For the first three quarters, the statline wasn’t impressive (6 points, 2-of-4 shooting). The jaw-dropping highlights seen in the preseason were mostly absent. Foul trouble kept him on the bench for all but 16 minutes.
In fact, for a while it looked like Victor Wembanyama wouldn’t even be the most impressive rookie in San Antonio Wednesday night. That honor would instead go to Dallas Mavericks big man Dereck Lively II, who made his first six shots en route to 16 points off the bench.
Then the fourth quarter arrived and Wembanyama erupted for nine points in a three-minute span, finishing with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting, though the Spurs ended up falling to the Mavs 126-119. Still, Wembanyama set the stage for what many expect could be a Rookie of the Year season in his highly anticipated NBA debut.
Our NBA insiders had Wemby’s first game covered from all angles, and shared their biggest takeaways from a debut a generation in the making.
Everyone wants to see the Wemby show
There was an NBA Finals-like atmosphere on the Spurs’ sidelines before Wembanyama’s debut. The Spurs credentialed more than 200 media members, representing eight different countries and territories. It seemed like all of them, along with Spurs executives and agents, were filling the sidelines and the baseline on San Antonio’s side of the court when Wembanyama emerged from the tunnel for his pregame warmup with just over 74 minutes on the clock, counting down to the most anticipated NBA debut in a generation.
Wembanyama was high-fiving fans on both sides as he walked out, his 8-foot wingspan easily able to cover the full width of the tunnel. Dozens and dozens of phones and cameras were pointed at the man of the hour as he walked out to half court and began his pregame routine with some dribbling moves. For the next 20-plus minutes, Wembanyama worked his way around, getting shots up all over the court.
Finally, with 48 minutes left on the clock, Wembanyama had a brief chat at the free throw line with Spurs assistant coach Mitch Johnson before heading to the locker room. The pregame show was over. The real show was ready to begin.
Wembanyama’s previous debuts — for summer league in Las Vegas and in the preseason in Oklahoma City — both had their fair share of fan fare, but nothing like Wednesday’s sellout crowd of 18,947 in San Antonio, most of whom were in their seats long before tipoff, ready for the arrival of the third No. 1 overall pick in franchise history.
— Andrew Lopez
Spurs, Wemby will get past growing pains
Wembanyama rattles in 3-pointer for first NBA points
Victor Wembanyama pulls up from top of the key and drills a 3-pointer for his first bucket in the NBA.
Wembanyama showed flashes of his immense talent on both ends of the floor in his debut. He also demonstrated the considerable work the Spurs’ coaching staff has to do to figure out how to best utilize him. Starting an unconventional lineup featuring three big men and no point guard, the clear lack of shooting and playmaking for the Spurs limited Wembanyama to being almost exclusively a jump-shooter for long stretches; all four of his field goal attempts in the first three quarters came from beyond the arc. Wembanyama’s best minutes came in the fourth quarter alongside backup point guard Tre Jones in more conventional lineups where he was able to play to his strengths as a pick-and-roll screener, post threat and rim runner, while still having the freedom to create 1-on-1 and show off his dynamic shotmaking.
Foul trouble was really the story of the night, limiting Wembanyama to just 23 minutes, a surprising outcome after he fouled out of just a single contest in more than 60 games in France last season (unlike the NBA, FIBA rules allow for just five fouls in 40 minutes). It wasn’t his lack of strength or the physicality of the NBA that got him, but rather silly fouls on both ends of the floor that plagued his debut, something that is easy to chalk up to nerves.
Wembanyama still showed glimpses of what made him the No. 1 pick, blocking Kyrie Irving‘s jump shot on the first play of the game, and knocking down three gorgeous 3-pointers with his unguardably high release point. A pick-and-roll lob finish from Devin Vassell midway through the fourth quarter also stood out. As the Spurs continue to shape their roster around him and learn how to best put him in positions to succeed, we’ll undoubtedly see more and more of what makes Wembanyama such a special prospect.
— Jonathan Givony
Spurs need to get Wemby more easy looks
Getting Wembanyama more involved in the offense will be a key task for the Spurs after opening night. That wasn’t an issue during the preseason, when Wembanyama’s 34% usage rate ranked seventh among rotation players.
On Wednesday, with the Mavericks putting more emphasis on game planning, Dallas stopper Grant Williams largely took the assignment of defending Wembanyama while looking to avoid switching. Williams denied Wemby the ball, a big reason the No. 1 pick attempted just four shots — all 3s — in his 16 minutes over the first three quarters.
As Jonathan noted, Wembanyama’s scoring surge of nine points in less than four minutes during the fourth came when he moved to center, affording him a more favorable matchup against Lively in transition when he pulled up for a 3-pointer. Since San Antonio seems reluctant to play him at the 5 full-time, the Spurs must find other ways to feature Wembanyama, who did not touch the ball on either of the team’s final two possessions.
One easy answer is doing a better job finding Wembanyama when he leaks out. The San Antonio crowd audibly groaned when Wemby did not get the ball with Kyrie Irving as the lone defender back to match up with him. Finding Wembanyama more easy looks will help on nights in which his 3-pointer isn’t falling like it was in the opener.
— Kevin Pelton
Mavs rookie steals the show
Dereck Lively II flexes after rattling in a tough and-1
Luka Doncic tosses it up to Dereck Lively II, who rattles in a tough layup while drawing contact.
The most impactful rookie on the Frost Bank Center floor in Wednesday’s season opener was a 7-foot first-round pick from … Philadelphia.
Dallas rookie big man Dereck Lively II played a critical role in the Mavs’ win against the Spurs, contributing 16 points, 10 rebounds and solid rim protection in his 31 minutes off the bench. The Mavs were plus-20 with Lively on the floor, which earned the No. 12 overall pick out of Duke a spot in the closing lineup.
“He played f—ing amazing,” Mavs superstar Luka Doncic said in his ESPN walkoff interview, eloquently summing up Lively’s performance.
Lively was 7-of-8 from the floor, becoming the first player in 60 years to have a 15-point, 10-rebound double-double while shooting at least 80% from the floor in his debut, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Five of his buckets were dunks, the most by any player making his debut in at least 25 years.
Lively has the luxury of playing with a pair of elite playmakers in Doncic and Irving and thrived as a pick-and-roll lob threat. Three of Lively’s dunks were finishes of alley-oops from Doncic, who scored six buckets in pick-and-rolls with Lively during the superstar’s 33-point, 14-rebound, 10-assist performance.
“I feel like we’ve been building chemistry, been building trust with each other,” Lively said.
It was a bit surprising that Lively came off the bench after starting every preseason game. Coach Jason Kidd, who opened the second half with Lively in the lineup, assured Lively would be a starter soon — and for a long time.
“A lot of good things from our rookie tonight,” Kidd said. “But the Spurs’ rookie is pretty good, too.”
— Tim MacMahon
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