Here’s some of what San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama has experienced so far in the NBA: Scoring 38 points in a game, playing in a back-to-back for the first time, being part of two 40-point losses, wasting a huge lead and losing, overcoming a huge deficit and winning.
It’s been an education.
And by all accounts, the French rookie who stands nearly 7-foot-4 is passing the tests.
Wembanyama’s numbers so far — 19.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. The last player to have such averages over the first seven games of his career was Shaquille O’Neal in 1992. Back then, the consensus was O’Neal was one of a kind. The refrains are familiar today.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said.
It’s a different game now, but it’s hard to argue what Carlisle is saying when factoring in the inside-outside game that Wembanyama possesses. There’s never been a rookie who averaged so many points and rebounds along with one 3-pointer made per game. Larry Bird was the closest; it’s a small sample size, but Wembanyama is making nearly two 3s per contest so far.
The league is raving about the kid who goes by Wemby, and has been from the moment he got drafted — long before that night, really. That hasn’t changed, nor has Wembanyama’s humble approach.
“Every night is a challenge,” Wembanyama said. “I’ve still got a lot to prove to my teammates and my coach.”
His coach might disagree.
Gregg Popovich — the Hall of Famer, the winningest coach in NBA history and someone who just happened to sign a five-year extension shortly after Wembanyama came to the Spurs — makes no effort to downplay his new star’s enormous potential.
“The first thing I would say is that his parents did a very good job,” Popovich said. “He’s one of the most mature 19-year-olds I’ve ever been around. His character is incredible. His view of the world is mature. He understands who he is, he feels comfortable in his own skin. He knows that all the hype that has been pretty thick, everywhere, is something to be ignored. He realizes he has work to do. Talent is talent, but he’s going to channel that and figure out exactly what his game should be.”
The lessons have come fast and furious in the first two weeks.
Actually, go back a little. Preseason games are largely forgettable in the NBA, but Wembanyama made the Spurs’ exhibitions must-see TV. They were spectacles; Golden State guard Stephen Curry — who is only about a foot shorter than Wembanyama — added to the circus of it all by trying to jump center in the Warriors’ exhibition against the Spurs. Shockingly, Wembanyama won that tip, but that night was a reminder of the spotlight that will shine every time San Antonio plays for the foreseeable future.
“The guy’s going to be great,” said Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who entered the league with great fanfare as the highly touted No. 1 pick in 2003 — and watched Wembanyama deal with the same otherworldly expectations 20 years later. “He’s already damn good right now and I think every game, every opportunity he’s on the floor, he’s going to continue to get better and better and see the nuances of the game and ways he can play and ways he can exploit the competition. So, he’s going to be great.”
If he needed a coming-out party, Wembanyama probably had one last week with a pair of wins in Phoenix.
On Oct. 31, the Spurs rallied from 20 points down to beat the Suns 115-114 after trailing for 47-1/2 of the 48 minutes; two nights later, Wembanyama had 38 points and 10 rebounds and the Spurs beat the Suns again, 132-121.
“He’s going to be a force in this league for a long time,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said. “Once he continues to get experience under his belt, he’s just going to get even better.”
There have been rough nights as well. The Spurs lost to the Los Angeles Clippers by 40 last week, then lost to Indiana by 41 on Monday night. They became just the second team in NBA history to have two 40-point losses in the first seven games of the season; the other was the 2017-18 Suns, who went on to be the league’s worst team that year.
The Spurs have decidedly higher aspirations and so does Wembanyama. Popovich has never been one for false or effusive praise, but already raves about Wembanyama’s coachability, his relationships with teammates, his outlook on life and calls him “a very special young man.”
“He just comes to work every day, just like every other player,” Popovich said. “You have a system and he’s got to learn it. He’s got to learn the league. He’s never played against any of these guys or with any of these guys on our team. It’s just a process. There’s no formula. You just try not to skip any steps. Luckily, he’s an intelligent, coachable young man and he’ll eventually get there. He will be a great player. But he’s got some learning to do first, just like any other player.”
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