SAN ANTONIO — The official media attendance at Monday morning’s San Antonio Spurs media day event was an even 100. By unofficial consensus, it was the largest throng of media ever for the team’s pre-training camp Q&A fest.
Not even in the 20-year, four-championship era of the team’s Big Three — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker — had so many reporters, photographers, broadcasters and bloggers shown up to quiz Spurs players and coaches.
Such is the draw of Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio’s prize rookie from France, for better or worse the most-hyped NBA newcomer since LeBron James.
Here’s another official statistic from Monday’s session: It took coach Gregg Popovich a little under 10 minutes to pronounce he was tired of answering questions about “Wemby.”
To be fair, Popovich, the newly minted member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, had been set up for a sarcastic response by a media member, and it got a good laugh. After the chuckling subsided, the league’s all-time winningest coach continued giving thoughtful responses to many more questions about a teenager whose outsized presence in the team’s soon-to-be-retired practice facility at One Spurs Lane dominated the final event the building ever would house.
The Spurs will open their training camp Tuesday morning at their brand new, $500 million Victory Capital Performance Center, about six-and-a-half miles northwest of their practice home for the past 21 years. Wembanyama was still in junior high school when plans were made to build a facility so nice that Popovich swore he might “move in” and make it his home.
The fact the most sophisticated and luxurious “performance facility” in the league will finally be fully complete and ready for practice the very day Wembanyama will engage in his first session as a member of a true NBA team (as opposed to a summer-league conglomeration) seems like one more example of what Popovich calls serendipity.
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Popovich knows he is about to begin a training camp unlike any he has conducted since taking over as Spurs head coach in 1996. He knows hype when he sees and hears it. Popovich never has gotten caught up in it and won’t now. He made the point shortly after he began answering questions on Monday.
“Certainly we want to watch him develop,” Popovich said of Wembanyama, “but it’s the same with Devin (Vassell) or Keldon (Johnson) or Zach (Collins) or anybody else. We have had two questions so far and both involved Wemby. I understand that, but there is a team out there. He is no different from anybody else. He’s got to develop and improve (with) knowledge of the game and his skills just like any other player.
“Fortunately for us, he is very coachable, very intelligent. That’s already begun for him, from the first day of practicing in summer league, just getting used to a different kind of game. We will watch him probably for the next couple of weeks without saying too much of anything to him, just so we understand his idiosyncrasies and the way he plays the game, how his body works, all that sort of thing.
“Everybody else, we know their game, we know what they do, so we have to do the same thing with him.”
Wembanyama has been an attention-getter most of his young life and being the No. 1 NBA draft pick puts him in an even brighter spotlight. He recognizes the potential for jealousy as he is hailed as the savior of a team that has not made a playoff run since 2019.
After a two-week hiatus from basketball following his brief summer-league appearances, he jumped back into conditioning and open gym games with his teammates. He has developed relationships with them and is confident they know he neither seeks attention nor believes much of the hype.
“I think pretty quickly I learned to know my teammates and they learned to know me,” Wembanyama said. “They know I don’t care about it. I’m here to make sacrifices for them, and I think they’re going to make sacrifices for me when it’s needed. They know it’s different. Of course, there’s going to be a lot of attention, but at the end of the day, we’re at practice and I’m like, ‘Yeah, what can we do today to make this team better?’
“So, it’s basketball first.”
Sounds a lot like “the Spurs way,” and Popovich already has addressed Wembymania with some of his team leaders.
“We’ve talked about it,” Popovich said. “I’ve talked to players individually and that sort of thing. If we treat it like it’s no big deal, you (media) all are going to do what you do; fans are going to do what they do. But because I know the players, they’ve got such high character. And, he’s used to this.
“This isn’t the first time he has gotten attention. Doing it organically is better than making decisions ahead of time. Let’s not put anybody in boxes. Let’s just roll with it and see what it’s like.
“If people start hanging off the top of the bus, then we’ve got to get ’em off. Short of that, we’ll be OK.”
Spurs starting forward Jeremy Sochan, who attended the 2023 NBA Draft in Brooklyn and was the first Spurs player to welcome Wembanyama to the team, doesn’t rule out the occasional awkward moment but doesn’t think Wembymania represents a threat to team unity.
“I think we will handle it pretty well,” Sochan said. “Again, I feel like the Spurs and just the PR team and coach Pop, they know it is not all about Wemby and that the emphasis is on the team. That’s the most important thing. But I think that for every question that is asked we are going to answer it in a positive way and hopefully no negative comments come out. But, it is what it is at the end of the day, so we will handle it well.”
Wembanyama’s new teammates all have seen their share of what Sochan called, “Oh, snap!” moments from Wembanyama during their open gym runs.
“Let’s just put it this way,” said Vassell, who spent part of his summer working out with Phoenix Suns star Kevin Durant, “I think every game he’s going to do something where you turn around and say, ‘Huh?’
“It just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes he just makes the hoop look so little. He’ll hit a step-back and you’ll say, ‘Did he really just shoot that?’ And then he makes it. Y’all are going to have a great time watching him play this year.”
And isn’t that what Wembymania is all about?
(Photo of Victor Wembanyama: Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images)