Thrown into the fire, Spurs rookie Jeremy Sochan seems right at home

Gregg Popovich is giving the 19-year-old trust and tough assignments, and Sochan is showing why against some of the best players in the NBA.

SAN ANTONIO β€” When Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich said on media day that he was going to throw rookie Jeremy Sochan into the fire he wasn’t kidding, and the kid seems up to the challenge.

The worldly wing has popped with flashes of the versatility and potential that made him the ninth pick in the draft, and like any 19-year-old in the NBA he’s been burned a good amount. One thing you won’t see as he glides through the flames, however, is fear.

“He doesn’t have any fear,” Popovich said recently. “He’s not impressed with the NBA or anything like that, he just comes to play. He just loves the game. You can just see it in his face, you can see his body language.”

Sochan started just a single game at Baylor, but he’s already started each of the 14 games he’s played in San Antonio. He’s getting more opportunity to learn on the job than any Spurs rookie since Tim Duncan, and through the mistakes he’s made an impact that belies his youth.

Perhaps the best example of all of this came when the Spurs set off on a west coast road trip, and Pop entrusted him with matchups against two of the best point guards in the league in Steph Curry and Damian Lillard. 

Coming into the game against the defending champions, San Antonio was missing a steadying presence in Tre Jones due to a stomach bug. After Josh Primo was cut amid allegations of sexual misconduct and rookie Blake Wesley injured his knee, Jones has been the only true point guard in the rotation. 

Before the game, Popovich said that the 6’9″ Sochan would take over floor general responsibilities, saying, “he’s a point guard.” Again, he wasn’t joking. He may have an imposing frame, but he’s also the son of a point guard, and his mother taught him well. His court vision, IQ and playmaking upside are big reasons that he shot up draft boards.

So Popovich shifted Sochan from the power forward position he normally plays to the point, and had him bring the ball up and guard one of the most devastating perimeter players the NBA has ever seen.

The experiment got off to a rocky start. He lost touch with Curry for just a moment, but that’s all Steph needs. After giving up that corner three, the rook dribbled up the court and got called for an offensive foul as he tried to make a handoff. He gambled in a passing lane, which gave Curry another three that he missed.

He fought through a screen and rotated over for a block, but it was a goaltend off the window. On offense he sized up a three, but he’s hit under 20% from deep this year. Instead he went into a slow drive, which morphed into a post up, and with nimble feet and a soft right hand he floated it in.

Sochan battled to stick with Steph through multiple screens and did his job, but the action freed Jordan Poole for a cut to the hoop and Devin Vassell was forced to foul. Sochan walked over and spent the free throws talking it through with Devin and Keldon Johnson, talking, pointing, and listening.

He tried an open three and missed, then made a solid handoff and screen to open up Johnson for a three that also failed to find the bottom. On the other end he jumped on a Draymond Green pump fake and fouled one of his basketball inspirations, leaving the game after an eventful 3:20.

He came back into the game alongside other guys who are still finding their footing, and a miscommunication on a double screen led to an easy basket. On the other end, San Antonio ran a double screen of their own for their plus-sized point guard, and he eurostepped through a foul for a layup. Sochan did miss at the free throw line, where he’s hit 67% of his attempts this year after making just 59% in college.

Sochan spent some time checking the rangy Poole, with mixed results. He pushed off a make, penetrating on smaller defender to create a good chance from three.

He stuck Steph off a double screen, denying the three and blanketing his cut to the paint before reaching across and inhaling the pass attempt. He went coast to coast strong and fast, drawing foul. While he struggled to find his rhythm offensively, the effort and defense were consistent throughout.

Steph had a bit of space and received a pass, but the young man with pink hair erased it. Sochan ran him off the three-point line, then contained his drive. He draped himself over Curry as the Warriors ran an inbound play for him, again denying the triple and stopping his drive, forcing him to pick up the rock. 

Running pick and roll he crossed over denying the screen, driving through contact but not getting the whistle. He put forth tremendous effort on a save, but it went to the Dubs who scored in transition.

That energy came through on an offensive board and putback, and he pressured the glass again to open up a second-chance bucket for Jakob Poeltl. He tried pick and roll again, and when the defense sagged off he swished a jumper from the free throw line. The most reliable way for him to score right now is by screening and finding open space, and he did that off ball to get a layup. 

Sochan finished with 12 points, 7 boards, a steal and 3 turnovers in the blowout loss to the Dubs, but the playmaking was better than the assist to turnover ratio suggests. He was a major reason why Curry scored just 16 points in the game.

“I think he did well,” Pop said after the game. “It’s a pretty big step for somebody that young to come up and play the point against Golden State. It was a great experience for him, I loved it.”

The following night in Portland, Jones had recovered and Sochan returned to the wing. He started the game checking Jerami Grant, who hit some tough jumpers with a hand right in his face.

In the first few minutes, he tallied more assists than he did in a whole game at point guard. First he drove and kicked to Vassell for three, then he caught it on a cut and got it right back to Keldon for another.

Switched onto Damian Lillard, his long arms and active hands deflected a pass and forced a turnover. Then as a help defender, he notched a perfect block on a Lillard drive. A bit later, he shut down an isolation by one of the shiftiest guards in the league. He cut for a floater, then nearly forced another turnover.

After Jones stole it at the end of the first quarter, Sochan made the right play and found an open Josh Richardson for a buzzer beater. Lillard struggled to create any offense when matched up on the rook, and so did Anfernee Simons.

Sochan displayed some of the in-position playmaking that he’ll do a lot of this year. Those slow drives that turn into post ups are his bread and butter, and often flow into dribble handoffs that fit right into the unselfish motion offense San Antonio has been running of late.

He pumped at the arc, drove in and eurostepped into a dime that wasn’t finished. He took a handoff near the paint and drove baseline for an easy dunk. He continued to play solid defense on Lillard on all areas of the floor.

The Spurs managed to build a small lead on the West-leading Blazers in the fourth, but saw it slip away. Gregg Popovich checked his watch late in a close game, realized it was Dame time, and told his rookie power forward to go stick him.

Jeremy obliged. First, he stuck with Lillard in a pick and roll and deflected a pass. The play continued and the ball found Dame at the arc, but Sochan was there for a good contest on the miss.

Lillard wanted iso on the next trip, but Sochan stayed in front and forced him into a tough mid-range jumper, which missed badly over an even better contest. At Baylor, he held opponents to an astounding 17% shooting when they tried to take him off the bounce.

On the next trip, late in the shot clock, Dame tried a stepback three. Sochan stuffed it. It was a masterclass in clamps delivered by a teenager against a scorer who strikes fear in the heart of just about anybody. After that play, the avid and proud trash talker sidled up to the six-time All Star, leaned down and said something to him.

The Spurs wound up losing by seven with some costly turnovers late, but in Sochan’s 27 minutes on the floor they outscored the Blazers by 18.

After he was drafted, several reporters asked Sochan who he was most excited to guard. His response each time was “everybody,” and he wasn’t joking.

When somebody says “closer” in a basketball context, the immediate image that pops into most people’s minds is a go-to scorer who can create his own shot. It can be a guard, a wing or a big man, but the essential quality is bucket getting.

But what about the other side of the equation? What about a defensive closer, the guy who you’d want checking that bucket getter? Typically that decision is more matchup dependent, but Sochan has the size, speed and talent to transcend the traditional limitations of position.

Few players in the world have the ability to switch 1-5 and give almost anybody from Curry to Embiid a hard time. 15 games into his rookie season, Sochan is throwing his hat in the ring. 

Sochan is averaging 7.7 points, 4 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.7 blocks and 0.9 steals per game, but it isn’t really about that. As Pop said before the season started, this year is about giving him and all the other youngsters a solid foundation. For Sochan, that means playing his butt off against top-tier competition.

There’s still plenty of rawness to his game, but there’s also plenty of time, trust, and opportunity to let him keep cooking through. If the early returns are any indication, Coach Pop is going to keep him not just in the fire, but in a crucible. And Sochan is ready for it, in a way that few people his age could ever hope to be.

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