PHILADELPHIA — A few weeks ago, Joel Embiid said he wondered if Victor Wembanyama knew what he wanted.
“I think first of all he has to figure out where he wants to play, if he wants to be a goalkeeper or a tall or whatever,” said the 76ers big man. “It’s not necessarily whether he wants to be a goalkeeper or a great player; that’s what he wants to become. Do you want to become KD, or do you want to become me? Not KD, or like a version of those guys – you want to combine everything. Right now I just feel like everything seems a bit forced in the way he plays, which isn’t bad. Because the only way to improve is to play and learn. It is the only way. You make a lot of mistakes and you learn.
The San Antonio Spurs rookie center is working to destroy NBA offenses at a seemingly geometric pace. He’s become a defensive terror since Spurs moved him from center forward in the middle of December, giving the league a glimpse of what the future might hold for him, even in the five-man version outs and zero from most NBA offenses. Positionless Basketball, Meet Space-Inhaling Defender. And meet a rookie who is already incredibly good at defending without fouling.
“Am I surprised? No,” Wembanyama said after blocking six shots in the Spurs’ win Saturday against the Washington Wizards.
“Especially as a young player, as a rookie, and with a coach like ours, it starts on defense,” he said. “Growing up in Europe, to earn your spot on (a) professional roster at 15 or 16, you have to play full defense. So it comes back to that role as a new player in the league – it feels good in a way to have that difficult role sometimes.
And there’s a clear divide in Wembanyama’s impact: pre-Tre-Jones-at-point-guard and post-Tre-Jones-at-point-guard.
In San Antonio’s first 19 games, the Spurs ran something of an experiment, putting second-year forward Jeremy Sochan on the ball, playing Wembanyama at power forward and starting Zach Collins at center. There was a methodology for the decision; San Antonio wanted to use the first quarter of the season to let Wembanyama play and adjust to the NBA game. It’s not that the Spurs didn’t care about winning or losing, but…they didn’t really care about winning or losing. There was a bigger picture to consider.
And the Spurs lost 18 in a row between November 5 and December 13.
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During that stretch, Wembanyama shot 42 percent from the floor and 26 percent from 3. His assist ratio was .872. The Spurs’ opponents were shooting 39 percent on 3-pointers; and 54 percent on 2s. And San Antonio has given up an average of 121.5 points per game, losing an average of 13.1 points per game.
But, shortly after, Gregg Popovich moved Collins to the bench and put Jones in the starting lineup at the same time. He brought Sochan back to power forward and placed Wembanyama in the center. The sky cleared.
Wembanyama is shooting 51 percent since mid-December, including 34 percent from 3. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.24.
But the Spurs’ defense has also improved dramatically. They were tied for 28th in the league in defensive rating (120.5) in November. They were 21st in the league (118.6) in December. Out of 11 games in January, they are 15th (115.6). Wembanyama blocks 3.5 shots per game during this stretch. And their net rating fell to minus-5.9 from minus-13.1. There are only 5 to 15 of them over this period, and Embiid scored 70 points against Wembanyama and the Spurs Monday, setting the 76ers team record for points in a game. Of course, the Spurs remain one of the worst teams in the league. But they are also the youngest. And their defensive numbers are evolving overall, quite significantly, in the right direction. It’s a beginning.
Wembanyama is ninth in the championship Dunks and Threes” Defensive plus-minus rating, at plus-3.0. That’s 14 spots ahead of Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren, Wembanyama’s main rival for NBA rookie of the year honors. He’s ninth in shooting percentage. defensive rebounding from Dunks and Threes (29.5).And Wembanyama leads the league in blocked shots per game (3.2).
“Some of the things he does, I told you from the beginning, you can’t understand,” Spurs guard Devin Vassell said Monday. “You’ve never seen anything like this.” I keep saying he makes the game easier for us, and we need to make it easier for him. Defensively, we need to have that impact. If we direct people to the basket, we know it will clear it. So we have to make sure we fight back against his man to make sure he doesn’t get the rebound, or whatever it may be.
There are a variety of types of guys coming down the lane, trying to match up in mid-flight to this 7-foot-4, unfolding mantis. There are highlight blocks against star players – at the start of games, as Wembanyama distributed here to Ja Morantand in times of crisis, as applied here to Giannis Antetokounmpo. And there are the blocks that defy logic or almost everything you’ve seen defensively over the last 60 years. Yes I know he did this stuff at Metropolitans 92 last season. But, with all due respect, there is a small difference in talent between the LNB Pro A League and this one.
I mean what East This?
wait, how did Victor Wembanyama come up with this one. pic.twitter.com/XbvUH5q5ca
– Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) January 21, 2024
Here’s another angle. He doesn’t look at the ball he’s about to block:
Wemby blocked this shot… incredible pic.twitter.com/RoRhXKeKRS
– mat (@mattbigguts) January 21, 2024
Washington’s Marvin Bagley is 6-11. The average height of 18-year-old men in the United States, in 2014, was just above 5-8. Anyone aged 6-1 or over is, among men aged 20 and over, in the 95th percentile of all men in the United States, depending on the height. Bagley is a statistical anomaly.
“Normally I could just go up and over people, because I’m 6-11,” Bagley said. “But guys like that, you have to be a little more crafty, or create something for yourself or your teammates.”
The way the game is played today, you’d probably build someone with Wembanyama’s frame to challenge shots — long and nimble, with incredible ability, as Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse noted, to change direction. Nurse was talking about how Wembanyama is scaling back the offense, but the same principle applies on the other end.
“It goes both ways,” Popovich said, echoing Nurse.
“He (Wembanyama) also likes to be on the perimeter, handle the ball a little bit, that type of thing. It’s much easier for him now than back when someone was guiding him everywhere with their hand, touching him and hitting him. Imagine Isiah (Thomas) or someone on him. So it’s an easier environment for a perimeter guy. And defensively, he can move around more, like Joel does. We call them “vagabonds,” or I call them. They don’t specifically guard one guy all the time. Their job is to paint, to score, to change shots, to block shots, to do that type of thing, so people have to change what they do offensively. And then the other actors, the complementary actors, must react, until they realize that this guy is going to leave and go to the edge all the time.
What has been one of Wembanyama’s most impressive traits is not committing fouls.
Rookies, especially big rookies, have a target on their backs. The league insists its officials call everything and everyone the same. This may be true on Earth II. But here, beginners usually don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Wembanyama, however, has only fouled in one match so far. With rare exceptions — Monday’s game against the 76ers was one — he doesn’t commit many fouls from the primary defender, as happened when Embiid went to the basket and took the 20-year-old with him. He only commits an average of 2.4 fouls per game.
Popovich had fun with me last weekend when I asked him how Wembanyama’s D had evolved since the start of the season. (It is assumed here that he does not want to be seen as having “taught” defense to Wembanyama, who was taught by one of the great coaches of the game in Vincent Collet – Wembanyama’s coach at Metropolitans 92 and the coach of the French team who trained him. Wemby will be present this summer at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.)
“I say, ‘Put your hands somewhere else and stop making fouls,’” Popovich said. “It’s between the ears. You tell everyone how to do it, how to trace and how to do it, what’s appropriate, what constitutes inappropriate misconduct. Some guys get it; some guys don’t. He’s smart, he understands and he gets it.
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Sochan needs to be a part of it too if the Spurs are to get any defensive traction in the years to come. He was seeded ninth in the first round in 2022 as someone who likes to get “cheeky”, as he said before the draft, with naysayers. He doesn’t care if he gets soaked; he continues talking. And play.
“I think it puts people on edge,” Jones said.
Now in his normal position, Sochan should be able to handle the four that Wembanyama can ignore. This is probably what the second half of the season will be about.
“I think it’s scary. Scary. As we get older, as our bodies become more mature, it’s going to be scary,” Sochan said. “I think it’s going to be difficult to score against us. And I think it’s going to help us win a lot of games, so I think that’s exciting. I feel like as the season went on, me and Vic became closer, on and off the field. It became great. …It’s just talking, just knowing…instincts too. Sometimes defense isn’t all about the X’s and O’s; it’s a matter of instinct. Just read, read and react. Sometimes I get beaten, and he’s the one who helps me. Or it’s the other way around. Or steal. Or bounces, because it blocks everything.
On Wednesday, Holmgren and the Thunder came to San Antonio. With a potential MVP alongside Holmgren in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with one of the most diverse and toughest offenses in the league, as well as an ahead-of-schedule team defense, OKC has showed how far Spurs had to go – although Wembanyama added another. skin to his collection.
Education continues, the learning curve always stretching into the distance.
– AthleticismJosh Robbins contributed to this story.
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(Photo of Victor Wembanyama blocking a shot against the Trail Blazers: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)