SAN ANTONIO — With every passing possession in the fourth quarter — and the overtime period that followed — it became clear that not only did Victor Wembanyama want the ball in his hands, but also the feeling was mutual from his teammates who could sense his aggressive late-game mentality.
It was a passionate San Antonio Spurs crowd that roared for over three hours during Friday night’s 126-122 win over the Houston Rockets, cheering on their No. 1 pick with every elongated move he made, booing his brief substitution and chanting his name during a two-minute breather. And for much of the game — or at least the first half — Wembanyama had struggled offensively, missing eight of his first 10 shots.
Even with another slow start, it didn’t look as if head coach Gregg Popovich or the rest of San Antonio’s coaching staff were worried. Wembanyama, who has quickly shown himself to be a willing screener, hunted mismatches all night, the irony being, for the 7-foot-4 phenom, every player is a mismatch. The Spurs deployed him at multiple spots on the floor — operating from the elbows and blocks, roaming the wings and also in the dunker’s spot.
Against the Rockets, a common theme emerged with Wembanyama — getting him going and ensuring he remained aggressive. At times, the other Spurs would emphasize this, whether it be by pausing a clear transition opportunity to hit him trailing or simply dumping the ball down to him after establishing a dominant position against a smaller defender (which is everyone).
Amid the overall sloppiness of the game — 36 combined turnovers — Wembanyama’s otherworldly skills routinely shone through. Broken plays turned into lob dunks. One-move isolations resulted in emphatic slams. There were casual, almost accidental, blocks and defensive stops. In one sequence, Wembanyama blocked a shot with his left, then followed that up with a block with his right hand, all within seconds. Think back to elementary school when you got in trouble for just being in the same vicinity as the culprit — that’s going to be Wembanyama and his defensive stops. His radius is its own climate.
WEMBY DENIAL X2 🤯
— NBA (@NBA) October 28, 2023
When it came to winning time, Wembanyama answered the call, demanding the ball and responding by scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to finish with a tidy line of 21 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks, two steals and an assist in 31 minutes. Not bad for your second game.
“He’s a competitor,” Popovich said following the game. “Of course he’s gonna be decisive and do what he thinks he can do to win.”
However, there’s a certain down-to-earth vibe about Wembanyama that not only endears him to the Spurs and city of San Antonio but has the ability to serve as a gravitational pull for others around him. He has the potential of a perennial All-NBA player but the humility of a summer league invite. When he’s asked questions, he’s thoughtful and direct with his answers. He would much rather praise his teammates or speak about the Spurs getting their first win and admitting to a rookie mistake (forgetting a late-game addition to the playbook) than rest on his own young laurels.
The Rockets fought valiantly and refused to back down in a historically tough environment, attempting to get physical with Wembanyama and showing him different looks. But as the game wore on, the Frenchman just seemed to want it more. His emotions grew with every swat, big rebound or put-back dunk. The fadeaway jumpers looked smooth as satin, and he looked every bit of San Antonio’s hope for the now and later.
“We all see it, how comfortable he is in that position,” Spurs point guard Tre Jones said. “He’s a winner. Ever since he’s been here — whether it’s preseason, open gym, training camp — he wants the ball at the end of the games. He wants those big shots. He’s best in those moments and we saw it tonight.”
“I really, really love winning,” Wembanyama said. “It’s what I love most in life. Coming back in the locker room, Pop acknowledged that it was my first ever NBA win. It just made me proud for a moment, proud of myself. It’s just one win, and we’ve got a whole lot more tough games to come. But I’m still very proud.”
For a player who has already taken the league by storm, Wembanyama is in the perfect environment in San Antonio. He’s not going to be rushed into anything, playing 31 minutes in a game that went to overtime. There’s a meticulous plan for Wembanyama, knowing the marathon is more important than the sprint, no matter how exciting some of those 100-yard dashes are.
But as much as the Spurs want to ensure his development goes according to plan, the No. 1 pick will undoubtedly force his way to the top of the pecking order sooner rather than later, especially if his start to his NBA career continues on this trajectory. His every move commands a defense’s full attention. It hasn’t been perfect, but early returns are more than promising.
NBA scouts are always working, jotting down everything that goes on during a basketball game. Those who have watched Wembanyama up close are even busier than normal, having never seen a player like this before. Knowing full well I might have annoyed a scout trying to do their job, I attempted to pick their brain as they watched Wembanyama on Friday. The scout was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
It seems like, during the early part of the second half at least, that Wembanyama is still trying to find his footing within San Antonio’s offense. What are you seeing on that side of the ball?
Offensively, his skill is ahead of his physicality. And I think as his physicality over time catches up, you’ll start to see him impacting the game defensively as well as rebounding wise. Those two things right now stand out: He still needs time to catch up, but offensively, I don’t really worry. He can get any shot he wants. He has a certain fluidity and a feel that’s just rare for his size.
He looks like a willing screener in the half court, trying to find mismatches, and when he gets the ball, he’s looking to score. Over the first two games, what’s the biggest thing for him getting comfortable and in the flow of the game?
He has to understand his spots. He has to understand that the team is demanding he take ownership of being that first, second option. I think he still has to get comfortable accepting the mentality that it takes to embrace that role as well as where he’s going to get his shots from on the floor.
Defensively, there are times he’ll switch or hang back closer to the rim. What’s the optimal usage for his unique skill set?
That’s a good question. I think the way to look at it is, you’re versatile with him in so many ways. You can switch one through four, one through five. You can play the drop as you said. It’s really based on personnel and fit matchup-wise for that specific game. You don’t want to leave a guard that’s smaller or shorter or less physical on a bigger guy. You want to try to keep size on size. But with their lineup and his ability to move his feet, you might see times where he’s playing a two guard, point guard, because he’s able to still move and contest shots and block shots as you’ve seen.
He’s also getting trapped. We’ve seen it a few times tonight where Houston just sends two at him and forces him to come off the ball. That’s kind of unique for a rookie, right? In just his second-ever NBA game?
It’s unique. But it’s not out of question based off his skill set and the way he commands attention. You have to honor it, teams are doing that. It only maybe being his fifth, sixth game as a pro if you combine preseason games; you’re seeing the attention he’s drawing.
With six minutes remaining in the fourth, Wembanyama caught the ball on the right wing with Rockets second-year forward Jabari Smith Jr. defending him. In one of the smoothest moves you’ll ever see from a young player, Wembanyama pump faked right, drove left and spun back to his right before finishing an emphatic dunk with the foul.
When you see plays like that, where does a scout’s brain immediately go?
When he does plays like that, you see the potential and upside beyond where it should be. How close is he to doing that more consistently? Is it a year away, five years away, three years away? That’s what you see.
In the closing minutes, fourth-year guard Devin Vassell had seen quite a bit of the ball, but with 23.8 seconds left in the fourth and the Spurs trailing 111-109, the action found Wembanyama’s hands yet again. And again, the No. 1 pick found success driving baseline against Smith.
I assumed Vassell was going to close this game, but San Antonio stuck it out with Wemby. Walk me through that last (regulation) possession.
Late in the game, based off how the previous possessions went, they went to close with Vassell. Vassell elbow isolation. Vassell top of the key, two-man game. On that play, they went specifically to Wemby. Misdirection, get him on the block, go one-on-one. He was able to get the ball and he was able to finish.
(Photo of Victor Wembanyama: Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images)