April 19, 2024

The preseason hype train for San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama reached full steam Friday night in San Francisco.

Playing in the Spurs’ preseason finale against the Golden State Warriors, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA draft showed off everything he had to offer in one incredible sequence.

First, Wembanyama got the ball behind the 3-point line with 6:33 left in the first quarter. He took two dribbles with his left, crossed it back over to his right hand, got Andrew Wiggins in the air and drained a jump shot from 19 feet.

On the next offensive possession, Wembanyama was guarded by Klay Thompson. Wembanyama caught the ball on the right side and took one dribble to his right. Thompson forced him to the baseline. Wembanyama leaped, drew the contact and threw the ball up from an awkward angle but got it to fall, then he hit the free throw to complete the three-point play.

Thompson tried to get his revenge on the ensuing possession, catching the ball just outside the 3-point line at the top of the key. Wembanyama was lurking just outside the paint near the restricted circle, more than 20 feet away. After one pump fake to lose Keldon Johnson, Thompson went up for the shot, but that pump fake had given Wembanyama all the time he needed to close the distance. Wembanyama blocked the shot, and the ball landed in the hands of Spurs center Zach Collins, who hit a streaking Wembanyama with a perfect outlet pass. Wembanyama waited for Thompson to fly by before dunking with two hands.

Two possessions later, Wembanyama found himself matched up with Wiggins on the wing. Wiggins, having had a 3-point attempt blocked by the 7-foot-3½ Wembanyama earlier in the quarter, tried to take the ball inside. Wiggins drove from the left corner into the paint, with Wembanyama staying with him every step of the way. The 6-foot-8 Wiggins faded to the side as he attempted a jumper that was swatted away with ease. Jeremy Sochan scooped up the ball and hit Wembanyama in transition as he walked into a 3-pointer at the top of the key.

Eight points, two blocks and countless shaking heads in a span of 88 seconds.

“It’s very exciting,” Sochan said following the game. “Just shows who he is, which is a really good player.”



Victor Wembanyama puts up 19 points, 5 blocks in preseason finale

Victor Wembanyama scores 19 points and blocks five shots in the Spurs’ preseason finale vs. the Warriors.

Preseason aside, everything changes Wednesday night, when Wembanyama and the Spurs welcome the Dallas Mavericks (9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) for the first regular-season game of what is expected to be a career full of even more jaw-dropping highlights. However, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich isn’t worried about the attention getting to his star rookie.

“He’s been through this,” Popovich said Monday. “There’s been a lot of hype around him for a very long time, and he doesn’t let it affect him. He’s very mature. He’s very emotionally strong. His priorities are in order. He’s very professional already. He’ll just come to play [on Wednesday].”

Wembanyama’s first NBA experience did not go well. He shot 2-of-13 from the field in his summer league debut against the Charlotte Hornets, leaving some observers wondering how long it would take him to deliver on his prodigious potential on the NBA stage.

If the preseason is any indication, the answer is: not very long.

In the four preseason games he played, Wembanyama averaged 19.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks on .509/.318/.870 shooting splits in just 20.9 minutes per game. He ranked seventh in the NBA in scoring and first in blocks. The Spurs, who went 22-60 a season ago, won three of the four games he played.

The speed at which Wembanyama has adjusted to the game has been surprising to many — but not his teammates.

“I kind of knew what he was during training camp, playing against him in open gyms and stuff like that,” Spurs guard Malaki Branham, who competed alongside Wembanyama in summer league, told ESPN. “Now everybody is seeing it. He’s only going to keep getting better. The game’s going to slow down for him even more once you start playing.”

It didn’t take long for Branham to know Wembanyama was going to be a different kind of player.

“OKC, the first preseason game,” Branham said. “He was just more comfortable playing against different coverages, playing against them. When he did that spin move and scoop layup, that was different. There’s not a lot of guys his size that can do that.”

That play — when 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 lefty scoop layup around Oklahoma City Thunder big man Chet Holmgren — stood out for many.



Wemby finishes over Chet with an acrobatic layin

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

When asked what moments stood out from the preseason or the open gyms, Sochan said there were too many.

“I wouldn’t be able to tell you just one,” Sochan said.

Wembanyama, however, did pick one.

“I think my dunk against Miami,” Wembanyama said after pausing to think for a few seconds. “Surprised myself a little bit, because I was almost too short.”

The dunk in question made rounds on social media, not just for the finish that looked like it came straight out of the movie “Space Jam” but also for the reaction from Miami Heat center Thomas Bryant.

Wembanyama’s impact has shown up in more than just highlights, even when considering it has come solely in preseason action against opponents who had varying lineups without projected starters.

Against Oklahoma City in the opener, the Spurs scored 43 points in the first quarter. Against the Warriors in the finale, they scored 44 points in the first. The most the Spurs scored in any first quarter last season — preseason or regular season — was 42.

The Spurs’ defensive rating when Wembanyama has been on the court in 83 preseason minutes is 102.1 — far better than the league-worst 119.6 points per 100 possessions the team allowed last season. San Antonio’s offensive rating during Wembanyama’s minutes was 123.4. Among the 119 players who played at least four games and at least 20 minutes per game in the preseason, Wembanyama’s plus-21.3 net rating ranked eighth.

Still, Caesars Sportsbook has the Spurs as +600 to make the playoffs, third worst among Western Conference teams.

“We are a really, really young team,” Sochan said Monday. “This is all just starting, and it’s a process. There are going to be ups and downs in every type of process you have.

“I think that’s the most important, to be a team that knows it is a process and that stays together in the process.”

Wembanyama’s preseason performance has only served to raise expectations for the odds-on favorite (-150 at Caesars) to earn Rookie of the Year honors. It was a year ago when Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero put up 27 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two blocks in his first regular-season NBA game, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James as the only No. 1 picks in the common draft era (since 1966) to have a 25-5-5 game in their debuts.

Wembanyama is the ninth forward or center drafted with the No. 1 pick over the past 15 years. The previous eight averaged 16.3 points and 8.4 rebounds on 57% shooting in their debuts. That does include a 0-point dud from 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett. Go back further and you can find equally dismal debuts from 2007 No. 1 pick Greg Oden (0 points, five rebounds, 0-of-5 shooting) and 2002 No. 1 pick Yao Ming, who got past a 0-point, two-rebound debut for the Houston Rockets to reach the Basketball Hall of Fame.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, no No. 1 pick has scored at least 30 points in his debut since guard Allen Iverson in 1996.

While Wednesday’s contest will be the first of many regular-season games to come, Wembanyama knows what type of career he’d like to have.

“I want to win as many titles as I can in the long run,” Wembanyama said Tuesday. “I know it’s not something easy to do. Many, many and most players have their career and never get to even the Finals or to win the championship.

“But I know it is one of my biggest goals in life, so I know I’m going to reach this one day or the other. And I’m dedicating the next, I don’t know how many years in my life to reach this, and I’m ready to sacrifice anything.”

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