light you up as a jumper shooter (though he’s been rookie-year Boban-esque on long twos), but you can’t switch or help with the intention of leaving him alone.
He spaces the floor without being a floor-spacer.
Which isn’t to say Dedmon’s role suits the Spurs better than that of Aldridge, Gasol or Lee. They average fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, and that’s remained true even while using him as a starter.
Still, the blueprint for him to be a plus-contributor on the more glamorous end is there, and San Antonio is beginning to implement it. He’s already outstripping Gasol and Lee when playing beside the four other starters:
(On a totally unrelated note, we need to see more of the Bertans-plus-starters combo. That group is pumping in 130 points per 100 possessions through 32 minutes of spin, which is giving me all the feelz.)
Now would be a good time to talk about how the Spurs and Dedmon live happily, together, for years and years. But Dedmon owns a player option for next season worth $3 million; he’s going to opt out and become a free agent, at which time he’ll get two-syllable paid. The Spurs don’t own his Bird rights, and they won’t have much flexibility unless Gasol passes on his own $16.2 million player option (beyond unlikely). They can get eight figures worth of room by renouncing the rights to Ginobili and Mills, who’s also going to get multi-syllable paid, but they still have Jonathon Simmons’ restricted free agency to consider. Plus, leaving a soon-to-be 35-year old Tony Parker and inexperienced, albeit super fun, Dejounte Murray as your primary playmakers isn’t the most San Antonio-est of moves.
That’s a problem for another day, though.
Right now, the Spurs get to enjoy Dedmon for what he’s doing and for what he’s become—the offseason dice roll-turned-invaluable gem they don’t want to be Spurs-ing on without.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for NBA Math and Bleacher Report. Listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R’s Andrew Bailey.