Home Sporty Victor Wembanyama’s hard launch to NBA stardom

Victor Wembanyama’s hard launch to NBA stardom


SAN ANTONIO — Back when Victor Wembanyama was still an impossible dream, Gregg Popovich skipped the NBA draft lottery drawing to go on a family vacation to Italy.

The legendary San Antonio Spurs coach had just finished his 27th season — which happened to be the losingest season of his career — and didn’t want to get his hopes up. Tony Parker, the longtime Spurs star, had raved about his talented French countryman, a 7-foot-4 center with guard skills. Popovich didn’t give the scouting reports much thought: San Antonio only had a 14 percent chance at the top pick, and it hadn’t had much luck during four straight losing seasons. As Wembanyama eagerly watched the lottery results with his family in Paris, Popovich snoozed on his transatlantic flight.

“What was I going to do?” Popovich wondered. “Jump in the machine and move the ping-pong balls?”

Spurs General Manager Brian Wright was so nervous as the lottery approached that he couldn’t eat, and Peter J. Holt, the team’s chairman, jumped out of his seat and yelped when the drawing revealed the 19-year-old Wembanyama was headed to Texas like David Robinson and Tim Duncan before him. A groggy Popovich awoke to the good news, delivered by his son-in-law.

“Oh, that’s good,” the coach recalled thinking, surely understanding Wembanyama and the Spurs were headed for a maelstrom of saturation media coverage, local delirium and international scrutiny. The once-great Spurs had fallen on hard times and fallen off the NBA map since Duncan led them to five titles between 1999 and 2014, and retirement rumors swirled around Popovich after he led USA Basketball to gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and was selected for induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year. Instead, the 74-year-old coach inked a five-year contract extension in July, signing on to shepherd Wembanyama’s NBA launch.

Now, the prospect Popovich had tried to put out of mind is all anybody wants to discuss. In city after city during the first two weeks of Wembanyama’s NBA career, Popovich was queried about the new face of his franchise. Can he handle the pressure? Does he get along with his teammates? Is he excited to play in big markets such as Los Angeles and against his childhood heroes such as Kevin Durant? Will he accept pointed coaching? Are his teammates passing him the ball enough? Can he avoid foul trouble? Who, exactly, is basketball’s next big thing?

Alternating between obliging and ornery almost by the minute, Popovich responded in various interviews by saying Wembanyama is “mature,” “prioritized,” “professional,” “skilled,” “intelligent,” “multifaceted,” “versatile,” “pretty tall,” “pretty smart,” “pretty worldly,” “coachable,” “not fazed by the hype,” “sharp,” “inquisitive,” “not a dumbstruck young kid,” “team-oriented,” “polite,” “respectful,” “driven” and “a quick learner” who was “taught many important lessons” by his parents.

“Victor will pretty quickly become The Man,” Popovich said. “It’s just a matter of time when I stop holding him back.”

That quip struck at the central question of Wembanyama’s roller-coaster acclimation to the NBA: How quickly can basketball’s most gifted teenager since LeBron James translate his immense potential into realized dominance?

“It would be great if he’s great,” Hall of Famer and analyst Charles Barkley said on the eve of Wembanyama’s Oct. 25 debut. “We don’t know these guys until they start playing against other NBA players. I’m pretty sure there was no [Nikola Jokic] in the Summer League. No LeBron. Pretty sure there was no Joel Embiid over there in France, either.”

Just as Wembanyama towers over his opponents and often blocks their shots without jumping, he has already developed an ability to keep the frenzy at arm’s length. He’s not as stony as Duncan, but he’s steady in manner and precise with his words. His emotions come through only in flashes during games and rarely during news conferences, evidence that he has already absorbed the central tenet of Spurs culture during a rookie campaign that has already seen exhilarating highs and disheartening lows.

“We’ve got a famous saying in San Antonio: ‘Pound the Rock.’ It has a deep meaning,” Wembanyama said. “How I see it and how I see life: It’s not about how bad the struggles are going to be; it’s about how persistent we’re going to be.”

Rookie-year challenges are a rite of passage for NBA stars: Michael Jordan encountered teammates’ hard drug use in his first Chicago Bulls locker room, James faced skepticism and resentment from the Cleveland Cavaliers because of the attention he received as a high school sensation, and Durant’s maiden voyage unfolded in the tense months before the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City.

Despite moving 5,000 miles from home to perform in a social media fishbowl, Wembanyama has generally carried himself with ease during San Antonio’s 3-4 start. He was extraordinarily well prepared to make an instant impact: He had years to adjust to fame and professional life in France, he speaks fluent English, and he has a supportive network of French players such as Parker to tap for advice.

Playing in South Texas has shielded him somewhat from the day-to-day annoyances of the coastal media throngs, and he has been quickly embraced by a ravenous fan base eager for a return to contention. Across San Antonio, at least five major Wembanyama murals have sprouted up alongside similar tributes to Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginóbili.

The Spurs’ youth has set up a honeymoon season free from playoff pressure; a 40-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, a blown 20-point lead against the Toronto Raptors and a 41-point shellacking by the Indiana Pacers don’t prompt agony. Popovich, who has pledged not to be a “helicopter coach,” has made a point to treat his star like the rest of his players, and Wembanyama’s family has provided a stabilizing presence. His father, Felix, and his older sister, Eve, rose to celebrate a dunk during his debut, while his mother, Elodie de Fautereau, rushed to the court to high-five him after a recent win.

Wembanyama’s teammates have taken the extra attention in stride, eagerly praising “Wemby” after wins and defending him after losses. His arrival has been clarifying rather than threatening: San Antonio spent the past few years trading productive players such as Dejounte Murray and Derrick White for draft picks as it played for a future that is suddenly here.

The show begins each night more than an hour before tip-off, when Wembanyama takes the court for an individual warmup session that can run longer than 20 minutes. Fans wearing his French pro team Metropolitan 92s jersey crowd near the court as they angle for an autograph, and first-time observers inevitably gawk with wide eyes.

In Phoenix last week, a middle-aged man stopped speaking on the phone mid-sentence when Wembanyama stepped onto the court: “My God, he’s got the longest arms I’ve ever seen on a human. I’ve got to go take a picture.” The man abruptly hung up and scurried down the stairs for a closer view. Even Durant couldn’t resist sneaking a few peeks as the two warmed up on opposite baskets.

Wembanyama’s regimented pregame routine reveals his commitment to his craft. While most NBA players get up jumpers and then jog through layup lines, Wembanyama conducts a comprehensive and surprisingly high-energy program that includes the finer points of the game: handling the ball, setting screens, cutting to get open, executing kick-out passes, boxing out for rebounds, closing out on shooters, sliding laterally to defend drives and even taking a charge in the chest.

He works meditatively, rarely speaking or smiling, and pauses only for sips of water. Like a disciplined eater who can’t resist a little ice cream, Wembanyama treats himself and the crowd to a few dunks once his technique work is complete.

James famously dubbed Wembanyama “the alien,” and his best slams manifest like UFO sightings in rub-your-eyes fashion. One night, he caught a Jeremy Sochan jumper just after it swished through the net and windmilled it back through the rim in one powerful motion. The next, he nonchalantly slipped the ball between his legs while in midair to set up a right-handed finish. Wembanyama’s casual diversions could win the dunk contest.

A young Shaquille O’Neal made his name off breaking backboards and snapping rims, but Wembanyama studied Durant and prefers playing on the perimeter where he can create off the dribble. When he goes inside, Wembanyama is more graceful than forceful and prefers to “freestyle” his way through traffic with fakes and finger rolls. That hasn’t prevented him from being embraced by the old school.

“He has an early entrance into the Big Man Alliance, which I’m the president of and Jokic is the vice president,” O’Neal said, deploying a chef’s kiss as he talked. “I like the guy because he uses all his tools. He would be a nine out of 10 for me. The only deduction I would give him is I haven’t seen him play really physically in the post, but who does?”

How best to deploy Wembanyama, who is averaging 19.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in seven games, is a hot topic. His supporting cast is light on distributors, and Popovich has undertaken what he calls a “grand experiment” by playing the 6-foot-9 Sochan at point guard rather than power forward. The longer Wembanyama goes without touching the ball, the more it feels like something has gone terribly awry.

“We’re at 60 or 65 percent of where we could be,” Spurs guard Devin Vassell said. “We’re messing up on little stuff. I’m very interested to see halfway through the season where we are.”

The Spurs have struggled badly with turnovers in their early losses, and Wembanyama often rushed through his decisions when he did get the ball. Early in his first matchup with Durant, a nervous Wembanyama was stripped by the Suns forward on the perimeter. On the other end, Durant welcomed him to the NBA with a step-back jumper over his outstretched arms.

“I learned that I’m far from mastering the game as much as him,” Wembanyama said. “I try to do some stuff like him, but I’m not patient enough. I go too fast. He goes to his own pace and his spots. I get inspired by that.”

But Wembanyama proved resilient as the Spurs mounted a 20-point comeback to upset the Suns on Oct. 31, and two nights later he went back for more. In a rematch with Phoenix, Popovich needed more offense when Vassell exited at halftime with a groin injury, so he turned his prodigy loose for the first time. Wembanyama responded with 38 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks, outplaying Durant down the stretch by finishing an array of lobs and draining a dagger three-pointer off the dribble.

“Somebody’s got to do it,” Wembanyama said when asked about his late-game takeover. “In the NBA, you have to make big plays. You’re not going to have many chances if you don’t try to kill your opponent right way.”

This coming-out party was a reminder of his vast scoring game and how quickly he learns and adapts. Forty-eight hours after Wembanyama had tentatively approached Durant for a handshake before their first meeting, Durant sought him out for postgame congratulations and then sang his praises to reporters.

“I know we’re both skinny and he said he watched me growing up, but he’s his own player,” Durant said. “His enthusiasm for the game, you can tell that through the TV and playing against him. He’s going to create his own lane. It’s much different than anybody who has ever played.”

Placing Wembanyama in the Venn diagram of NBA superstars is no simple task. There’s a dash of Wilt Chamberlain’s physical dominance, a hint of Hakeem Olajuwon’s fluidity and instincts, a heavy dose of Durant’s handle and jumper, and yards of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s length. When he celebrated his first victory in the NBA against the Houston Rockets, a grinning Wembanyama looked like a young Magic Johnson jumping into Abdul-Jabbar’s arms.

“I really, really love winning,” Wembanyama said. “It’s what I love most in life.”

When he closed out the Suns this past Thursday, his coldblooded three-pointer recalled Kobe Bryant’s and his celebratory fist pump looked an awful lot like Jordan’s. When he explained that he “wouldn’t really allow myself to entertain a relationship” with his rivals, he channeled Giannis Antetokounmpo. And when he dressed up as “Slender Man” for Halloween, he exhibited a James-like knack for building his brand and breaking the internet.

“The overarching theme is to be solid in everything you do,” Popovich said of his message to Wembanyama. “You don’t have to impress anybody. If you play the game according to the basketball gods, you’re probably going to be in pretty good shape because you have a lot of skills. If you look at the greats like Kobe, Magic and Larry [Bird], they’re pretty fundamentally sound. They understand that it might be a steal on defense, an offensive rebound or a great pass that wins the game.”

Popovich has played Wembanyama just 28.9 minutes per game through his first seven, a careful approach that has helped the big man display excellent end-to-end speed and sustained high-energy play. While Wembanyama would present major problems for opposing offenses if he simply remained stationary near the paint, he regularly covers ground from the three-point line to the rim and back within a single possession.

Many of his blocks inspire laughter or disbelief: Wembanyama parried a Grayson Allen runner without flexing his knees and snatched an OG Anunoby layup attempt out of the air with one hand, and he specializes in racing out to deflect jumpers by unfurling his go-go-gadget arms. Kyrie Irving was the first of many unwitting victims of such blocks, and a stupefied Devin Booker said the Suns were left “trying to figure out what he is because we’ve never seen him before.”

“He’s too tall,” Anunoby said, shaking his head. “He’s way too tall.”

Wembanyama’s defensive impact could become the counterpart to Stephen Curry’s league-altering offensive presence: Curry’s shooting ability creates gravity that sucks the defense toward him, while Wembanyama’s shot-blocking ability pushes the opposing offense away from him. With good spacing central to success in the modern game, Wembanyama’s position on the weak side collapses the court and forces the opponent to play in smaller spaces, making it easier for his teammates to handle their matchups.

When he drops into the paint, Wembanyama’s length often allows him to be in two places at once: He can deter layup attempts by hedging toward a ballhandler while also sticking close enough to a big man to prevent an interior pass. The typical counter to an effective shot-blocker is to pull him out into space, but Wembanyama is nimble enough that high-level perimeter players find him difficult to shake.

Through seven games, the Spurs rank 29th in the NBA with a 120.0 defensive rating. When Wembanyama is on the court, however, their defensive rating improves to 110.9, equivalent to 15th in the NBA.

Though his journey is still in its nascent stages, Wembanyama has emerged as the early leader to win rookie of the year honors and a legitimate candidate for the all-star team. His debut drew nearly 3 million television viewers, and he went straight to No. 1 on the NBA’s social media charts, generating a league-leading 377 million views between Oct. 1 and Nov. 2.

The buzz has built with each stop as new waves of observers get the chance to square Wembanyama’s extravagant pre-draft projections with the real thing. Even for optimists, his quick launch has been startling. Wembanyama’s career night against the Suns produced a stat line matched by just two teenagers in NBA history: James and Durant.

Rather than shying from the comparisons, Wembanyama ingested them as rocket fuel.

“It just makes me want to go even higher to beat all these records,” he said.


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