Victor Wembanyama makes debut in Phoenix with double feature vs. Suns
Oct 31, 2023, 12:25 PM
(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — It is a rare circumstance when the Valley debut of a once-in-a-generation talent is the second-hottest ticket in town. But even with Game 4 of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ World Series happening down the street Tuesday, the landfall of San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama justifiably will bring hype to Footprint Center.
And for those understandably locked in on baseball, the Phoenix Suns get Round 2 against the Spurs on Thursday.
It’s something you have to see to believe (saying that as someone who has yet to see it live, either).
Wembanyama through three games is averaging 15.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 blocks, 2.0 steals and 4.7 turnovers per game while shooting 44.7% from the field.
What’s behind the hype for Victor Wembanyama ahead of pair of Spurs-Suns games?
You should know the story by now. At 7-foot-4 with an 8-foot wingspan, Wembanyama is an incredibly nimble athlete for his size. His ability to shift direction and move his limbs around any which way (thanks to some ridiculous flexibility and coordination) allows him to explode into key basketball movements.
“I think the biggest thing that sticks out to me that I didn’t really know about is just how mobile he is for how big he is,” Suns center Drew Eubanks said Tuesday. “Just how much area of the court he covers is really impressive.”
This obviously factors in on defense. But thanks to some skill development early in his career, Wembanyama is a capable ball-handler and pull-up jump shooter with 3-point range.
San Antonio wants to fully take advantage of this while also getting Wembanyama accustomed to all the unique environments he can be utilized in. He’s occasionally running off screens on the perimeter like someone a foot shorter than him.
This early, though, most of his production is coming from stretching the floor or getting the ball in the post. There is no advanced analysis required here. He’s just a really freaking big dude and so he’s shooting over anyone and getting around practically anyone.
Teams are figuring out how to match up with him. Some have tried smaller guards to get under him and bother the 210-pound Frenchman with strength. Others go with a wing, someone who is still going to be at least 6 inches smaller.
Because the Spurs start a center in Zach Collins, the opposition isn’t going to have two bigs to have one on Wembanyama. That’s foolish anyway because of his skill and speed.
As it turns out, the way it lines up for the Suns means it’ll probably be Kevin Durant on him, which will be fun to see. Durant’s already taking on big assignments this year, defending Utah Jazz All-Star Lauri Markkanen in Saturday’s win. Durant told head coach Frank Vogel in their first conversation this summer he doesn’t want to be hidden off the ball. If there is a matchup for Durant to take because he squares up with it best, he wants it.
Here’s Durant on Wembanyama:
“Just an exciting player,” he said Monday. “Talented, very, very skilled and gifted. Can do a lot of things on the floor.”
The largest adjustment for Phoenix, however, will be on the other end.
If you’ve ever watched Team USA compete at the Olympics, there are offensive possessions for the opposition where you can see their inability to process the angles on the court because of the Americans’ supped-up athleticism, length and size. Highly intelligent guys playing at the top levels of European basketball look like they don’t know how to read the floor.
That’s essentially what is going to happen for everyone in the freaking NBA when it comes to Wembanyama’s presence on the floor. They’ve mastered the feel to the timing of help defenders but he’s making rotations no one else can.
You think Kyrie Irving of all people is used to the weak-side corner guy coming over like this and getting a piece of his jumper?
Collins’ presence allows for the Spurs to deploy Wembanyama as a secondary rim protector of sorts, giving him the freedom to impact as a help defender all over the place.
“Those tall, long athletic guys that just track the ball all game and look for weak-side blocks. They’re tough to play against and he’s no different,” Durant said. “We gotta be aware.”
“He likes to roam around a lot,” Eubanks said. “They like to put him on non-shooters or guys who aren’t going to shoot so he can kind of control the paint and stuff. Just having awareness to see where he’s at.”
Ivica Zubac in a post isolation is even spinning away from the nail help here and it does not matter. Look at how quickly Wembanyama is in the area by the time Zubac takes his last dribble.
It will not go well if you challenge him.
He’s affecting games tremendously by just being around the basket.
Bones Hyland has a nice backdoor cut here and OH GOD WATCH OUT.
(Brief aside: This furthers the belief I’ve had for a few years now that the NBA will 1) have to move the 3-point line back with how great shooters are getting and 2) make the court bigger in order to do so. My crazy person standing and shouting on a crate outside the arena take has been that the league will have to enact significant changes to address how much larger and more athletic players are becoming. Much in the way the game rapidly evolved in the last decade to more or less eradicate the “power forward” position, there’s another hyper jump coming.)
Wembanyama absolutely meets the top billing of a phenom. It stands out everywhere on the floor and the Footprint Center crowd will “ooh” and “aah” several times this week for basketball acts they’ve never seen before. Better yet, Wembanyama early on is showing the aggression you want to see out of someone with his talent.
But he’s still just a rookie and will have the usual growing pains.
Wembanyama wants to be a good passer and playmaker for his team, but it’s just going a bit too fast for him right now in that department, getting used to NBA length as we covered earlier. He loves jump-passes for some reason when he can see over the entire court already. The handle is expectedly getting snipped at by those smaller defenders jarring it loose when he wants to get cooking off the bounce. He’s getting called for moving screens consistently like any other first-year big. His efficiency is going to be all over the place on a night-to-night basis.
The Spurs are also very likely going to be bad again while figuring this whole thing out.
San Antonio is currently rolling without a point guard in the starting lineup, using forward Jeremy Sochan in that spot. It’s a logical move giving Sochan more opportunities to develop as a playmaker, and also allows the Spurs to have three versatile wing-like defenders on the floor in Sochan, Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell to go alongside Wembanyama and Collins. But Wembanyama’s progression trumps all, and San Antonio has fourth-year guard Tre Jones coming off the bench, a traditional floor general in every sense.
The Spurs are learning how to play with him. Wembanyama loves to leak out and get post position after contesting jump shots, so all that’s needed is a lob pass up in the vicinity where only he can get it. Timing on opportunities there and in the half-court flow will take time. Not every receiver for a quarterback is Megatron, but then we watched Matthew Stafford blindly chuck that thing 50 yards down the field for a reason, knowing Calvin Johnson was down there somewhere.
In order for Wembanyama’s weak-side recoveries to be effective, there have to be proper rotations in place afterward if he clogs up the possession there. San Antonio was the worst defensive team in the league last year and is still quite young, with the average age of the 10-man rotation at 24 years old.
It’s going to be a delicate balance of growth for Wembanyama in this first year and that shouldn’t diminish the amount of warranted hype and excitement for one of the best prospects in the game’s long history. I recommend getting an early glimpse at it downtown if you can.