After watching him with admiration on game footage, Victor Wembanyama’s opponents shook their head both with amazement and fear on what it will be like to actually compete against him.
“We’ve never seen a guy like this,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He knows how to handle the basketball and shoots 3s and post ups. He can pass. So we have to be physical, but we have to be smart.”
After watching his prized prospect struggle with turnovers (five), missed 3s (0-for-2) and his opponents’ brute force in their recent loss to the Clippers, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich spoke with both candor and perspective that this year’s No. 1 draft pick has plenty of work ahead of him.
“Everybody is going to be physical with him and try to knock him off balance,” Popovich said. “He’s got to get used to that. That’s probably the biggest difference for him — all of that physicality and valuing the basketball.”
The Spurs (1-2) enter Tuesday’s game against the Phoenix Suns (2-1) with too small of a sample size to proclaim anything definitively about Wembanyama.
Way too early to predict Wembanyama will become one of the NBA’s best players ever. In between highlight reels and miscues, however, Wembanyama clearly has shown he matches the hype with his point-guard skills in a big-man’s body and his unmatched rim protection. Yet, Wembanyama also appears worthy of living up to expectations because of another understated skill.
‘Pound the rock’ mentality
He has the needed work ethic and humility to absorb short-term losses and to navigate season-long learning curves.
“We got a famous saying in San Antonio — it’s ‘Pound the Rock,’” Wembanyama said. “It has a deep meaning. How I see it and how I see life is always like adversity and struggle, sometimes. But it’s not about how bad the struggles are going to be, but how persistent we’re going to be.”
Trust that Wembanyama will maintain enough persistence to thrive through it all. The public will surely monitor each step he takes.
Hordes of Spurs fans greeted Wembanyama as he entered the entrance tunnel ahead of Sunday’s game against the Clippers. Popovich hosted a packed pre-game press conference, prompting him to muse he was about to coach Game 6 of the NBA Finals instead of an early regular-season game. Wembanyama does not seem overwhelmed with the never-ending attention. He acknowledged the fans with grace before quickly focusing on his pre-game workout. He spoke excitedly about visiting Los Angeles for the first time because this is where countless Lakers legends showed their greatness. Yet, the 19-year-old Wembanyama appeared unfazed with the limelight after seeing it follow him when he played in his native France both professionally and with his national team.
“He’s a very inquisitive young man. He’s from Europe. They are a lot more cultured than we are,” Popovich said of Wembanyama. “They are more civil than we are. They are more experienced. They travel. They speak languages. It’s not like he is a dumbstruck young kid. He’s pretty worldly. All of this hype has been going on for a pretty long time. That is old hat for him. He doesn’t even notice it.”
Instead, Wembanyama notices the things that matter, no matter how big or small.
How Victor Wembanyama can join the NBA’s all-time greats
He takes a lot of shots, but he doesn’t demand touches. He takes ownership for his individual defensive duties, while also ensuring he keeps the team’s defense organized. He takes accountability for his own mistakes, but he does not overly scold his teammates for theirs. He accepts Popovich’s hard coaching without any sense of entitlement and resentment. Instead, Wembanyama embraces Popovich’s call for him to master “everything,” ranging from offensive plays, defensive schemes and player development.
“That’s probably the overarching theme now — just be solid in everything that you do,” Popovich said. “You don’t have to impress anybody. Just play the game. If you play the game according to the basketball Gods, you’re probably going to be in pretty good shape because you have a lot of skills.”
Popovich then brought up NBA Hall-of-Famers, including Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson, Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird and the late Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. Popovich described all three as “fundamentally sound” because of how well they relied on their footwork, pump fakes and film study to elevate their game.
Wembanyama is a much different than those players both in skills, position and role. The same thing could be said about the NBA’s current stars, including the Lakers’ LeBron James, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Phoenix’s Kevin Durant and Golden State’s Stephen Curry. No one except Wembanyama has excelled in an outside shooting, playmaking and rim protection role in a 7-foot-3 body.
Nonetheless, becoming familiar with the NBA’s past greats and their journey should be instructive with having additional perspective on Wembanyama’s development.
Johnson and Bird made an immediate impact, but also joined veteran-laden teams equipped to win an NBA title. Bryant didn’t start until his third season and clashed with most of his veteran teammates, including Shaquille O’Neal, because they resented his brashness instead of fully appreciating his drive and familiarity with the league’s history. Curry spent his early seasons seeking to prove he could play with healthy ankles and offer more than just shooting. After once relying on his athleticism, Antetokounmpo developed into a skill player. James immediately lived up to the hype, but didn’t make the playoffs until his second season. Durant had all of the tools and length to become an elite scorer, but initially lacked the physicality.
“I like the fact that for years and years that nobody found a way to guard him really consistently,” Wembanyama said of Durant. “This is probably one of the reasons why he was one of my top favorite players ever.”
An old school mentality to his contemporaries
Wembanyama seems open toward ingratiating himself with the NBA’s contemporary stars and becoming more familiarity with the league’s history. But just as Bryant once did, Wembanyama will keep a respectful distance to maintain a competitive edge.
“I never really get to sit down with players, especially my opponents except the guys that I have known for long years, the French guys for example,” Wembanyama said. “They are my idols, but they are still my opponents. I wouldn’t really allow myself to entertain a relationship with some guys that I’m going to have to play against or fight against someday. There is a lot of respect, but they are still my opponents even if they are my idols.”
Wembanyama arguably could experience a smoother path than any of those players simply because he plays for the Spurs. Not only will he learn under Popovich, who already has won five NBA championships in 20 playoff appearances. Wembanyama has access to the Spurs other luminaries, including Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Sean Elliott and David Robinson. And Wembanyama is playing on a young team as the definitive No. 1 player not expected to win right away.
By no means will the Spurs and Popovich simply hand Wembanyama any participation trophies. They will grant him mulligans though. By next season, that could become a different story.
“There’s no formula,” Popovich said. “You just try not to skip any steps and luckily he’s an intelligent and coachable young man. He’ll eventually get there. He will be a great player, but he’s got some learning to do first just like any other player.”
Thankfully for the Spurs, Wembanyama appears equipped to learn quickly with his skills and mindset.
“We have a long way to go,” Wembanyama “But we’re going to keep pounding the rock.”