NEW YORK — Madison Square Garden had not hosted a pregame spectacle like this since the peak of Steph Curry mania. Instead of the pedestrian-sized sharpshooter splashing deep ball after deep ball, fans flocked and cameras gathered along the baseline to witness 7-foot-4 Victor Wembanyama take midtown Manhattan’s hallowed floor for the first time — 39 years to the day since Michael Jordan did the same.
The Frenchman was one of the last Spurs to emerge from San Antonio’s locker room, wearing long gray sweatpants and a white shooting sleeve. He worked along the perimeter, paying no mind to the wall of cellphones protruding from media members who bordered the baseline like hardcovers stacked on a bookshelf. When Wembanyama moved into the paint, he paused one repetition because the waiting Spurs staffer, who was supposed to stick an arm toward the rafters and contest the rookie’s hook, wasn’t paying full attention to the drill. But Wembanyama wanted the distraction in his sightline.
He saw plenty of hands and arms and bodies all evening against the Knicks. San Antonio is starting Wembanyama next to center Zach Collins, often placing him along the 3-point line to save his thin frame from a full load of bruises that come at this level. Yet no matter where his touches came, New York sent two and often three defenders in his midst, making the teenager look every bit the fledgling professional he is. Wembanyama started 0-5 and 0-3 from distance throughout his first 12 minutes of San Antonio’s eventual 126-105 loss Wednesday. He airballed a short jumper after sizing up Knicks center Mitchell Robinson on the left block. Then he air-mailed a triple from the top of the key.
“He’s a 19-year-old rookie who just learned about the NBA,” head coach Gregg Popovich said. “Of course, it’s a learning experience.”
The Spurs are still learning him, this defeat just Wembanyama’s eighth game in the league. They are watching and understanding the limits of his immediate impact compared to his limitless potential. San Antonio staffers talk about the fun in trying to solve this puzzle, while very much admitting they are unsure how many combinations exist with Wembanyama as the largest piece they’ve ever worked with.
“We’re not putting him in situations until we know where he’s most comfortable and where he reacts the best,” Popovich said. “I just figured out recently he likes one block more than the other block, and it’s the opposite of what you would think. So we need to observe him for a while and see where he naturally performs the best.”
His preferred spot, despite being right-handed, seems to be that left block, where Wembanyama whiffed his attempt over Robinson and where he corralled several entry passes after cutting across the paint from a screen. He appears far more comfortable squaring to the basket and facing his opponent with an array of jab steps and pivots. The Knicks, to their credit, kept swarming his long reach to force three Wembanyama turnovers and a 4-of-14 shooting performance, arguably the biggest struggle of his career so far despite finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds. New York, after all, may be the grittiest and grimiest team in the league.
“The challenge is always to stay lucid and keep our collective game,” Wembanyama said.
His composure is typically so solid, any crack in his exterior comes as a surprise. One San Antonio coach said as much postgame in regards to one sequence in the waning seconds of the third quarter.
Wembanyama stumbled in the lane after receiving a hard foul from Knicks reserve big man Isaiah Hartenstein. After play stopped, Wembanyama palmed the rock, which Immanuel Quickley was happy to smack at and try to poke free and grabbed the phenom’s arm instead. That’s when Wembanyama flashed his first hint of becoming unnerved. He brushed the pest away as if he was batting off a fly.
“I had the ball after the whistle,” Wembanyama explained. “It was just a reflex.”
Then he stepped to the foul line, a chorus of “Overrated!” booming from the world’s most famous arena. Wembanyama held the ball between his massive hands. He closed his eyes and drew a breath, his shoulders rising. And he confidently drained both shots.
“The most important thing,” Wembanyama said, “is how we bounce back.”