NBA All-Star Weekend: Victor Wembanyama continues to set high expectations, refuses to skip steps along the way

INDIANAPOLIS — Victor Wembanyama made his NBA All-Star Weekend debut in the Rising Stars event Friday night to plenty of cheers when his name was announced for Team Pau. It didn't take him long to get going, scoring the first basket of the game in a pick-and-pop with Warriors guard Brandin Podziemski. Wembanyama had a big block at the end of the game, but it was G League Ignite wing Matas Buzelis who hit a baseline jumper for Team Detlef to end the game and advance to the final against eventual champion Team Jalen. Wembanyama finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.

"I wish we would have come out with the win, but it's always fun to go up against great competition and play alongside other talented players," Wembanyama said after the game.

There were 31 players selected for the Rising Stars tournament, and Wembanyama entered the weekend favored to win NBA Rookie of the Year as he currently leads all rookies in points per game and rebounds per game, and total steals, blocks and field goals. He's separating himself from the pack and making his presence known in the NBA.

Victor Wembanyama, right, of the San Antonio Spurs, defends against Oscar Tshiebwe, left, of the Indiana Mad Ants, during an NBA Rising Stars basketball game in Indianapolis, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

"I knew how good he was playing with him last year in France, but now the whole world is seeing it," Washington Wizards wing Bilal Coulibaly, Wembanyama's Metropolitans 92 teammate last year, told Yahoo Sports. "There's a lot of young talent coming up in France, and a lot of kids now are playing basketball because of Victor and what he's doing in the NBA."

Wembanyama is the most anticipated player to enter the NBA in recent memory. He has exceeded every expectation, but this is nothing new for the 7-foot-4 Frenchman, who will also compete in the Skills Challenge on Saturday night. His whole life he's had lofty goals and a different mindset than other players.

When asked during his media availability Friday what his 12-year-old self would say about making his first NBA All-Star Weekend, Wembanyama replied, "I would have said something like, ‘Why not earlier? What took you so long?’ When I was a kid, my goal was to make the 2016 Olympics with the [French] national team, so, unfortunately, I’m a little late on that one. I already had high expectations for myself at a very young age."

Trainer Tim Martin, who has also worked with Dwyane Wade, Tyrese Maxey and Trae Young, has been working with Wembanyama since 2020 and recognized his unique mindset early on. Martin made an early prediction of what Wembanyama's immediate impact would be in the NBA, telling Yahoo Sports in November 2022: "If Victor was in the NBA today, he'd be the best defensive player in the league. On ball he can switch, he can drop down low, shoot the gap, everything. He’s probably altering 40% of the shots taken when he’s on the court."

He wasn't wrong. Wembanyama leads all NBA players with 156 blocks in 49 games and leads all rookies with 56 steals. To put those numbers in perspective, in Rudy Gobert’s Defensive Player of the Year season in 2018, he recorded 129 blocks and 44 steals the entire season. Wembanyama has done things this season no other player in the league can do.

"His whole thought process is so methodical, and he’s so present and he breaks down the game differently than any player I’ve ever worked with," Martin told Yahoo Sports recently. "He wants to go through the process and for him, understanding each and every step and what it’s going to take to become one of the best to play the game, that’s where he learns the most."

In his first season with the Spurs, there have definitely been growing pains. San Antonio has the third-worst record in the NBA (11-44), and his teammates are struggling to find him at times for easy buckets. It might be hard for Wembanyama to stay in the moment and slowly grow in a rebuild instead of looking ahead to what the franchise could be in a few years. But he's apparently built for this.

"I’ve been told to never skip steps my whole life," Wembanyama said. "For now I’m just a student of this league. The rise of expectations has been going on all season, so there’s no reason to change anything in what I’m doing. It’s something that I hope continues with the years to come because we want to be in the playoffs soon and we want to win."

Wembanyama is currently averaging 20.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and 3.2 assists in 28.4 minutes per game. He recorded his second triple-double of the season in a win over the Toronto Raptors on Feb. 12, recording 27 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks in just 29 minutes of action.

"I did not expect him to do this much while playing under 30 minutes per game," Martin said. "No one could have predicted that, and that is what separates him from everyone else. For Victor to do what he’s doing under 30 minutes each game, that’s never been done before."

In LeBron James' 2004 rookie year, he averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in 39.5 minutes. James is now in his 21st season and has been named an All-Star 20 times. It isn't out of the realm of possibility to predict Wembanyama could have a similarly successful career.

Wembanyama welcomes pressure, and whatever levels others think he can reach, he has higher goals for himself. In his first year participating in All-Star Weekend, he's already thinking about his next big goal.

"It’s been a lot of fun experiences so far," Wembanyama said. "Just playing in the Rising Stars game and everything." He paused for a moment and smiled, "And next year, hopefully the big game."