Jeremy Sochan, the second-year San Antonio Spurs power forward-turned-point guard, gathers the ball with a 1-point lead and 2:30 left in the second quarter of a Nov. 14 road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As Sochan rushes up the court, he doesn’t look over at Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who is trying to call a specific play. While the Spurs’ offense is in action, Popovich implores Sochan to look at him next time.
The Spurs possession ends in a missed 7-foot jumper by Malaki Branham, and Josh Giddey corrals the rebound and quickly drives down the court, blowing past Sochan for a transition layup to give the Thunder a lead they would never relinquish in what turns into a 123-87 rout.
A fuming Popovich quickly calls timeout.
Sochan approaches his coach, who explains — in a much calmer tone than he took while the previous play was unfolding — that Sochan needed to look to the sideline in those situations.
It was a teaching moment for Popovich, one of many that have taken place so far this season. A 3-2 start has been eclipsed by an eight-game losing streak that has dropped the Spurs to last place in the Western Conference heading into Monday’s game against the LA Clippers.
With the Spurs leaning into a supersized starting lineup this season, there have been growing pains.
Devin Vassell is the only traditional guard in the lineup. Keldon Johnson has mostly been a small forward with the ability to slide up and play the 4 if needed. Zach Collins is settling into his role as the team’s starting center. And No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama, all 7-foot-4 of him, is malleable enough to fit in wherever he’s needed.
Then there is Sochan, who came into the league a year ago as a power forward but has now been thrust into an unfamiliar position. Prior to a late October game against the LA Clippers, Popovich called Sochan “our official 2023-24 experiment to see what happens there.”
Popovich has said the Spurs went to the big lineup with Sochan in part for defensive purposes, with the hope the team can create more havoc and deflections. The Spurs averaged 13.9 deflections a game last season and are just shy of that this season at 13.1 through 13 games.
After Sochan’s first game at point guard in the preseason, Popovich said he liked the pace with which Sochan ran the offense, but the coach has consistently said it will continue to be a work in progress.
“It is the first time I have ever played point guard in my life,” Sochan said. “I am doing it. I am making a transition like this in the NBA, which is rare. You don’t see a lot of people going from power forward to point guard.
“There have been moments where it’s like, ‘Yo, I don’t want to.’ It’s like, ‘f— this s—.’ I’m going to be honest. There have been moments where there isn’t confidence. But there are moments of being confident and just working. Knowing the trust I have from the coaches and players, it helps.”
Though Sochan had never played point guard prior to this season, Popovich said the Spurs didn’t give Sochan a directive to watch a particular player on film because they still want him to be himself.
“He can’t play like Chris Paul or he can’t play like John Stockton. He’s got to be Jeremy,” Popovich said. “So we watch him play and we help him understand how to run a team, what’s going on on the floor, what plays are appropriate at what time, time and score, all those things. He’s got to do it his way.”
Doing it his way is what Sochan prefers as well.
“Your mind is always running,” Sochan said. “But it is fun. It is tiring, but in a positive way. It’s not like I am trying to hide from it or anything. It is going to be a process, for sure.”
So far that process has resulted in his assists-per-game average jumping from 2.5 a season ago to 4.5 this season. His turnovers, however, are up as well, from 1.7 to 2.5. The Spurs are averaging 16.1 turnovers per game, fifth most in the NBA. At times, they’ve struggled to get the ball to Wembanyama, who is still averaging a team-high 19.3 points per game, best among all rookies.
Sochan said the mental aspect of playing point guard has been as tiring as the physical side, but he has gotten help from backup Tre Jones, the only true point guard on the Spurs’ roster.
Jones started 65 of 68 games a season ago for the Spurs, averaging 12.9 points and 6.6 assists per game. He was rewarded in the offseason with a two-year, $19 million deal. He has taken his move to the bench in stride while playing only slightly less than he did a season ago — 25.3 minutes per game compared to 29.2 per game last season.
Jones said that he talks with Sochan about the position and what he sees on the court on almost a daily basis.
“We’re always with each other and we’re always in the gym or there’s film or whatever it may be,” Jones told ESPN. “There’s so many different scenarios that it brings, but obviously we have a great relationship and a friendship and we’re able to just talk about so many different things that we see and that he’s going through right now as well.”
San Antonio has been at its best with Jones as the point guard. In 253 minutes with Jones on the floor, the Spurs have scored 115.8 points per 100 possessions. With Sochan on the floor, they are scoring 100.1 points per 100 possessions. As a team, the Spurs have a 106.9 offensive rating.
According to Second Spectrum, the Spurs are averaging 0.966 points per possession when Sochan brings the ball up the floor. That is last among the 50 players who have brought the ball up 200 times or more this season.
Still, the Spurs are sticking with the Sochan experiment. And Sochan says having the backing of his teammates and coaching staff has gone a long way in helping him get over the bad days.
“They know that it is not always going to be perfect,” Sochan said.
Sochan said it feels good knowing that everyone in the building believes in what they are trying to accomplish, and his teammates are dedicated to working through their on-court issues as the season progresses.
“I do feel like Jeremy’s more than capable of being point guard,” Johnson said. “I feel like he’s getting better and better each and every game and you can just see the confidence growing and brewing inside of him. I’m proud of him because this is something different. … So just to see his growth with all the noise and everything like that, I’m very proud of him and I have his back 110%.”
Adding to the challenge of learning a new position is the fact that Sochan is typically drawing the opposing team’s best perimeter defender, while also frequently defending one of the opponent’s best players on the other end of the court. On Nov. 17, Sochan drew Sacramento Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox 48 times but also defended Domantas Sabonis nine times in halfcourt matchups. No other player has guarded both All-Stars as much in the half court so far this season. Defensively, that was a role Sochan had to handle at times last season as a rookie, but without the added pressure of initiating the offense.
“As a 4, I would be guarding one of the best players, but then normally I’d go to the corner and I see what the point guard says and I know my route,” Sochan told ESPN. “But as the point guard, you need to know what you’re about to do and everyone else’s role in the play. It’s a little tougher.”
While the initial returns of the 2023-24 experiment have been lacking, the Spurs are committed to keeping Sochan at the point moving forward, and doing whatever they can to help him succeed — which ideally will lead to long-term success for the team.
“He’s got a lot of responsibilities on both sides of the court, and he’s doing his best to respect the coaches’ game plan,” Wembanyama said. “We’ve got a long-term vision. We are not close. But we’re on the right path. Someday it’s going to pay off.”