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What does Victor Wembanyama’s Summer League tell us?

Victor Wembanyama Summer League

(Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports)

Victor Wembanyama Summer League
Victor Wembanyama initially struggled in his first (only?) NBA Summer League. (Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports)

What does Victor Wembanyama’s Summer League tell us?

‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’

The reactions to Victor Wembanyama’s less-than-stellar NBA Summer League debut earlier this week reminded me of the classic old German folk tale, Henny Penny.

Sure, Wemby’s line–nine points (on 2-13 shooting) and eight rebounds in 27 minutes–against the Charlotte Hornets and No. 2 overall draft selection Brandon Miller wasn’t exactly sparkling, but it’s at times like these that we have to remember that the No. 1 overall pick is still just 19-years-old. All the talent and all the expectation in the world doesn’t make it any more likely that Wembanyama will instantly adapt to pre-season NBA basketball, let alone the regular season proper.

That said, we can’t sugar coat it: Wemby’s game one struggles were very, very real.

There has been widespread concern about how Wembanyama’s wiry frame would hold up against powerful athletes who can get beneath his centre of gravity and take away his balance. Those concerns, as it turned out, were merited. The rookie was repeatedly unable to establish deep positioning when posting up and, when facing the basket, he was often knocked off stride when attempting to beat his man.

Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but he was also put on a poster (do people still have posters?) by prodigiously athletic but incredibly raw Hornets big Kai Jones. The Spurs rookie never had to deal with this sort of bounce whilst playing in his native France.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though.

The big fella showed that he will be a defensive game-changer the moment he sets foot on the floor. His sheer length was not only a shot deterrent – both at the rim and on the close-out – but he was constantly causing the Hornets players to second guess their passes.

Even if the pass was on, the slight delay in pulling the trigger allowed the Spurs to cover the passing lane and regain their defensive shape. His swiftness covering the floor and unusually sharp defensive instincts for such a young man indicate that, at a minimum, he’s going to be in or around the Defensive Player of the Year conversation for much of his career.

On the ball, he did seem hesitant with his decision-making, telling reporters post-game that he “didn’t really know what (he) was doing on the court,” though he did occasionally show off his sweet handle and impressive vision.

Wemby’s second game, though, told an altogether different tale.

Taking on the Portland Trailblazers, sans No. 3 pick Scott Henderson, Wembanyama went off for 27 points (9-14 from the floor), 12 boards and three blocks in a dominant display.

The rookie dazzled during Sunday’s game, showing off all of the ball handling and shot-making that had scouts calling him the evolutionary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Wembanyama looked far more at home in this contest, showing infinitely more patience when making decisions, attacking quickly when the opportunity presented itself and, perhaps most impressively, asserting himself physically at both ends of the floor. Tres bien, Monsieur.

The only tangible downside to this performance was that Wembanyama’s jump shot was tending to catch front iron, though that can be easily explained away through a lack of match fitness.

It was interesting to see the differences in how the Spurs coaching staff, led by Australian Matt Nielsen, used the phenom from game to game.

Rather than relying on wing isolation, as in game one, the Spurs looked to get Wemby onto the block, though with mixed success. About midway through the first half, the focus seemed to shift to using Wembanyama as the screener, where his reach made him a towering roll man and the threat of his jumper (still a touch theoretical, at this stage) made him a viable pop merchant. Either way, it often led to guards switching onto him – both are a death knell.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Portland actually won the game, if for no other reason than to shoehorn in this ridiculous Shaedon Sharpe dunk.

Now that we’ve seen proof of concept against actual NBA players, it appears that the Spurs will shut their star man down for the remainder of Summer League. It’s understandable, but it’s also a shame. It would have been fun to watch him play a full program.

There have been comparisons made between Wembanyama’s Summer League showing against some of the all-time greats of the sport and what it means for Wemby’s immediate future. If we look at my own personal Pantheon of basketball (Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kareem – in whatever order you choose) it demonstrates the uniqueness of Wembanyama’s situation.

When Kareem entered the league in 1971 he was a fully grown man of 22 years of age, coming off of a collegiate career so dominant that they literally had to change the rules to curb his influence.

Jordan’s rookie campaign was his age-21 season, after three seasons for one of the premier college programs in the country. Again, this makes it tough to compare apples to pommes.

Given James entered the league straight out of high school, that’s probably the best comparison to make from this group. James opened up his Summer League campaign with a fairly efficient 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, though quickly found his feet to score 23 points in even time in his next outing.

Wembanyana’s progression in that context is most encouraging, though it’s worth remembering that James came into the league built like a heavyweight boxer and still wasn’t able to lead the Cavaliers to the playoffs until his 3rd NBA season. Wembanyama – a prodigiously skilled series of pipe cleaners, at this point – shouldn’t be expected to lead the Spurs to any significant team success any time soon.

Given his slight stature, it appears that San Antonio wants to use Wembanyama as a four-man at the beginning of his career. Many NBA sources have said that the Spurs were keen on signing Naz Reid before he re-upped with the Timberwolves. That makes Zach Collins vitally important to Wemby’s rookie campaign.

Collins’ ability to absorb contact in the paint on defense whilst stretching the floor on offense should theoretically make him a hand-in-glove front-court partner to Wemby. The issue, as it always is with Collins, is health.

The 25-year-old played 63 games last year, after managing just 39 over a three-season span. However, he only played 23 minutes a night. If he proves unable to manage a 30-minute workload it could expose Wembanyama to the stress of the centre position before he’s physically capable. Signing another rotation five-man is critical for the Spurs this season.

The Spurs have been on the outside of the playoffs looking in since 2019, though they had been a model of consistent contention for the best part of three decades prior. With a revered and re-signed head coach in Gregg Popovich and a development staff headed by Brett Brown (no matter what you think of Brown’s time as a head coach in Philadelphia, he’s proven himself as a premier development coach) to show him the ways of the NBA, Victor Wembanyama is in the prime location to start on his path to stardom.

His ability to adapt and thrive in the Summer League is as good an indication as any that he has the wherewithal to succeed. That said, development is never linear. Patience, as always, will be a virtue.

***

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