Blue and Gold Illustrated

August 2022

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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44 AUGUST 2022 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED MEN'S BASKETBALL BY PATRICK ENGEL B lake Wesley turned his head at his i n t ro d u c to ry p re ss co n fe re n ce June 25 and saw two youthful faces like his. Two days earlier, the San Antonio Spurs spent first-round draft picks on the former Notre Dame guard and a pair of other one-and-done players. A team already brimming with youth added three more teenagers to its roster. "We all just turned 19," Wesley said, gazing down the dais at new teammates Jeremy Sochan and Malaki Branham. "A lot of young people on this team. A lot of development. We have to learn a lot." That's putting it lightly. Sochan and Branham don't have driver's licenses yet. They all were 11 years old when the Spurs won their last NBA championship back in 2014. All three were top-25 picks in the 2022 NBA Draft, with Sochan at No. 9 fol- lowed by Branham (No. 20) and Wesley (No. 25). They're the latest youth infusion into the Spurs roster. Last year's Spurs first-round pick, Josh Primo, is still 19. Second-leading scorer and 2019 first- round pick Keldon Johnson is 22. Their 2020 first-rounder, Devin Vassell, is 21. Oddly enough, Wesley begins his NBA career surrounded by players younger than his former Notre Dame team- mates. The starting lineup in his final game with the Irish contained 23-year- old Prentiss Hubb, 22-year-old Dane Goodwin, 23-year-old Cormac Ryan and 22-year-old Paul Atkinson Jr. (who was one week away from turning 23). Two more 22-year-olds, Nate Laszewski and Trey Wertz, came off the bench. Wesley had no problem cracking a senior-laden Notre Dame rotation as a freshman. Now, he's part of a cadre of captivating youngsters looking to make their mark as professionals and prove worthy of second contracts. There are only so many rotation spots and minutes available for them. It's an entirely new stratosphere of competition. Basketball is their entire focus. Their job. Their life. Off days are taken at one's own risk. Wesley may be among teenagers and players barely old enough to buy their own drinks, but he's aware they're all professionals now in the world's most skilled and competitive basketball league. If he needed a reminder, he found one when he and Branham went toe-to- toe during a Spurs pre-draft workout. "That was my first time seeing Mal- aki," Wesley said. "He can get to his spot, shoot it, get to the rim." So can all of Wesley's new teammates and future opponents. Everyone is ath- letic and highly skilled. Wesley led Notre Dame in scoring last year in part because his raw explosive ability and athleticism were too much for ACC defenders to handle and stood apart from most col- lege players. It's the norm in the NBA. That didn't make the Spurs any less intrigued, though. "Blake is interesting," Spurs gen- eral manager Brian Wright said. "He's a combo guard, can play a little two [guard], can play a little point. Late- blooming guard. He's a kid that if you're not in the pandemic in COVID and he's seen on the [AAU] circuit more, you don't know where he'd be rated." Wesley will earn a chance to prove himself at the NBA level first. Wright said all three first-rounders will begin the year with a roster spot, though he expects Wesley to spend some time in the NBA G League. They'll battle among themselves and with the Spurs' veterans for consis- tent minutes and rotation roles. Wesley and Branham are combo guards and will compete directly against each other. It will be Wesley's toughest basket- ball test yet. Like everything else up to this point, though, he's confident he can handle it. He did, after all, grow up training with former Purdue guard and No. 5 overall pick Jaden Ivey in South Bend. Workouts were demanding and intense. Wesley credits his predilection for playing defense to them. He learned the game from his dad, Derrick, a for- mer guard at Ball State who played his senior year for College Basketball Hall of Fame coach Rick Majerus. "Jaden and I go way back. We grew up together just competing," Wesley said. "We worked out together one time and our trainer said, 'You aren't competing hard enough.' So, we went one-on-one and picked up each other full court. We used to go at it all the time. We have that dog mentality. Ever since then, I've loved to play defense." The defensive acumen offers a path to possible Year 1 minutes, even if Wesley's offensive game needs the considerable refinement most draft analysts think it will. The Spurs bet on his ceiling, but also feel confident in his floor. Still, the Spurs drafted Wesley for what he could become, not what he already is or because he's a surefire rookie-year contributor. His first professional ac- tion showcased the ceiling, but also the work needed to reach it. He played for the Spurs' NBA Summer League team in July, averaging 17 points in five contests. He was the squad's leading scorer but shot just 30 percent from the field. Wesley will presumably have a long rookie-year leash on a rebuilding team that made its 2022-23 intentions clear by trading All-Star guard Dejounte Murray June 30. Wesley will be able to learn by doing without fear of squan- dering his opportunity. He landed with a team known for its player develop- ment skills. The Spurs drafted a player eager to be developed. "You're talking about speed, com- petitiveness, a motor that keeps go- ing," Wright said. "He loves the gym. He wants to work. He wants to get better." ✦ Blake Wesley Is Ready To Compete At The NBA Level Wesley begins his pro journey on a San Antonio Spurs team full of young players hoping to prove themselves. He got off to a strong start by lead- ing the team with an average of 17 points per contest in five NBA Summer League outings. PHOTO COURTESY SAN ANTONIO SPURS

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