Victor Wembanyama lives up to outrageous hype: ‘He’s a one-off as a player’

Victor Wembanyama lives up to outrageous hype: ‘He’s a one-off as a player’

SAN ANTONIO — Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich’s reaction was like that of everyone else when Victor Wembanyama first arrived in The Alamo City after the San Antonio Spurs made the French teenager the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.

He had seen hours of video of Wembanyama’s games in France and the October 2022 exhibition games in Las Vegas that featured Wembanyama and the G League Ignite’s Scoot Henderson, whom the Portland Trail Blazers would select third in the 2023 NBA Draft.

Yet, he still needed to see what Wembanyama would do against NBA competition. He steered clear of great expectations for his new star, but by this season’s end, Popovich acknowledged that even the hype that came with his new “generational” big man had been insufficient. A major factor in the coach’s awakening to Wemby’s true level of excellence derived from the rookie’s willingness to be coached by Popovich and his assistants.

“He was much more malleable and accepting, expanding his role, expanding his game, both defensively and offensively,” Popovich said during a season summation and ahead of the NBA naming Wemby the rookie of the year on Monday. “You’ll have to ask him if he was planning on leading the league in blocks when he came, but that was like a requirement. We wanted him at the basket and we wanted him rebounding and blocking shots.

“He likes to shoot the three, so that was probably not exactly what he (was) expecting from me right off the bat. But he’s a competitor. He wants to win. He’s gifted, but I needed to show him that he’s gifted in a whole lot more ways than he knows. And expanding his game was a priority.”

Typically, Popovich avoids comparing players. Such exercises, he avers, are fool’s errands. But while evaluating what he had learned about Wembanyama this season he made an exception.

“He’s made me understand that he has those Tim Duncan qualities of innate basketball IQ and a fire that he wants to be the best,” said Popovich.

There is no greater compliment any Spurs player can receive from the coach than a positive comparison to the franchise’s greatest player, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, three-time NBA Finals MVP and South Texas icon.

Wembanyama and Duncan share numerous traits, both on and off the floor. Duncan used to contend that he was the all-time NBA leader in shots blocked without leaving the floor. Wembanyama had numerous “Dad blocks” among his league-leading 254 rejections, simply because he didn’t need to leave his feet to get his hands on an opponent’s shot.

Both players also have subtle senses of humor and both, it turns out, often go right back at Popovich when the coach hits them with a jibe.

“I react well to people who have a sense of humor and are willing to come back at me when I go at them with half-humor (when I) half-confuse them so they don’t know what I’m thinking,” Popovich said. “So, he’s been fun to be around. He’s very intelligent and very inquisitive.”

Ask R.C. Buford when he first saw Wembanyama in action and the response is instantaneous.

“May 4, 2019,” blurts the chief executive officer of Spurs Sports & Entertainment, the seventh position Buford has held in 34 years with the San Antonio Spurs organization. “He was 15 years old. There was nobody else in the gym. It was somewhere in France, but not Paris.”

A phone call from the Spurs’ head of international scouting, Claudio Crippa, is what put Buford on a flight to Paris and then on a drive to see Wembanyama playing for Nanterre 92. The only observers, other than personnel of the two teams, were Crippa and Buford.

What the two saw then was an even skinnier-than-now 6-foot-11 version of Wembanyama. After a bit of a slow start, Wembanyama, now 7-4, put together one of the most impressive inaugural NBA seasons since — take your pick — Spurs Hall of Fame center David Robinson in 1989-90, Spurs Hall of Fame big man Tim Duncan in 1997-98 or LA Clippers power forward Blake Griffin in 2010-11.

Even as a 15-year-old, Wemby was doing things that Buford, a visionary judge of talent who was twice named the league’s executive of the year, had never seen.

“The skill level was ridiculous,” Buford said in a recent interview, the images still vivid in his mind after five years. “Nah, not ridiculous. I mean, he was 15 years old. But he was playing a different game than a typical 6-11 15-year-old. He was already shooting perimeter shots. He was already taking the ball off the glass and moving the ball up the court. I had never seen anything like it.”

For one of the pioneers of international scouting, that is a momentous assertion. Remember, Buford had been the only NBA scout to watch 15-year-old Manu Ginóbili play a game in South America in 1992. He made a notation to himself that eventually resulted in then-NBA vice-president of basketball operations Rod Thorn famously announcing that “with the 57th selection of the 1999 NBA Draft the San Antonio Spurs select Emanuel Gee-no-BEE-lee of Argentina.”

Ginóbili was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last August.

Given good health, Wembanyama’s eventual induction already seems inevitable.

Buford’s take on Wemby’s living up to outrageous hype included an intangible that few saw coming: Wembanyama being not just a great player but also a great teammate.

“I think it would be very difficult for anybody to live up to the expectations that the league and the fans put on him,” Buford said. “I think every night we saw something different that we had never seen before. Between playing, coaching and being in the front office, I’ve watched 50 years of basketball and every night I would see something from Wemby I haven’t seen before.

“The amount of time he put into developing himself and also supporting the development of his teammates was unbelievable.”

Wembanyama’s 254 blocks were 64 more than this season’s second-place finisher, Chet Holmgren, who appeared in 11 more games. (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

There may be only one NBA observer who does not think Wembanyama exceeded all expectations: Wemby himself.

“That is not how I feel,” he responded to the suggestion he had outdone even the most optimistic forecasts for success in his inaugural season. “Maybe it’s the case, but it’s not how I feel because I always, every day, try to push harder and do more, get more achievements, more records, more wins. But the next day I always tell myself that I didn’t do enough and to push me even more.

“So, it’s my first impression that I didn’t exceed any expectations, that I should have done more.”

Done more?

The list of Wembanyama’s rookie season accomplishments is as long as the distance from baseline to baseline. Here are a few of the most impactful:

• Wemby became the first player in NBA history to reach 1,500 points, 700 rebounds, 250 assists, 250 blocks and 100 made 3-pointers.

• With 40 points and 20 rebounds against the Knicks on March 29 he became the first rookie since Shaquille O’Neal (1992-93) with a 40-20 game, as well as the youngest player in league history with such a game.

In a 110-105 loss to the Denver Nuggets on April 2, he scored 23 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, handed out eight assists and blocked nine shots, nearly joining Nate Thurmond, David Robinson, Alvin Robertson and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to record a quadruple-double.

• He amassed that league-best 254 blocks, just the second rookie to lead the NBA in that category since the league began tracking blocks during the 1973-74 season. Manute Bol, the 7-7 center for the Washington Bullets, blocked a rookie-record 397 shots in 1985-86.

• Wembanyama’s season averages of 21.4 points per game, 10.6 rebounds and 3.6 blocks make him just the fourth rookie to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks (another grouping with an asterisk to account for the league’s indifference to blocks before 1973-74). The others — Robinson, O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning — are in the Hall of Fame. And if you toss in Wembanyama’s assists (3.9 per game) with his other averages, there have been only two other seasons in NBA history when a player has finished a season averaging that many points, rebounds, blocks and assists. Both were achieved by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

• Wembanyama has been named one of three finalists for two NBA awards this season: rookie of the year and defensive player of the year.

• His NBA peers voted the towering rookie the league’s best defender in this season’s anonymous NBA player poll by The Athletic.



Are Victor Wembanyama, Spurs on right track to building a contender? ‘I trust the project’

Statistical achievements and honors only begin to show the beauty of Wembanyama’s amazing season. The rest of the story one must see to believe. Many of his most impactful plays had never been seen before.

• Start with his God-Shammgod-followed-by-spin move against the Memphis Grizzlies on April 9. Set up in the post and guarded by Grizzlies center Trey Jemison, Wembanyama performed the tricky double-crossover known to hoops junkies worldwide as a Shammgod. Then he made a 360-degree spin move that produced a perfect finger roll layin. None other than Hall of Fame 7-footer Kevin Garnett called it the “move of the year.”

• Follow with Wemby’s toss off the backboard to himself for a dunk against the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 4. Following a monster slam by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Wemby began a drive from the 3-point arc and picked up his dribble a tad early. Caught in the air a bit too far from the rim, he underhanded the ball off the backboard, caught and jammed it. TNT broadcasters Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller lost their minds. Wemby just shrugged.

“Kind of happened in the moment,” he said afterward. “I saw the open lane but stopped my dribble a little too early. But, I’m resourceful. So, even with no dribble, I can do some (dunks).”

• Add his block-and-snatch stop of a Chet Holmgren jumper in the Spurs’ 132-118 home win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 29. Wemby played the entire fourth quarter in a signature win over the Western Conference’s eventual No. 1 seed and punctuated his dominance of fellow rookie 7-footer Holmgren by blocking his 18-foot jumper and grabbing it in his massive right hand in the same moment. Decide for yourself if it was a block-steal or a block-rebound.

• Finally, check out Wembanyama’s solo defense against a three-on-one fast break by the Memphis Grizzlies in a Spurs win at FedEx Forum on April 9. After a steal by Brandon Clarke, the Grizzlies guard headed upcourt with teammates Jemison and Jordan Goodwin sprinting with him. Wembanyama was the only Spurs player back on defense, waiting in the center of the lane and just outside the offensive foul circle under the basket, arms spread.

As Clarke crossed the half-court line, he passed ahead to Jemison, two feet outside the 3-point line. Jemison took one look at Wembanyama and passed back to Clarke, now to his left. Clarke caught that pass and immediately passed the ball back to Jemison, who quickly turned and sent it to Gordon in the right corner, just outside the 3-point line. It was the ultimate example of the Wemby effect — players passing up shots for fear of having them blocked. Goodwin eventually drove past Wembanyama along the baseline to score a reverse layup, something he will likely be telling his grandchildren about someday.

Wemby had gotten loads of experience defending 3-on-1 fast breaks very early in his athletic career. At 7, he was a goalkeeper for a youth football (soccer) team in his Paris neighborhood. During an early-season Spurs losing streak that would eventually become the longest in club history, Wemby was asked if he ever had experienced a similar losing streak.

“The greatest number of losses I had probably had to be when I was playing soccer,” Wembanyama said then. “We didn’t have a very good team. When you’ve got to guard three-on-one fast breaks all day, it is tough. It wasn’t my fault. Really.”

Those who have encountered Wembanyama in and around San Antonio agree he has a generous and engaging personality, always polite and thoughtful. It is a trait just as vital as his length and skills as the Spurs now plan for a return to playoff relevance and, ultimately, more seasons as championship contenders.

“The human is better than the product on the floor,” Buford insists. “I don’t say that disrespectfully to the product on the floor. But as great as he’s been as a player, his connection to his teammates, his commitment to the team and the community, his interest in elevating those less fortunate have exceeded the greatness he’s shown as a player. Also, the support of his teammates.

“He’s a one-off as a player and, even more so, as a 19-year-old turned 20-year-old human being.”

There are many examples of the Wembanyama qualities Buford admires, but one of the most recent speaks volumes.

At 29, Devonte’ Graham is the oldest player on the Spurs roster, a veteran of five NBA seasons and a locker-room leader whom Popovich credited for helping his teammates remain more upbeat than players on a 60-loss team had a right to be.

Through the first 74 games of the season, Graham played a scant 113 minutes, 31 seconds in 16 games. But when Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan, Cedi Osman and Dominick Barlow went on the injured list over the space of a few days in early April, he began getting major minutes and making a major contribution to the team’s 7-4 record in its last 11 games.

His four 3-pointers were a big factor in a road win at New Orleans. In the penultimate game of the season, he nailed a buzzer-beating 10-foot floater with nine-tenths of a second left that gave the Spurs a 121-120 win over the Denver Nuggets, knocking the reigning NBA champs out of the top spot in the Western Conference standings in the process.

As Graham addressed the media from a podium in the Frost Bank Center interview room after that dramatic victory, telling reporters how good it had felt to make that shot, Wembanyama slipped through a door to his left and, without so much as a “heads-up,” tossed Graham the ball he had used to torture Nikola Jokić and company.

Graham couldn’t stop smiling. Suddenly, a long season spent mostly on the bench through loss after loss became nearly as joyous as his second season in Charlotte when he finished fifth in voting for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award after starting 63 games and averaging 18.2 points per game.

That game ball seems destined for a special place in Graham’s home for the rest of his life.

Two weeks before the win over Denver, the Spurs had defeated the New York Knicks 130-126 in overtime, and as time expired, Wembanyama grabbed the game ball and fired it into the stands.

That brought not only a $25,000 fine from the NBA but also an urgent request from the Knicks to find the ball, so it could be presented to Jalen Brunson, who had scored a career-high 61 points.

A student at St. Mary’s Hall High snagged the ball after Wembanyama’s exuberant heave. A Spurs staffer was sent to retrieve it from the youth with a promise of a ticket to another game. That contest turned out to be that big win over the Nuggets. Aware of the ultimate fate of the ball he had tossed into the stands, Wembanyama autographed another ball to be presented to the St. Mary’s Hall student. On it, he wrote in all caps: SORRY YOU COULDN’T KEEP THE OTHER BALL. HOPE THIS WORKS TOO.

For Wembanyama, there were bumps along the way. He didn’t want to endure 60 losses. He had difficulty tolerating the minutes restrictions Popovich and the team’s medical staff forced on him through the first half of the season. He isn’t apt to win NBA Defensive Player of the Year despite the fact nobody comes close to his combination of steals and blocks (342), not even his good friend, Rudy Gobert, the likely DPOY. The Minnesota Timberwolves center had only 214 so-called “stocks.”

And there won’t be much rest for Wembanyama. He will be one of France’s main attractions this summer during the Olympics in Paris. There will be more expectations. But in his first NBA season, he satisfied most.

Now, he just wants to win.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Joe Murphy, Darren Carroll NBE / Getty Images)

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