The throng of media in the San Antonio Spurs’ pregame interview room was large enough for even Gregg Popovich to take notice.
“Is this the playoffs?” Popovich asked.
No. Just another day of Wemban-mania.
On Wednesday night, San Antonio made its lone trip through Boston. Which meant a fresh crop of reporters to pepper Popovich about his star rookie, Victor Wembanyama, and a sold-out crowd to get a first look at him. Fans arrived early. Camera phones rolled. The game itself was anticlimactic: The Spurs trailed by five after one quarter, 25 at the half and fell behind by as many as 30 in the third quarter before eventually settling for a 19-point defeat.
When a reporter suggested the game was fairly even save for a lopsided second quarter, Popovich grinned.
“What are you, on drugs?” Popovich asked. “They kicked our ass.”
Still, even in defeat, Wembanyama shined. He scored 27 points in 27 minutes. He was 2 of 6 from three-point range and 5 of 6 from the free throw line. Several of his buckets were, well, ridiculous. A first quarter stepback three over Al Horford. A nifty left-handed layup on a drive in the third. In the fourth, Wembanyama threw down a left-handed dunk over Luke Kornet with one foot in the free throw lane.
“Victor’s a different player,” Popovich said. “He’s got talents.”
It’s Popovich’s job to mold those talents, and so far, so good. Wembanyama is averaging 19.6 points. He’s pulling down 10.3 rebounds. He’s handing out three assists. The Spurs have given Wembanyama plenty of latitude, letting him be, said Popovich, the “loosey goosey” player that made him special.
“You don’t want to take that out of him,” Popovich said. “I tried to do that a little bit with Manu [Ginóbili] and I learned my lesson. He taught me how to shut up and just let him play. Victor’s a little bit like that … he does things in the paint around the rim that I can’t teach him. Part of it’s his height and his agility, his spatial awareness. He does some amazing things, but he will spend time on the wing isolating. He brings it up on the break quite often. He’ll get posted. So his game is all encompassing.
With Wembanyama, the Spurs have experimented. He began the season playing power forward. He was good. Over the last month, he has played more at center. He’s been better. The personnel around Wembanyama have shifted. San Antonio started the season with Jeremy Sochan, a power forward, starting at point guard. Over the last two weeks, Tre Jones, a more traditional playmaker, has taken the role.
Individually the results have been positive. The team, though, has been bad. The Spurs have played 40 games this season. They have seven wins to show for it. Only Detroit has more losses. It’s challenging enough to stay focused early in a highly scrutinized rookie season. Try doing it in mid-January when the double-digit losses pile up.
“[It’s] very challenging,” said Wembanyama, still sweating from a postgame workout. “It’s not the losing in itself, but it’s something we might think, and I might have thought also as an individual before being into the NBA, but every game matters. Even though we’re losing 15-plus games in a row, every single game, we come onto the court and nobody’s putting their head down, nobody’s giving up. It is crazy. Every game, every night is a hell of a battle and it’s very intense. I would’ve thought before coming to the league that maybe some franchises or some teams would be sometimes coming into games more relaxed or not caring as much, but it’s not true at all.”
Popovich said he isn’t worried about Wembanyama. “I think his character is such that he wants to be coached,” Popovich said. He pointed to Monday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks, where San Antonio trailed by 35 at halftime. In the third quarter, Popovich benched all the starters—including Wembanyama. Wembanyama didn’t sulk. He scored 26 points in the second half to spark a Spurs comeback. Though Popovich is loath to make comparisons, that maturity, he said, reminded him of what he once saw from Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
“I’m fortunate that he’s that mature and understands what matters,” Popovich said. “Not just in winning and losing, but how to play the game and understanding how it all fits together and what’s expected. In that sense, he is like Tim and David because they care more about the process and how things are done or you can’t get to your ultimate goals. You can’t skip any of those kinds of steps. So he’s been diligent in working on basic fundamentals.”
The reality is there will be more losing. Lots of it. The Spurs are young. They don’t have a lot of top-end talent and what they do have is raw. Popovich won’t let the team accept it. “If they get comfortable with it, I’ll have their ass,” he said. But he knows in a competitive NBA there isn’t much they can do about it.
For Wembanyama, that’s difficult. Told that the Spurs were approaching the halfway point of the season, Wembanyama expressed surprise. “Already halfway?” he asked. He’s used to winning, having led his French league team to its Finals last season. He wants to win again. But even in the throes of a rocky season, he trusts the Spurs have the right plan to get there.
“I know it’s not going to be easy,” Wembanyama said. “I know it’s going to take some time before we can be contenders for the title. I was ready for anything and I’m still ready to do any sacrifice and I’m patient. I’m patient, but for nothing I’ll ever lose time. I’m patient, but I’m not wasting time. I trust us for the long term but I’m always ready for anything.”