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Why Spurs will limit Victor Wembanyama in the Vegas Summer League and beyond

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Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The crowd inevitably will greet Victor Wembanyama with roaring cheers and thunderous claps.

It will happen during Wembanyama’s starting lineup introductions. It will continue whenever Wembanyama throws down a monstrous dunk. It will return whenever Wembanyama swats a shot at the rim.

An expected sell-out crowd will make those noises into a memorable soundtrack when Wembanyama makes his Las Vegas Summer League debut on Friday when the San Antonio Spurs play the Charlotte Hornets (9 pm ET, ESPN). But how long will that buzz stay?

NBA talent evaluators view Victor Wembanyama as a generational talent that has elite point-guard skills in a listed 7-foot, 3½ inch frame. So expect those cheers to last throughout Wembanyama’s presumed long and accomplished NBA career. But what about during Las Vegas Summer League itself? Just like when a gambler lands the right number or right hand at the casino tables, the cheers will become loud and intense. Just like when that gambler then loses in the next round, those cheers will soon become groans.

That’s because Wembanyama won’t actually have a significant role during Las Vegas Summer League. After the Spurs ruled him out of the California Classic this week in Sacramento, Wembanyama will play limited minutes in the Spurs’ summer-league debut against Charlotte. Wembanyama could play on July 9 against Portland, (8:30 pm ET, ESPN2) and July 11 against Washington (10:30 pm ET, NBA TV). It also seems plausible that Wembanyama could sit in at least one of those games.

This represents part of the Spurs’ concerted effort to manage Wembanyama’s workload throughout his rookie season. He already has confirmed he won’t play for his native France in the FIBA World Cup this summer (Aug. 25 – Sept. 10). Though the Spurs haven’t said anything official, those in league circles hardly expect Wembanyama will play in all of the team’s 82 regular-season games.

Concerns about Victor Wembanyama’s durability?

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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Should caution about Victor Wembanyama’s workload lead to concerns about his durability? Not necessarily. NBA teams typically showcase their lottery picks only for the first few summer-league games before shutting them down preemptively, especially if they suffer an injury either big or small. Those in league circles don’t expect Wembanyama will struggle with injuries the same way as New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, who missed the rest of the 2019 Summer League for precautionary reasons after bruising his left knee in New Orlean’s summer-league opener.

Instead, those around the NBA believe the Spurs will handle Wembanyama with care so that he eases into the NBA more seamlessly. Wembanyama already has played for Metropolitans 92, a French professional basketball team, in all of its 34 regular-season games and 10 postseason matchups, including the team’s three losses to Monaco in the LNB Pro A Finals last month. Wembanyama also appeared in the league’s All-Star game as well as every FIBA World Cup qualifying game for the French national team (six).  

Wembanyama has told reporters that San Antonio didn’t pressure him to miss the FIBA World Cup. He stressed that he made the decision independently and plans to compete with the French national team in the Paris 2024 Olympics. Nonetheless, the Spurs played a large factor in Wembanyama missing the California Classic. They will exert more influence with his workload both during Las Vegas Summer League and the 2023-24 regular season.

It seems fitting the Spurs would handle Victor Wembanyama this way. After all, the Spurs indirectly popularized the load management approach. In only Tim Duncan’s third season of his NBA career (1999-2000), San Antonio played him for only one game of the Spurs’ first-round playoff series loss to the Phoenix Suns. That’s because Duncan missed the final four regular-season games because of a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. For nearly a decade, the Spurs later played Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker limited minutes in most regular season games in hopes to prolong their careers. Ironically, the Spurs handled Kawhi Leonard the same way before he eventually asked for a trade amid frustration with how the organization handled a right quadriceps injury that sidelined him for 73 games during the 2017-18 regular season.

Even though Wembanyama possesses a tall and lanky frame, those around the NBA do not think he will become injury prone. They liken his body makeup to Kevin Durant, who received scrutiny for his lack of physique as the No. 2 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Though Durant has experienced various injuries since tearing his right Achilles tendon in the 2019 NBA Finals, he stayed mostly durable throughout his NBA career. The lone exception: Durant played in only 27 games in Oklahoma City during the 2014-15 season after fracturing his right foot.

Nonetheless, NBA talent evaluators expect Wembanyama will need to play about three NBA seasons before fully adapting to the league’s more physical opponents. They have praised Wembanyama for strengthening his listed 237-pound frame. They also believe Wembanyama doesn’t ever need to become a bruising big man because he possesses so many skills as a versatile scorer, passer and rim protector. Still, NBA talent evaluators expect Wembanyama to absorb bumps and bruises from bigger opponents that will become eager both to test and intimate the hyped prospect.

Not only could San Antonio’s approach help Victor Wembanyama with managing his workload and increasing his recovery time. It also matches the league-wide expectations that the Spurs appear unlikely to make the playoffs even with Wembanyama’s presence. The Spurs tied with Houston last season for the Western Conference’s worst-record (22-50) because they have a mostly young roster. San Antonio is not expected to make any dramatic roster moves, either. That will allow Wembanyama to develop gradually in an environment that cares more about the process than the immediate results.

That might not sit well for NBA fans that arrive in Las Vegas, a destination known for providing instant gratification. Still, those fans should savor the experience. The Spurs will allow Wembanyama to provide a pleasant appetizer before taking their time to prepare the anticipated entrée perfectly. It will become worth the wait.

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider at Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.