There are going to be better Rookie of the Year candidates than Jeremy Sochan.
Paolo Banchero — the only traditional go-to scorer from this class, at least this season — has been the firm favorite more or less since the start. Bennedict Mathurin started the year a flamethrower, and Jalen Williams is closing it out as one; Keegan Murray has been making shots all year for a No. 3 seed. Walker Kessler plays a more anonymous brand of basketball than usually wins awards, but how often do you see a rookie with this much feel for the finer aspects of protecting the rim?
Sochan, by comparison, has played through warts and blemishes all year. He's shooting a ho-hum 45.3 percent from the field, and a much more damning 24.6 percent from three. He was making less than half of his free throws to start the year, until switching to a one-handed form brought his hit rate up to a more average-ish number. He’s no sure thing for either All-Rookie Team. We knew from the start, when the San Antonio Spurs drafted him with the No. 9 pick, that his jumper would almost surely be the swing skill that makes or breaks his career.
With that said, his development from month to month this season has been the sort that you can’t dismiss. He’s an irrepressible force, playing the game at the speed of neurons firing. The Spurs have embraced a full youth* movement (*Victor Wembanyama) this year, and as they’ve hacked away at the measure of verifiable NBA talent in their lineup, Gregg Popovich has given Sochan greater freedom in role and responsibility. Really, his only responsibility is to go and try some things out there. He’s run wild with this assignment.
Sochan is, primarily, a 6’9 forward with the size and speed to project as the type of switchable defensive player so desirable in the NBA these days, and an especially endearing freneticism for blowing up the other offense’s actions. Where he’s been given more freedom is with the ball in his hands, and this has been the exciting part for anyone still watching Spurs games these days. (Unfortunately, Sochan hasn’t been exempt from the injury management tag either — but he also had the best game of his career right before the DNP’s.)
Sochan breaks the convention and structure of the game. He plays a hyperactive, improvisational style that feels like watching a basketball randomizer — or perhaps (optimistically?) a burgeoning hoops genius learning to lean into his best impulses. The Spurs used Sochan in more opportunistic and play-finishing roles at first, sprinkling in touches as a high-post and hand-off fulcrum. Encouraged by the early returns, they’ve been playing him more as a point guard, straight up. Sochan has an innate feel for the second layer of the defense, and how the floor can bend to spring players open. His passes are form meeting function, a creative flair that bypasses the standard patterns of the game to generate advantages. He’s a wild-card of a playmaker who might ad-lib the set at any moment. This is a pass he’s thrown multiple times this season; how many other rookies, at any position, make this read?
And by the way, that’s the same guy who can do this.
“He’s wild,” Popovich told reporters earlier this season. “He’s doing whatever he wants. I just love watching him. It’s kinda like watching Manu [Ginobili] when we first got him — I have no idea what he’s gonna do.”
A young Ginobili was a reckless force, enough so that Popovich wondered if he could even coach him. He was a high-wire type that tested the Spurs’ preference for deliberate motion offense and often went rogue within the system. In time, Popovich learned to come around. Ginobili was maniacal, and a visionary. He became known for his own, specific passes that most coaches would advise against and few players could even make — full-court bounce passes, cross-court jump passes, give-and-go passes that only the most perfect and gentle touch could loft.
Sochan is a 19 year old averaging 2.5 assists to 1.7 turnovers per game so far, so there’s still some work to be done. He’s getting the reps, though, and showing flashes of a player uncommon. Ginobili’s greatest attribute was that he could see the game in its most arcane angles and crack new dimensions open within the superstructure. You see players like that on winning teams, integrating themselves as the connective fabric of their team and in special instances rewiring the team altogether. Sochan shows signs of a similar skillset. He’s unpredictable, a freestyler that toys with the rhythm of the defense. Perhaps he can become the sort of player that justifies doing things his way.
Ginobili, in his rookie year, was joining a Spurs' team that went on to win the championship that year. Tim Duncan was in his fifth year, David Robinson in his last and Tony Parker emergent. The stakes for Sochan are lower. Today’s Spurs aren’t trying to integrate him into a winner, and there’s no tug-of-war between player and coach for the spiritual identity of the team because the team just doesn’t really have one right now. Their best players are Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson, two encouraging young wings also in their own early and exploratory stages right now. Their best player might as well be the 14.0 percent odds they have at Wembanyama right now.
In this setting, Sochan can really just mess around. This has been the part that I can’t take my eyes off. His game is a minor protest against orthodoxy, and those protests are worth cherishing. Unlike with peers such as Banchero or Kessler, there’s no easy comparison, archetype or rubric for the player that Sochan might become. I’ve purposefully resisted the Draymond Green comparison so far, because we’ve only ever had one player like Draymond since Draymond and I’ve learned my lesson about suggesting we’re about to see a second, but historically, the players we compare to Draymond are players that elude easy definition, like Draymond himself. The last next Draymond Green was Scottie Barnes, who is nothing like Draymond Green but an exciting and fairly indefinable player in his own right. If Sochan reaches his ceiling outcome, I really don’t know what would look like. His Year 2 is going to be a fun one.