SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Victor Wembanyama’s first win of his rookie season with the San Antonio Spurs came with no fans present, no referees around and didn’t even require the use of a basketball.
It was, of all things, an art contest. The Spurs gave their players a few minutes to sketch The Coyote, the team mascot. Wembanyama thought for a few seconds and went to work. The teenager makes no secret that he loves art and studies it by visiting museums and exhibits. So it should have been no surprise that his drawing topped all others.
“Since it’s a contest, I gave 100%,” Wembanyama said. “I wanted to win.”
Get used to that, San Antonio. You too, NBA. The league’s newest phenom — a long-hyped French teen who stands 7 feet, 3 ½ inches tall and doesn’t turn 20 until Jan. 4 — is finally here, after being taken No. 1 by the Spurs in this year’s draft.
And he wants to win. Everything.
“I mean, it’s incredible to watch,” Spurs forward Doug McDermott said. “He just does some things that you can’t really explain, that fans would be surprised by. He’s so coordinated for how tall he is, just a very unselfish player, can make any play and he’s very comfortable shooting from anywhere. So, it’s going to be a lot of a lot of fun this year.”
Maybe for the Spurs. For opponents, not so much. Some already have gotten a taste of what’s coming.
That includes Reggie Bullock. Evidently, Wembanyama — who was an excellent student — understands geometry and that the shortest distance between two points is typically a straight line. Perhaps that’s why he decided to dribble through Bullock’s legs in a preseason game against Houston; Bullock was near midcourt, got into a wide defensive stance, his feet probably four feet apart, so Wembanyama knocked the ball through the opening, ran by Bullock and continued his path to the basket without missing a stride.
Wembanyama wasn’t showing off; he was just playing the game.
“I think it’s a move that’s efficient and I’ve been visualizing it (for) weeks,” Wembanyama said. “I’ve been waiting for the occasion to try it. I think I don’t want to limit myself to what’s already been done — even this has been done — but I don’t want to limit myself to what’s conventional. I want to expand my game as much as I can and I think that was a good move, an efficient move.”
Other moves have been equally good and efficient, without the finesse.
Enter Thomas Bryant. The Miami Heat center is a big man — 6-foot-10, somewhere around 250 pounds, shoulders about as broad as one can find even in the land of giants that is the NBA. The Heat were playing the Spurs earlier this month and Wembanyama received a pass at the edge of the lane. He took one dribble, took off from outside the restricted area that stretches a few feet from the basket and dunked over Bryant with absolute ease. All Bryant could do was stare at the Heat bench, his face in complete disbelief.
“We’ve seen the footage, we’ve read about him, we’ve heard what everybody said about him,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But until you actually see it, live, in person, there’s no real way to describe it.”
Spoelstra is the coach with the second-longest current tenure with his team, behind only Popovich. There is a longstanding friendship between the two, just as there is great respect between the Spurs and Heat — born in large part from the NBA Finals matchups in 2013 and 2014.
And Spoelstra knows what Wembanyama will be able to do for the 74-year-old Popovich, the all-time winningest coach who probably won’t hear questions about retiring anytime soon. They were oft-asked in recent years; then the Spurs got Wembanyama and Popovich signed for five more seasons.
“I think that’s probably just piquing a great deal of interest,” Spoelstra said. “I mean, Pop is the one of the greatest that’s ever done it. He’s coached a lot of different kinds of teams, a lot of different kinds of players. And I think you want to coach guys that are totally unique.”
That’s what Wembanyama is. The combination of height, reach, skill and smarts has had the NBA drooling for years. The Spurs won 22 games last season — the third-worst season in franchise history — and missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. But the only win that really mattered came in a hotel ballroom in Chicago, when four ping-pong balls gave the Spurs victory in the draft lottery and the chance to take Wembanyama No. 1 overall.
“When you add a player with Victor’s abilities, your prospects look better,” Popovich said.
Wembanyama is the preseason favorite to win NBA rookie of the year — Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren, the likely top challenger, still counts as a rookie because he didn’t play last season — and the Spurs expect to be much better right away. Popovich is never one for grand preseason predictions, or even not-so-grand ones. He insists the Spurs will keep it simple, letting Wembanyama learn and develop while everyone around him improves as well.
For his part, Wembanyama already seems right at home in Texas. He’s worn cowboy hats. He’s checked out the local art scene. And he’s embraced the fans — and their expectations — from the day he arrived in the city. His first big request was breakfast tacos, a delicacy in San Antonio. A bag of them was handed to him when the plane landed, and more were in the Spurs’ facility when he had his first workout there a couple days later. A simple wish, quickly granted, showed Wembanyama right away what San Antonio can be like.
“It’s been amazing,” Wembanyama said.
With the season starting next week, it’s time to see what Wembanyama and the Spurs — a franchise with five championships and now set to embark on a quest to start building toward No. 6 — have drawn up. Ticket demand for his games, home and away, is already intense. He has not seemed bothered by any of the attention, helped by the fact that he went through a similar spotlight as a pro in France the last couple of years.
“It just makes me want to give everything that these people ask for, and everything they ask is just wins,” Wembanyama said. “It just makes me want to give 100% on the court for the franchise and the fan base.”
Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds reported from Miami.
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