NBA: Wembanyama’s world taking firm hold in San Antonio
SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs are prepared for what should be one of the most demanding tasks this NBA season: Answering questions about rookie phenom Victor Wembanyama.
How many times can the Spurs answer how amazing Wembanyama is before it gets irritating (or before they’ve played a game that matters)? Try two minutes into the Spurs’ media day on Monday.
“I already am (annoyed),” veteran coach Gregg Popovich said, laughing afterward. “It’s OK. It’s OK. Part of the deal.”
Welcome to Wembanyama’s world, also known as the home of the five-time NBA Champions.
The hype surrounding the league’s No. 1 pick is larger than his 7-foot-3 frame and wider than his 8-foot wingspan. It’s understandable considering Wembanyama is unlike any player the league has seen.
The 19-year-old from France has already been compared to some of the game’s most skilled long-range shooters, best shot blockers and top passers while also standing as one of the league’s tallest players ever.
The Spurs are as ecstatic to have Wembanyama as he is to be with them, but neither is so sure about all the fanaticism he draws off the court.
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“Of course, there is going to be a lot of attention,” Wembanyama said. “At the end of the day, when everything is done, we are at practice I’m like, yeah, what do we do to get this team better? It’s really stuff we don’t care about. It’s basketball first.”
While the Spurs are doing their best to diffuse the hoopla, his new teammates also can’t help but add to the hype.
“He’s just a freak of nature,” second-year forward Jeremy Sochan said. “It’s not a normal thing to see someone that tall move like that, be agile and be able to come out of nowhere and block a shot or dunk it from some weird place. He’s done a bunch of stuff that’s like, ‘Oh snap. That’s crazy.’”
Wembanyama has wowed during summer pick-up games, and those remarkable moments will surely only grow as training camp opens Tuesday at the team’s new practice facility.
“I think every game he’s going to do something to where you just turn around and be like ‘huh,’” Spurs guard Devin Vassell said. “It just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes he makes the hoop just look so little or he does something like shoot a step-back and you’re like, ‘Did he really just shoot that,’ and he makes it. So, you all are going to have a great time watching him play this season, it’s going to be fun.”
Wembanyama joins a team that finished with the second-worst record in the Spurs’ 50-year history. It’s also a deep and young roster that opened last season 5-2 and yet ended up in contention to land Wembanyama.
“We fight,” Spurs forward Keldon Johnson said. “We got that grit. We hungry. Realistically, we know we are expected to win this year. We want to win. We don’t want to hear we’re growing or that we’re young. We want to win. We are going out there to win every game this season.”
Where Wembanyama fits is still unknown giving his unique set of skills. Popovich is uncertain if Wembanyama will start at center, power forward or maybe even small forward.
“I know I can bring some help to this team and the best way for me to help it is to not put me in a box,” Wembanyama said. “(Popovich) knows it. He’s learned to know me and I’m learning to know him. We know we are going to make something original, something special.”
Who will start alongside Wembanyama is also unknown. Vassell, Sochan and Johnson return along with fellow starters Zach Collins at center and Tre Jones at point guard along with key reserves like Doug McDermott, Julian Champagnie and Malaki Branham.
Regardless of who starts, Wembanyama knows the team’s focus is already set.
“Sometimes in Europe there are some fights between players and coach and players and front office,” Wembanyama said. “Here, everyone works in harmony, and everyone is working towards the same goal. I know it’s not the same with every franchise, but here they know how to win. They’ve done it before, and they want to do it again. Everyone is working toward the same goal and it’s beautiful harmony.”
Wembanyama prepared for the season by adding 10 to 15 pounds of muscle since the Spurs drafted him with the No. 1 pick on June 22.
“My conditioning and physical condition are way, way better than any time in my life,” he said.
He also added a black cowboy hat he wore while spending the past two weeks visiting the Alamo along with San Antonio’s newest landmarks – murals of Wembanyama.
“I’m really glad everything is happening the way it’s happening,” Wembanyama said. “I feel very lucky. I know I’m in a good environment from every aspect.”
As for the hype, the Spurs are willing to deal with it.
“Just handling it organically is better than making decisions ahead of time that we are going to do this and this and this and put everyone in boxes,” Popovich said. “Let’s just roll with it and see what it’s like it. If there are people hanging on top of the bus, then we’ve got to get them off. Short of that, we’ll be OK.”