LAS VEGAS — The last time Victor Wembanyama touched down in Sin City and played before the NBA world, the French phenom clashed against Scoot Henderson and G League Ignite before an empty arena in Henderson, Nevada, attended mostly by team scouts and executives. Webmanyama’s Summer League debut Friday was perhaps the most anticipated game in the annual event’s history, spilling hundreds of spectators into the upper deck of the Thomas & Mack Center two hours before San Antonio even tipped against Charlotte and No. 2 pick Brandon Miller. The crowd crooned every time Wembanyama touched the ball during pregame warmups, waiting for some type of otherworldly exhibition. The stage was set for a prospect compared to LeBron James, billed as perhaps an even greater prospect than James was two decades prior, to stumble and fall before all those watching eyes.
Even James, with the frame of a prize fighter at just 19 years old, failed to power Cleveland to the playoffs as a rookie. There appears little expectation in San Antonio for Wembanyama to lift the Spurs into the postseason picture during his first season after being selected first overall in June’s NBA Draft, let alone the deep playoff run that Tim Duncan helped deliver the franchise in his rookie campaign. That’s why any conversation of the Spurs sneaking into the Damian Lillard trade sweepstakes, no matter San Antonio’s cap space and draft capital and young pieces on the roster, seems quite incongruent with the rest of the organization’s plans.
Look no further than the Spurs’ vision of playing and listing Wembanyama at forward. These are intentional decisions, although Wembanyama’s tough showing on Friday — nine points and eight rebounds on 2-of-13 shooting in 27 minutes — came as the lone true big man for San Antonio’s summer outfit. Perhaps his struggles against Charlotte only further enforced any Spurs ideas of pairing Wembanyama with a true frontcourt partner for at least the beginning of his career. For all the talent coursing throughout his 7-foot-4 frame, for all the hype surrounding his ultimate ceiling, patience is going to prove a virtue for Wembanyama’s development in the NBA. Especially with his strength training to compete against the league’s towering brutes. For 2022-23, Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid played 60 pounds heavier than Wembanyama’s listed weight of 225 on the Spurs’ official Summer League roster.
His current power deficiency was obvious against the Hornets. It was the most consistent comment from league personnel in attendance. Much of Wembanyama’s drives to the basket were knocked off course. He had issues clearing optimal space during post touches with his back to the basket. To be fair, Wembanyama has had sparse practice time with his Spurs teammates. “Honestly, I didn't really know what I was doing on the court tonight,” he told reporters postgame, “but I'm trying to learn for the next games and be ready for the season."
How the Hornets collapsed multiple help defenders on his paint touches probably encouraged San Antonio decision-makers about their designs for pairing Wembanyama with a sweet-shooting center in particular. The Spurs, league sources told Yahoo Sports, were prepared to pursue Minnesota big man Naz Reid on the open market before Reid returned to the Timberwolves on a contract extension and never truly became a free agent. San Antonio also believes Zach Collins, who’s entering the final season of a three-year, $22 million contract and shot 37.4% from distance on 147 attempts last year, can perform in that starting post, sources said, should the Spurs stand pat at the position for the remainder of the offseason.
At an offensive minimum, Wembanyama was a dangerous pick-and-roll lob partner for Metropolitans 92. But San Antonio never managed to get their top pick rolling into space against the Hornets. His handle, for all its dazzle threading between his long legs, wasn’t able to overcome the stronger defenders who could bump his slender frame. Even at this level of Summer League play, the difference in resistance Wembanyama will face stateside is going to surpass what he saw in LNB Pro A. “This isn’t France,” one Hornets staffer told Yahoo Sports after the contest, not to mention when Wembanyama reaches the regular season and surely draws commanding attention in opposing teams’ scouting reports.
Perhaps the most glaring concern about Wembanyama’s translation to the NBA will be his shooting. He converted less than 30% of his 3-pointers this past season despite the pretty mechanics and the tantalizing bombs Wembanyama drained off one leg. His 1-of-6 showing from beyond the arc against Charlotte might have been a result of rust. Still, without imposing any fear from distance on Friday, the Hornets’ defense wasn’t as crazed as the Spurs would have hoped in trying to close out on Wembanyama’s looks from 3-point land, while Charlotte was also confident it could contain his drive if Wembanyama decided to put the ball on the deck.
These are all data points the Spurs, and league at large, are collecting about Wembanyama’s growth. San Antonio is perhaps the most attuned franchise when it comes to pragmatism and caution about player health and progress. Plus, in an NBA full of teams hoping to compete for the postseason, there will be clear benefits to the Spurs and Washington Wizards dabbling in a quiet race to the bottom.
San Antonio has been outside of the playoffs since 2019 and is well practiced for an environment devoid of real pressure to win games. It’s no coincidence that last season the Spurs brought back development czar Brett Brown, the longtime Gregg Popovich assistant who only departed the organization to oversee Sam Hinkie’s diligent process in Philadelphia. And if there’s any prediction to be made, any scorching opinion after one rough outing, it’s that Wembanyama will return to the floor better prepared for a better showing and for every next step he takes before the masses.