July 22, 2024

Spurs pick Stephon Castle wants to build strong connection with new teammate Victor Wembanyama


NEW YORK — The faces of the 2024 UConn Huskies were visible everywhere inside the Barclays Center Wednesday night, no matter where one turned. Donovan Clingan, the backbone of the two-time national title team, was taken seventh by the Portland Trail Blazers. Dan Hurley, the Huskies coach, roamed around the arena. When they ran into one another backstage, they embraced.

But neither one — not the most-wanted coach in college basketball or the 7-foot-2 force — was the headliner of that crew. Stephon Castle, a one-and-done guard, was the first UConn player drafted. The San Antonio Spurs, amid a rebirth with Victor Wembanyama at the center, selected Castle at No. 4 and chose him as the latest key piece for their rebuild.

It was the destination Castle wanted. He came to the draft in a black-and-silver speckled suit. He wore a large, diamond-crusted pendant of a castle around his neck that he designed. He wanted to land in San Antonio.

“I feel like that’s the perfect fit for me,” he said. “It’s the ideal place I wanted to go to. For everything to work out, it’s a blessing.”

In Castle, the Spurs get a long guard with aspirations of being a point guard. He reportedly refused to work out for teams that already had one in place, but he worked out with San Antonio ahead of the draft. The Spurs were in dire need of a dynamic guard this past season.

Castle did not get a lot of reps at the position in college. He came to UConn as the ninth-ranked player in his class and with Tristan Newton ahead of him. He averaged 11.1 points and 2.9 assists per game, and was the No. 3 player on The Athletic’s Big Board.

But Castle has the size to play either backcourt spot. He measured at 6-5 1/2 without shoes at the combine and with a 6-9 wingspan. His shooting lagged at UConn — just 26.7 percent on 2.2 3s per game and a 37.5 effective field goal percentage on 44 catch-and-shoot jumpers — but there is hope it can improve.

Hurley sees a comparison in another combo guard who has become a defensive force in the NBA.

“I watch him and Jrue Holiday, I think there’s a lot of similarities,” Hurley said. “Maybe Steph’s not spent as much time on ball, but he’s bigger — he’s a bigger man — but a lot of those qualities. (He’s a) tremendous lockdown defender on ball, off ball, rebounds the heck out of his position as a guard, can facilitate and spray the ball anywhere. This year, where we needed him to be our best scorer, like at the Final Four he led us in scoring in Phoenix. We needed him to lockdown defend or be a great cutter or he’s just the type of player that will do whatever it takes to win and there’s not a lot of those guys left in basketball so he’s a great one to get.”

Now, Castle will slot in alongside Wembanyama. For Castle, defense is his calling card until and if his offense improves. Wembanyama is already one of the best defensive players in the league and made the All-Defensive First Team as a rookie even as the Spurs allowed the 10th-worst defensive rating.

Castle played 27 minutes per game on a title team in college, for a notoriously demanding coach. He will now get another one in San Antonio with Gregg Popovich, but the Spurs and Popovich should surely welcome the boost to their defense. They may have just put together the backbone that will support the team for years to come.

“Just with my perimeter defense and with someone like Wemby protecting the rim, I feel like just having that one-two punch, me being a point-of-attack defender and then him rim-protecting, that’s going to be super special,” Castle said.

The Spurs must hope that Castle’s offensive game will come along, too. He shot 75.5 percent from the free-throw line, so there may be room for improvement with his jumper.

Wembanyama has already shown signs of promise as a ballhandler, creator and cutter, which should allow Castle to find ways to produce and play around him that is more than just carrying an on-ball burden. Still, Castle ranked in the 77th percentile this season in points per possession when he served as the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy.

Castle has high hopes for how he and Wembanyama will fit together. It could determine the Spurs’ future.

“I think it’ll go well,” he said. “With my playmaking ability and his playmaking ability, my versatility, being able to cut and set screens for him, doing the little things like that, but also being able to show my playmaking ability, how well I think I can pass with such a great teammate like that. I feel like our connection will be pretty strong.”

(Photo of Castle: Chris Marion / NBAE via Getty Images)





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