How are the Spurs trying to maximize Victor Wembanyama? By supersizing things

I’m going to go out on a limb here: When Archimedes came up with his principle of fluid displacement back in 246 B.C., he probably wasn’t thinking about the 2023-24 Spurs. And yet, I’ve had him on the brain as I’ve watched San Antonio’s 3-7 start.

See, our pal Archie posited that when you drop something big into a body of liquid, that big thing will displace an amount of liquid equal to its volume — an effect you can measure and observe by seeing how much the level of the liquid has risen around said big thing. And a 7-foot-4 über-prospect prodigy is, if nothing else, a pretty big friggin’ thing to drop into the forever fluid dynamic of a basketball team.

"We’re just trying to figure out what he is,” Suns superstar Devin Booker told reporters after Victor Wembanyama announced himself to the world with a 38-point performance to take down Phoenix on Nov. 2. “Because we’ve never seen him before.”

In time, this new era of Spurs basketball will be measured by how much Wembanyama elevates everyone around him — by whether he can not only restore the franchise to the championship heights of Robinson and Duncan, but perhaps even exceed the achievements of his titanic predecessors. For now, though, the more pressing and visible issue is displacement. Wembanyama’s arrival pushed everyone else in San Antonio into dramatically different spaces, and, at the risk of going out on another limb, they’re still trying to find their level.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 02: Victor Wembanyama #1 of the San Antonio Spurs high fives Jeremy Sochan #10 during the second half of the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center on November 02, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Spurs defeated the Suns 132-121.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Victor Wembanyama and Jeremy Sochan are trying to make magic with the Spurs. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“This team right now is gonna be so different at game 30, at game 45, than we are now,” swingman Devin Vassell said after the Spurs’ Friday loss to the Timberwolves. “... There’s so much going on right now.”

At the top of the So Much Going On list: the decision to shift 2022 lottery pick Jeremy Sochan onto the ball as San Antonio’s new point guard, which legendary head coach Gregg Popovich has called “our official 2023-2024 experiment” — and an awful bold one, at that.

The broad-strokes logic makes sense. (So much so that I suggested it over the summer!) As Spurs beat reporter Matthew Tynan wrote in his Corporate Knowledge newsletter during the preseason, putting the ball in Sochan’s hands indicates that San Antonio’s initial plan for building around Wembanyama prioritizes size in starting units, as both a way to create mismatches on one end and eliminate them on the other, over putting the ball in the hands of a more traditional (and traditionally sized) point guard, whose presence might make life easier on both teams’ offenses.

It’s the kind of decision you make when you luck into a convention-flouting boundary eraser. If you’ve got a guy bigger than every center, with the handle of a wing and the potential to one day deliver the rock like a point guard, then why not dispense with the traditional and test-drive some unconventional partnerships? With Wembanyama next to 6-foot-11 center Zach Collins, flanked by Vassell (6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan), Keldon Johnson (6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-9-1/2 wingspan) and Sochan (6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan) on the perimeter, San Antonio would have the raw ingredients for a huge, and potentially very good, defense.

A unit like that could allow Wembanyama to freely deploy the natural gifts that already have him vying for the league lead in steals-plus-blocks. It could also serve as the sort of stabilizing agent that can help quickly transform a laughingstock into a serious team. Just look at the Rockets, who’ve gone from perennial sieve to top-five defense under newcomers Ime Udoka, Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks, and now sit fourth in the West.

The early defensive returns have been pretty promising in San Antonio, too. While the Spurs rank 29th in non-garbage-time defensive efficiency overall, according to Cleaning the Glass, they’ve allowed a minuscule 106.1 points per 100 possessions with the Point Sochan starting lineup on the floor — equivalent to a top-three mark — while controlling the defensive glass, limiting free-throw attempts and corner 3-point looks, and holding opponents to just 60.5% shooting at the rim. (That drops to 50% at the cup against Wembanyama, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking — tied with Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid for sixth among 50 players to defend at least 35 up-close tries.)

For that defensive dominance to matter, though, the Spurs have to be able to make opponents pay on the other end … and the early returns there have been fairly grim. With the Collins-Wembanyama-Johnson-Vassell-Sochan lineup on the floor, San Antonio has scored just 90.4 points-per-100 — the kind of ineptitude relative to the rest of the league’s offensive groupings that leads you to learn that yes, there is such a thing as the 0th percentile.

Despite deploying two 7-footers who have started to showcase pretty good high-low chemistry, that group takes just 28.5% of its shots within 4 feet of the basket. With only one shooter in the mix that defenses really have to worry about on the perimeter — Vassell, who’s knocking down a career-best 42.9% of his 6.1 triple tries per game — defenses shrink the floor, pack the paint, and dare a Spurs attack helmed by a player who spent 95% of his minutes last season at power forward, and who has been very open about having never played point guard before in his life, to find creases amid the congestion.

It hasn’t been easy:

Sochan has also been prone to the sort of miscues that come with trying to run through a brand-new decision tree at full speed against the best competition in the world; you can almost see it when his dutiful attempt to go through the full thought process smacks into a brick wall. Those moments tend to end in a dragged pivot foot, or in the ball slipping out of his too-loose handle a beat before he can send it where he’d like it to go:

Sochan, understandably, isn’t always eager to dive back into the breach after those moments.

“There have been moments where it’s like, ‘Yo, I don’t want to,’” Sochan told reporters over the weekend. “It’s like, ‘F*** this s***.’”

It’s a sentiment that plenty of Spurs fans have shared … especially considering how much more smoothly things have tended to run when last year’s starting point guard, Tre Jones, checks in off the bench to run the show.

When Jones shares the floor with Wembanyama, San Antonio has outscored opponents by 63 points in 136 minutes, far and away the team’s best two-man unit, and have scored a scorching 125.9 points-per-100 in those minutes — a league-best level of offensive efficiency. On the other hand, the Spurs have been outscored by 79 points in 181 Wembanyama/Sochan minutes, with an offensive rating of just under 100 — league-worst territory.

Jones has delivered a team-high 11 assists to Wembanyama in those 136 minutes. It hasn’t hurt that he seemed to be the first Spur to realize that “just throw it up near that sprinting skyscraper” is a pretty good play call:

Wembanyama is averaging 38.2 points per 100 possessions with Jones on the floor, according to, shooting 65.4% on 2-pointers and 36.4% on 3s — elite stuff. When Jones is off the floor, those numbers dip to 25.5 points-per-100 on just 41.2% shooting inside the arc and 25.7% beyond it — decidedly less elite stuff.

The eye test and the numbers both bear out that the Spurs’ offense has functioned better with Jones on the floor than when Sochan has the keys. This is unsurprising, considering the former hails from a family of table-setters and finished in the top 15 in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, while the latter — again, as he is happy to tell you — has never played point guard before these last few months. (It also might explain why Jones is averaging more fourth-quarter and “clutch” minutes per game than Sochan; steadier hands for winning time, and all that.)

But while the Spurs already know that Jones can get them into sets and spoon-feed Wembanyama buckets, this season is primarily about exploring what they don’t know yet, and whether there might be greater gains to realize by exploring that uncertainty. That’s one reason why Popovich hasn’t wavered in continuing to throw Sochan out there and let him play through his mistakes; it’s the essence of experimentation.

The scientific method doesn’t end when you get your first set of results. You analyze them, go back and modify your initial hypothesis, and test it again. Leave it to Pop, as close to a tenured professor as the NBA has to offer, to adhere to the rigor of the process.

“He’s not going to be Chris Paul in [10] games,” Popovich told reporters. “He’s learning a lot, and he likes the challenge. Every game is an education for him.”

What makes the frustration worth it are the moments when Sochan applies all that learning — when he engages the help defender enough to give his teammate a half-second opening, or spots the cutter early and puts the ball on the money. When he takes advantage of his size advantage, backing down a smaller defender to force help before kicking it out to an open shooter. When he just makes the simple read to keep the play moving … and, when in doubt, puts it in the French guy’s gigantic hands:

"I think he has been trending in the right direction as far as understanding what is involved and being the guy that’s got the ball in his hands quite a bit,” Popovich recently said.

Pop’s looking to expedite that understanding through a dramatic uptick in opportunities. Sochan is averaging almost 20 more touches per game this season than he did as a rookie. He’s driving to the basket more often than last season, struggling to finish inside (just 38.5% from the field) and rarely drawing fouls on those paint forays, but still trying to provide the rim pressure that might help collapse more defenses. His time of possession has doubled; his assist rate has nearly done the same, outpacing his (admittedly spiking) turnover rate.

The Baylor product acted as a pick-and-roll ball-handler on 169 possessions across 56 games as a rookie, according to Synergy Sports’ tracking data, an average of just over three per game. He’s more than doubling that this season, having already run 74 pick-and-rolls (7.4 per game) in his first 10 contests.

That expansion, on balance, isn’t going great; San Antonio has scored just 0.66 points per possession with Sochan on the handle in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy. The pain is partly the point, though; we are what we repeatedly do. If Sochan is to one day be a point guard — or, perhaps more ideally, a Boris Diaw-type capable of connecting Wembanyama to whichever future stars San Antonio can find with all those draft picks and all that cap space — he’ll have to just keep acting like one until that day comes.

With each rep comes a chance to expand his understanding of the geography of the floor, his sense of how to bend defenses to open up more and bigger creases, the menu of shots he can create for waiting teammates, and his feel for how and where to deliver the ball. The better Sochan gets at setting them up, the better they’ll get at knocking them down; the sooner he finds his level, the sooner Wembanyama can start raising everyone else’s.

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