Spurs rookies learn to navigate the NBA roller coaster

Spurs rookie Malaki Branham fell off the pitch in the second quarter on Saturday. Even the cheap seats at the AT&T Center could tell from his body language that he was discouraged.

Just before that, Branham had pulled off a picture-perfect euro step to break free for a layup in rotation – only to briefly leave the shot on the rim.

As Branham shuffled to the bench, coach Gregg Popovich slapped his butt.

“He just told me it was a good shot, just stay aggressive, keep playing my game,” Branham said.

Of all the lessons 19-year-old Branham and his two rookie cohorts learn in their first NBA season, this might be one of the toughest:

“You’re going to miss shots or make mistakes or whatever,” Popovich said. “The next game is the most important.”

Game after game, it’s an idea that Branham, Jeremy Sochan and Blake Wesley will embrace.

Sochan was the poster child for resilience in Saturday’s 128-118 overtime loss to Phoenix.

He started slowly, with two misses and two turnovers in the early minutes. The 6-foot-8 forward finished the first 30-point game of his NBA career.

“I don’t think you can think about the past,” Sochan said. “The mistakes you made, or a bucket you made, or a help you made — it doesn’t matter. The next piece counts.”

Branham never quite got it right on Saturday. He finished with five points and left the field 2 of 8.

Three of Branham’s misses came from the 3-point line where he was scoreless. The other three came at the edge.

Spurs’ third rookie Wesley completed four minutes against Phoenix. There was enough time for him to make a turnover towards the end of the first quarter and commit a stupid foul.

It’s all part of the NBA rookie experience, which continued for the Spurs’ newbie trio with Monday’s home game against Washington.

“They quickly learn how roller coaster a season can be, especially early in their careers,” said point guard Tre Jones, who is in his third NBA season. “You can have two tough games and it feels like it’s the end of the world, then come back and play two great games and forget it all.”

Earlier this month, Branham was the one on an upswing.

He scored double-digit goals in four of five games from January 6-13.

Branham has been cooling of late, managing double digits just once in seven competitions leading through Monday.

Echoing Popovich, Branham believes the next upswing is around the corner – as long as he keeps looking forward, not backward.

“It can be tough,” Branham said, “but you just have to keep going.”

Bates-Diop does a fine job of staying ready

After Romeo Langford suffered a strained adductor muscle in a Jan. 23 loss in Portland, Spurs were looking for a replacement for their backup shooting guard.

Langford had started in place of Devin Vassell, who had knee surgery earlier this month.

Popovich turned to the 6-foot-8 Keita Bates-Diop to round out his first five. Bates-Diop made sure he was ready.

“Whether I’m playing or not playing, starting or playing for two or three minutes, I try to maintain a similar routine,” Bates-Diop said.

The 27-year-old hit double digits in each of the first three games he started with Langford on the shelf, with a peak of 14 against the Suns.

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