April 18, 2024

It’s solely been half a season. He’s solely performed 35 video games. But, San Antonio Spurs phenom Victor Wembanyama has already proven himself to be one of the crucial versatile gamers in NBA annals. Right here’s the scary half: He’s nonetheless enhancing by leaps and bounds.

The participant as soon as described by LeBron James as not a unicorn, however “extra like an alien,” got here into this season as one of the crucial extremely anticipated rookies in NBA historical past. Thought of by most to be the most effective prospect to enter the league since James in 2004, Wembanyama was the highest choose within the 2023 NBA Draft after a breakout season as a teen in France, and he was the prize when the San Antonio Spurs gained the draft lottery in Could.

After a promising early begin, together with a 38-point eruption in his fifth NBA recreation, Wembanyama and the Spurs each had some hiccups. Groups scouted him extra critically; larger, heavier opponents performed him extra bodily and compelled him into off-balance jumpers; and an unready Spurs roster supplied him little assist. San Antonio misplaced 18 consecutive video games — a feat shortly buried when the Detroit Pistons misplaced a record-setting 28 straight quickly after, however terrible nonetheless. In the meantime, Wembanyama put collectively a collection of tough capturing nights, hitting solely 43.3 p.c in November.

Of late, nonetheless, we’ve seen extra constant flashes of his dominating potential and comparatively fewer stretches of wayward capturing. Even because the Spurs have continued to battle — the group is simply 7-32 on the season — Wembanyama’s performances have steadily improved, together with a dominant begin to his January.

“I feel you possibly can see how he performs, and what an unbelievable expertise he’s,” Dallas Mavericks star Luka Dončić stated earlier this season. “I actually get pleasure from watching him.”

As we attain the midway level of Wembanyama’s first season, now is an efficient time to take inventory of the heralded rookie’s first season and a few of the positives and negatives to this point.

Let’s begin with the attention sweet. No participant within the league produces extra highlights per minute than Wembanyama. In simply half a season, he’s already generated a mind-blowing YouTube catalog, utilizing his unprecedented mixture of size and talent to carry out feats we simply haven’t seen earlier than on a basketball courtroom.

Take one random play from Monday’s recreation in Atlanta. Wembanyama catches the ball on the transfer on the 3-point line, after which does one thing we aren’t accustomed to seeing from a 7-foot-4 participant — a lefty drive right into a behind-the-back-dribble right into a dunk.

Watch it under. The Hawks’ Jalen Johnson performed good protection that seemingly was going to pressure Wembanyama into a tricky, contested hook shot. He stopped the rookie big on his preliminary thrust left, however Wembanyama had the physique management to hit the brakes, keep away from a cost and alter his assault angle. Johnson then slid his ft when Wembanyama effortlessly went behind the again to alter route and was on his hip as he began to leap from nicely exterior the cost circle. Johnson seems like he’s loading as much as problem a jumper or hook shot after which … increase.

For 99 p.c of gamers, that’s a tricky, contested jumper, floater or hook shot within the lane. Aside from Wembanyama, who — together with his proper foot planted nicely contained in the leap ball circle — simply reached up his Inspector Gadget arms towards the rim and saved extending and increasing till he dunked it proper over Johnson. That was one in every of 9 dunks he had simply within the second half of the Spurs’ loss. In a associated stat, solely 9 of Wembanyama’s 557 shot makes an attempt this season have been blocked.

Now that now we have everybody excited, let me be Debbie Downer and take issues down a notch. For starters, his group stinks and Wembanyama hasn’t been adequate to beat that. Whereas the Spurs’ latest outcomes have been reasonably higher, there isn’t any query that they’ve been a disappointment. They’re younger and lack different gamers of Wembanyama’s caliber, however the expectation was that they’d be extra aggressive.

Wembanyama and level guard Tre Jones are turning right into a formidable mixture. (Michael Gonzales / NBAE through Getty Photos)

Partly, that’s a results of lineup constructions that at instances have appeared like they have been designed strictly to sabotage Wembanyama’s growth. The Spurs started the season by making an attempt to play second-year professional Jeremy Sochan at level guard, regardless of his exhibiting no actual {qualifications} or aptitude for enjoying the place.

Additionally they lined up one other middle, Zach Collins, subsequent to Wembanyama within the frontcourt, pushing Wembanyama additional to the perimeter at each ends. The Collins-Wembanyama pairing was outscored by 11.8 factors per 100 possessions in its 25-game run. Hopefully, we’ll by no means see it once more.

In the meantime, the Spurs appeared nearly defiantly immune to enjoying their one actual level guard, Tre Jones, along with Wembanyama. Lineups with Jones and Wembanyama collectively have outscored opponents by 3.9 factors per 100 possessions this season, no imply feat on a group that in any other case is bludgeoned by 9.1 per 100, but solely lately have they shared the courtroom with any frequency.

Moreover, a collection of turned ankles in December has the Spurs pulling again the throttle on Wembanyama’s courtroom time. He reportedly will sit out in Charlotte on the entrance finish of a back-to-back on Friday night time. He hasn’t performed a back-to-back since Nov. 18 and has been capped at a most of 27 minutes since Dec. 17.

Nonetheless, even since opening day, Wembanyama’s progress has been evident. It helps that he’s in additional conditions to succeed now. Slowly however absolutely, the Spurs have groped and stumbled their method right into a extra workable lineup. After a disastrous first quarter of the season, the Spurs lastly moved Sochan off the ball, moved Collins out of the beginning lineup and shifted Wembanyama to middle. Lo and behold, protecting the 7-4 man nearer to the basket appeared to pay some dividends.

In the meantime, it took an damage to mainly each different guard on the group to make it occur, however Jones is lastly beginning at level guard.

Since Christmas, Wembanyama has gone to a different degree. In 10 video games he’s scored practically some extent a minute — 232 in 242 minutes — whereas capturing 62.6 p.c contained in the arc and upping his free-throw price, together with his first two double-figure free-throw video games. Defensively, he’s blocked a ridiculous 5.2 pictures per 36 minutes on this stretch, and a few of them have been absurd bodily feats. Watch right here as he swipes down on the ball as Atlanta’s Trae Younger gathers it … after which magically blocks Younger’s floater try with the identical hand.

On the offensive finish, the low-percentage, off-the-dribble lengthy 2s that characterised a lot of his early-season output have steadily diminished. As a substitute are onerous rim runs. Jones retains searching for him within the air, and different Spurs have caught on to the truth that it’s unattainable to overthrow Wembanyama.

Who’s up for a SLOB Lob?

Once I requested the place Wembanyama had improved probably the most, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich supplied this evaluation of his progress after Monday’s recreation in Atlanta,

“In all probability in aggressiveness,” Popovich stated. “Working to the bucket and never being so focused on 3-point pictures. Working the ground, being that concentrate on. After all, the group has realized that they should throw these passes, it’s not one thing we have been used to. He’s realized how to do this and understands that it units a tone for everyone.

Wembanyama may turn out to be the third participant in Spurs historical past to guide the league in blocked pictures as a rookie, becoming a member of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. (Brian Babineau / NBAE through Getty Photos)

“Defensively he’s turning into a very good rim protector, and clearly he’s tall. And lengthy and he needs to be, however he’s determining the best way to make {that a} particular precedence. And everybody else is studying the best way to deal with that, enjoying round him.”

You may see the numerical proof for Popovich’s assertion everywhere, together with in a few of the numbers referenced above. Whereas Popovich targeted on the 3-pointers, that amount has modified lower than Wembanyama’s total reliance on jumpers off the dribble.

Moreover, the visible proof for Wembanyama’s rim runs is tough to overlook. He obtained the Hawks on a fast alley-oop following made baskets 3 times on Monday, once more, having Jones serving as a catalyst. Watch right here as Wembanyama is jostling with Atlanta’s Clint Capela underneath the basket at the start of the clip, then magically materializes on the rim on the finish of it.

Popovich additionally credit Wembanyama’s basketball know-how for serving to him progress so shortly.

“Actually excessive IQ, understands the sport intuitively,” Popovich stated. “You clarify one thing to him and he understands it. He’s only a outstanding 20-year-old.”

Wembanyama has certainly displayed a maturity past his years in his information conferences, even on nights when issues haven’t gone nicely, and his response to powerful teaching from Popovich additionally has been notable. As an illustration, with the Spurs struggling in Atlanta on Monday and trailing by 35 at halftime, an sad Popovich benched three starters — together with Wembanyama — to begin the third quarter. Wembanyama understood.

“The message was sturdy and apparent,” Wembanyama stated. “He stated we have been being embarrassed, that we had most likely the worst half we’ve had thus far.”

Did Popovich say it that properly, although?

“Aw, hell no.”

Nevertheless, Wembanyama responded with a 26-point eruption after halftime that included the aforementioned dunk fest, practically bringing the Spurs again from a big deficit.

“I wish to be coached, I wish to be threatened and despatched to the G League if I don’t play the correct method. I don’t care, I like when there are penalties to my errors,” he stated.

It doesn’t look like a visit to Austin to play for the Spurs’ G League group will probably be obligatory — Wembanyama will probably be San Antonio’s beginning middle for the foreseeable future — however there are nonetheless just a few areas the place Popovich may learn him the riot act for motivation.

Wembanyama’s midrange capturing has been fairly poor — simply 31 p.c on 2s from past 10 ft, in accordance with Basketball Reference — and his 29.3 p.c mark from 3 lends assist to Popovich’s ideas on his 3-point frequency. Whereas he’s proven the contact to make these pictures, it’s nonetheless a creating talent for him, not a go-to choice. Even final 12 months in France, Wembanyama would fall in love with this shot a bit an excessive amount of.

If we’re nitpicking, we will level to another issues. His turnover price has additionally been too excessive (5.5 per 100 possessions) as a few of his ballhandling adventures have gotten him into powerful spots. He must be extra artful in drawing fouls and add some lower-body power for battles underneath the basket (though his Rebound Charge of 19.1 p.c is superb, even amongst facilities).

Within the huge image, nonetheless, Wembanyama’s latest run of dominance, and regular enchancment since opening day, factors to a stratospheric endpoint once you extrapolate the graph out just a few years.

“He’s going to alter the sport, 100%,” Denver Nuggets star and NBA MVP Nikola Jokić informed reporters after going through him earlier this season. “He’s already on that path, so simply get pleasure from and watch the present and let the man change the sport.”

After falling behind Oklahoma Metropolis’s Chet Holmgren early within the NBA Rookie of the Yr race, Wembanyama is once more asserting himself as a worthy rival in a two-horse race. And at simply 20 with enviable instruments, there may be little query he has extra long-term upside than every other participant within the league.

So benefit from the journey, everybody. The back-to-back and minutes restrictions could also be a momentary nuisance for followers who wish to see extra, however Wembanyama stays must-see TV as one of the crucial gifted gamers to ever enter the league. The thrilling half, now, is the place the Spurs’ French prodigy continues to take his recreation within the second half of the season and past.

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; pictures: Dylan Buell / Getty Photos)