May 24, 2024

Devin Vassell hasn’t experienced much success over the past three seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. The team has a .377-win percentage since drafting him with the 11th overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft. They’ve lost twice in the first round of the play-in tournament, and last year posted the franchise’s worst record since 1996-97.

So, hours away from the Spurs’ 2023 preseason debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Vassell was understandably surprised about one aspect of that night’s game.

“I mean, a preseason game on f—ing NBA TV?” Vassell said. “It doesn’t even make sense.”

That is the Victor Wembanyama effect in action.

The Spurs’ 22-60 finish in 2022-23 led to a win in the NBA draft lottery and the right to select the 7-foot-4 Wembanyama, who has been hailed as the NBA’s best prospect since LeBron James entered the league to much fanfare in 2003.

Wembanyama’s arrival has once again cast the national spotlight upon San Antonio. National television games are going to be a regular occurrence now. Even in the preseason.

The Spurs’ preseason opener against the Thunder was on NBA TV. The home preseason opener against the Miami Heat was on TNT. Their regular-season opener against the Dallas Mavericks will be on ESPN (Oct. 25, 9:30 p.m. ET).

This season, the Spurs are set to play 19 games on ESPN, ABC, TNT or NBA TV, including four of their first eight. They were on national TV just once last season (when they hosted the Golden State Warriors at the Alamodome to break the NBA’s single-game attendance record). There is the possibility that more national TV appearances will get added as this season goes on — and Wembanyama posts the kind of tantalizing highlights that have thrilled fans so far in October.

And while that’s just the national appetite, the buzz in San Antonio has been growing. There have been several murals that have gone up around town, including one of Wembanyama eating a taco — one that Wembanyama himself posed in front of while, of course, eating a taco.

The Spurs had 4,000 new season ticket deposits headed into the 2023-24 season. The team now has their highest number of season ticket accounts — including partial packages — in team history.

In the first 48 hours following the selection of Wembanyama, the Spurs saw a 3,000% increase from the previous year in online traffic and sales.

When San Antonio hosted media day Oct. 2, there were 100 RSVPs from various media outlets.

On Oct. 7, San Antonio drew 13,200 fans for the Silver and Black Scrimmage, an open practice and scrimmage where fans got their first in-person view of Wembanyama playing basketball at home. Fans were lined up around the block hours before tipoff just to get in.

On Friday, the Spurs drew 17,214 fans for the team’s home preseason opener after averaging 16,937 per game during the regular season in 2022-23. It was the highest revenue-generating preseason game ever for a Spurs franchise that plays its home games beneath five NBA championship banners. Courtside seats for the team’s opener are listed on the secondary market for $6,000.

The attention the Spurs are drawing is on par with — or in some cases above — the levels they saw when David Robinson, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard were riding down the River Walk with the Larry O’Brien Trophy in hand. But the 19-year-old rookie drawing all the attention isn’t worried about the hype getting to him or his teammates.

“They know I don’t care about it,” Wembanyama said on media day. “I’m here to make sacrifices for them and I think when it’s needed, they’re also going to make sacrifices for me.

“And they know it’s different. They know it’s going to happen. Of course, there’s going to be a lot of attention, but it’s at the end of the day when everything is done and we’re at practice and I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK, what do we do to get this thing better?’ So it’s really stuff we don’t care about. It’s basketball first.”

Spurs forward Keldon Johnson says Wembanyama’s humility goes a long way in making sure the outsized expectations and attention don’t affect the team.

“He doesn’t let the hype or the media come into his life or affect him as a person,” Johnson said on media day. “He’s been outgoing, energetic and great. He’s been great. All the other things that come with Vic being an amazing basketball player, we just keep that on the outside.”

Wembanyama has made sure to do his part to meet the hype so far. Every night has generated highlight plays that have generated millions of views on social media.

Hours after Vassell made his comments about playing on national television in the preseason opener, Wembanyama showed why. Late in the second quarter, Wembanyama pump-faked a defender at the 3-point line, took two dribbles to his right, spun back into the lane, jumped and finished with an underhand scoop layup with his left hand around Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft and the player widely considered to be Wembanyama’s top competition for Rookie of the Year this season.

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Wemby finishes over Chet with an acrobatic lay-in

Victor Wembanyama spins and goes up-and-under Chet Holmgren for a nice finish at the rim.

Plays like that don’t just leave fans in awe, but his teammates too.

“It doesn’t make sense that he can do stuff like that,” Spurs guard Malaki Branham said. “Like, it’s mind blowing. … You just shake your head. Glad he’s on our team, for sure.”


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