PHILADELPHIA – A few weeks ago, Joel Embiid said he wondered if Victor Wembanyama knew what he wanted.
“I think, first of all, he has to figure out where he wants to play, whether he wants to be a guard or a big or whatever,” said the 76ers big man. “It’s not necessarily a question of whether he wants to be a guard or a big; that’s what he wants to become. Do you want to become KD or do you want to become me? Not KD, or like a version of those guys: you want to combine everything. Right now, I feel like everything seems a little forced in the way it sounds, which isn’t a bad thing. Because the only way to improve is to play and learn. This is the only way. You make a lot of mistakes and you learn.
Wembanyama is learning.
The San Antonio Spurs rookie center is working out how to destroy NBA offenses at a seemingly geometric pace. He has become a defensive terror since the Spurs moved him from power forward to center in mid-December, providing the league with a glimpse of what the future might hold, even in the five-out, zero-in version of most offenses. NBA. Basketball without position, here is the defender who inhales the space. And he meets a rookie who is already incredibly good at defending without fouling.
“I’m surprised? No,” Wembanyama said after blocking six shots in the Spurs’ win Saturday against the Washington Wizards.
“Especially as a young player, as a rookie and with a coach like ours, it starts with defense,” he said. “Growing up in Europe, to get your spot on the professional roster at 15 or 16, you have to give your all on defense. So he’ll go back to that role as a new guy in the league: somehow he feels good about having that difficult role sometimes.
And there is a clear divide in Wembanyama’s impact: pre-Tre-Jones-at-point-guard and post-Tre-Jones-at-point-guard.
In San Antonio’s first 19 games, the Spurs conducted something of an experiment, playing second-year forward Jeremy Sochan, starting Wembanyama at power forward and starting Zach Collins at center. There was a methodology to the decision; San Antonio wanted to use the first quarter of the season to let Wembanyama play and adjust to the NBA game. It’s not that the Spurs didn’t care about winning or losing, but… they didn’t really care about winning or losing. There was a bigger picture to consider.
And the Spurs lost 18 straight games between Nov. 5 and Dec. 13.
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During that stretch, Wembanyama shot 42 percent from the floor and 26 percent from 3. His assist-to-turnover ratio was .872. The Spurs’ opponents shot 39% from three; and 54% on 2 seconds. And San Antonio has given up an average of 121.5 points per game, while giving up an average of 13.1 points per game.
But, soon after, Gregg Popovich moved Collins to the bench and inserted Jones into the starting lineup at the point. He brought Sochan back to power and put Wembanyama at the centre. The sky has cleared.
Wembanyama has shot 51% from the floor since mid-December, including 34% from 3. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.24.
But the Spurs defense also recovered, dramatically. In November, they ranked 28th in the league in defensive rating (120.5). In December he was 21st in the league (118.6). After 11 games played in January, they are fifteenth (115.6). Wembanyama is blocking 3.5 shots per game over that stretch. And their net rating dropped to -5.9 from -13.1. I’m only 5-15 in that stretch, and Embiid scored 70 points against Wembanyama and the Spurs on Monday, setting the 76ers team record for points in a game. Sure, the Spurs are still one of the worst teams in the league. But they are also the youngest. And their overall defensive numbers are moving, quite significantly, in the right direction. It’s a start.
Wembanyama is ninth in the championship Dunks and threesDefensive plus-minus estimated, at plus-3.0. They are 14 places ahead of Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren, Wembanyama’s main rival for the NBA Rookie of the Year title. He is ninth in Dunks and Tres defensive rebounding percentage (29.5). And Wembanyama leads the league in blocks per game (3.2).
“Some of the things he does, I told you from the beginning, you can’t believe it,” Spurs guard Devin Vassell said Monday. “You’ve never seen anything like it. I keep saying he makes the game easier for us and we have to make it easier for him. Defensively we need to have this impact. If we’re funneling people to the basket, we know he’s going to clear it. So we have to make sure we answer to he man to make sure he doesn’t get retaliated against, or whatever the case may be.
There are the smacks of garden-variety types coming down the aisle, trying to fit in mid-flight with this 7-foot-4, unfurling mantis. There are blocks on the highlight reels against the most famous players: at the beginning of the games, how Wembanyama hurt Ja Morant hereand, at the critical moment, as applied here to Giannis Antetokounmpo. And there are blocks that defy logic and almost everything we’ve seen defensively in the last 60 years. Yes I know he did this kind of thing at Metropolitans 92 last season. But, with all due respect, there is a bit of a difference in talent between the LNB Pro A League and this one.
I mean… what e.g Este?
wait how did Victor Wembanyama get to this. pic.twitter.com/XbvUH5q5ca
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) January 21, 2024
Here’s another point of view. He doesn’t look at the ball he’s about to block:
Wemby blocked this shot… unbelievable pic.twitter.com/RoRhXKeKRS
— Matt (@mattbigguts) January 21, 2024
Washington’s Marvin Bagley is 6-11. The average height of 18-year-old men in the United States, in 2014, it was just above 5-8. Anyone 6-1 or taller is, among men 20 and older, in the 95th percentile of all men in the United States, based on height. Bagley is a statistical anomaly.
“Normally, I might just go up and go past people, because I’m 6-11,” Bagley said. “But guys like that, you have to be a little more crafty, or create something for yourself or your teammates.”
The way the game is played today, you’d probably build someone with Wembanyama’s frame to challenge shots: long and agile, with an uncanny ability, as Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse noted, to change direction. Nurse was talking about how Wembanyama cuts in attack, but the same principle applies at the other end.
“It goes both ways,” Popovich said, echoing the nurse.
“He (Wembanyama) also likes to be on the perimeter, handle the ball a little bit, that kind of thing. It’s much easier for him now than it would have been in the days when someone was guiding him everywhere with their hand, touching him and bumping him. Imagine Isiah (Thomas) or someone on him. So it’s a simpler environment, then, for a perimeter guy. And defensively, he can roam more, like Joel does. We call them “tramps”, or at least I do. They don’t specifically watch a guy all the time. Their job is to paint, mark the rim, change shots, block shots, do that kind of thing, so people have to change what they’re doing offensively. And then the other players, the complementary players, have to respond, until they realize that that guy is going to go and go to the limit all the time.
What was among Wembanyama’s most impressive traits was not conceding fouls.
Rookies, and especially great rookies, have a target on their back. The League insists that its officials call everything, and everyone, equal. Perhaps this is true on Terra II. But here, beginners usually don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Wembanyama, however, you have only fouled in one game so far. With rare exceptions, including Monday’s game against the 76ers, he doesn’t get many major defender fouls, as happened when Embiid drove to the basket and took the 20-year-old with him. He averages just 2.4 fouls per game.
Popovich had fun with me last weekend when I asked him how Wembanyama’s D had evolved since the start of the season. (The assumption here is that he doesn’t want to be seen as the one who “taught” Wembanyama defense, that he was taught by one of the game’s greatest coaches in Vincent Collet – Wembanyama’s coach at Metropolitans 92 and the coach of the French national team that Wemby will be present this summer at the 2024 Paris Olympics.)
“I say, ‘Put your hands somewhere else and stop fouling,’” Popovich said. «She IS between the ears. You tell everyone how to do it, how to track and how to do it, what’s appropriate, what’s an inappropriate foul. Some guys understand this; some guys don’t. “He’s smart, he understands and he’s got it all figured out.”
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Sochan needs to be part of this too, if Spurs are to gain any defensive traction in the coming years. He was taken ninth in the first round in 2022 as someone who loves to be “cheeky”, as he said before the draft, with his opponents. He doesn’t care if he gets crushed; he continues talking. And play.
“I think this gets under people’s skin,” Jones said.
Now in his normal position, Sochan must be able to handle the fours that Wembanyama can ignore. That’s probably what he’s going to be about the second half of the season.
“I think it’s scary. Alarming. As we get older, we get more mature, our bodies get more mature, it’s going to be scary,” Sochan said. “I think it will be difficult to score on us. And I think it’s going to allow us to win a lot of games, so I think it’s exciting. I feel like as the season went on, Vic and I became closer, on and off the court. It turned out great. …It’s just talking, just knowing… instinct too. Sometimes defense isn’t about the X’s and O’s; it’s a matter of instinct. Just read, read and react. Sometimes I get beaten up and he helps me. Or it’s the opposite. Or he steals. Or it bounces, because it blocks everything.”
Holmgren and the Thunder arrived in San Antonio on Wednesday. With a potential MVP alongside Holmgren in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with one of the most diverse and challenging offenses in the league, along with an ahead-of-expected team defense, OKC has shown how far the Spurs have to go, even if Wembanyama he added another leather one to his collection.
Education continues, the learning curve always extends into the distance.
—AtleticoJosh Robbins contributed to this story.
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(Photo of Victor Wembanyama blocking a shot against the Trail Blazers: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)