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Once again, Victor Wembanyama displayed more evidence of his current star power. Once again, that coincided with the San Antonio Spurs laboring through another loss. By finishing with 27 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, five steals, and five blocks in last week’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Wembanyama became the first rookie in 23 years since Jamaal Tinsley to post at least five points, five rebounds, five assists, five steals, and five blocks in a game. No one has recorded such numbers in a single game since former Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon did so in 1990. No player has ever collected at least five blocks and five steals in consecutive games since Michael Jordan did so in his third NBA season (1986-87). “I wonder if he did it in wins and not losses,” Wembanyama said. Jordan posted such numbers in consecutive wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers (Feb. 22, 1987) and the Atlanta Hawks (Feb. 24, 1987). Wembanyama posted such numbers in the Spurs’ 123-118 defeat to the Lakers.

Seeking Improvement

“To me, it’s secondary. Hopefully, in the future, we can look back and think that this is a good performance,” Wembanyama said. “But as of today, I can’t be satisfied with a loss.” Wembanyama also hardly appears satisfied with his stellar rookie season, despite leading his rookie class in points per game (20.7), rebounds (10.1), blocks (3.3), and steals (1.3). Not when the Spurs  (11-48) enter Thursday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder (40-17) with the league’s worst record. Those in and around the Spurs hardly expected to become instant playoff contenders after missing the NBA playoffs for the past four seasons (2020-2023). It remains puzzling, however, that San Antonio could finish with a worse record than last season’s team that ranked last in the Western Conference (22-60).

Coach Popovich’s Perspective

Yet, Spurs fans shouldn’t fret about whether the franchise has squandered its opportunity to build around generational talent. Sure, Wembanyama spoke with a hint of frustration when putting his milestone into perspective with the Spurs’ continued loss. By the following morning? The Spurs have observed that Wembanyama showed his enthusiasm again. “It goes right over his head,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s a guy who, from my perspective, is somebody who understands how to be in the moment. When the moment is gone, he goes on to the next one. Take from it; learn from it.” Consider Wembanyama’s reaction following San Antonio’s loss last week in Sacramento. LATEST ODDS

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After a team breakfast the following morning in Los Angeles, Popovich and Wembanyama watched the film together to dissect the Spurs’ 127-122 loss to Sacramento, along with his 19 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks, five steals, and four assists in 31 minutes. Even though Popovich ended the film session eventually, Wembanyama appeared ready to dissect more footage. “He wanted more,” Popovich said. “He’s very voracious as far as wanting to be better and learn things.”

High Praise

Later that night, Wembanyama showcased his dominance again. Even against Lakers forward Anthony Davis, Wembanyama showed what has made him an intriguing prospect ever since the Spurs selected him with their No. 1 pick after playing professionally in his native France with Nanterre 92 (2019-21), ASVEL (2021-2022) and Metropolitans 92 (2022-23). Wembanyama showcased exceptional footwork by pivoting seamlessly both along the post and at the basket. That gave him space either to finish at the rim, shoot a jumper, or to pass to an open teammate. Wembanyama, whom the Spurs list at 7-foot-4 with a 210-pound frame, has also impressed Popovich with how he seeks and absorbs contact, an approach that draws trips to the free-throw line and stunts opponents eager to limit him with their physicality. As Popovich observed, “You can see he’s really understanding how to play the game.” Afterward, Lakers coach Darvin Ham greeted Popovich with praise for his talented rookie. Ham didn’t just focus on the game that he called “highly skilled.” Ham shared that he admired Wembanyama’s “competitive nature.” So did Lakers star LeBron James. “He doesn’t have a ceiling,” James said. “He can do whatever he wants with his career. It seems like he enjoys the game. It seems like he puts in the work.”

A Long Road Ahead

Wembanyama’s presence reminded James of other recent high-impact No. 1 draft picks including Davis (2012), Zion Williamson (2019), Kyrie Irving (2011), and Blake Griffin (2009). James also named Tyreke Evans, whom the Sacramento Kings selected in 2009 at No. 4. “He’s one of them to have a stellar rookie season as guys that have come in. But can you sustain it?” James said. “We’ve had guys that have come in and been really good. But the one thing that Wemby has above all the guys that I named is his length and how tall he is. The guy next to me possesses a lot of length, and he’s even more than AD. That’s what makes it a little bit different. But let’s not get it twisted. He’s special. But he’s not the first guy to make an impact in this league as a rookie.” All of which goes back to his Wembanyama’s subtle annoyance that he produced another record-setting performance in yet another loss. Why hasn’t Wembanyama’s stellar play actually impacted winning? Simple. The Spurs don’t have a great roster around their prized rookie. They lean on other recent draft picks from 2019 (Keldon Johnson), 2020 (Devin Vassell), and 2022 (Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham) and a veteran forward (Zach Collins). That puts the Spurs at a crossroads this offseason, ensuring they upgrade their roster with another potential top pick and up to $26 million in cap space. “People of his prodigious talent and youth start to make you think about building a program around such people,” Popovich said. “There are few and far between.”


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Development Over Instant Success

Nonetheless, San Antonio resisted making win-now moves with the roster in hopes that Wembanyama and his young teammates could grow organically. The Spurs have evaluated their season more through player development than with their bottom-line results. San Antonio has not awarded player participation trophies. They have given this season a mulligan, however, in hopes it at least gives them clarity on both Wembanyama’s trajectory and the team’s exact roster needs. “We don’t try to tell him exactly what he needs to do,” Popovich said. “When we see something that needs to be improved upon, we’ll talk about that. But so far basically, we let him play so we can learn where his most advantageous spots are on the floor, where he feels most comfortable, and where he can work.” Popovich then reflected on how he managed former NBA Hall-of-Famer Manu Ginobili. Popovich eventually concluded he should tolerate his occasionally erratic shot selection and risky playmaking so he would not dilute his competitiveness and his confidence in crunch time. Though the Spurs have not limited Wembanyama’s game for similar reasons, they have handled his workload with care. Wembanyama has missed six games related to a tight right hip and a sore right ankle. Wembanyama has averaged only 28.6 minutes per game, which ranks fourth in his rookie class behind Charlotte’s Brandon Miller (31.7), Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren (30.1) and Miami’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. (29.6).

Gratitude and Learning

“I’m eager to play more and have these minutes to help the team,” Wembanyama said. “Sometimes, it does feel like I’m on the bench for a long time. It’s a job we got to do with the team and the medical staff.” Just like Wembanyama has experienced with the ongoing loss, he has stayed patient with his conservative workload. In the meantime, he has relished the unique environment. He had a pre-season dinner with a handful of Spurs legends, including Ginobili, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Sean Elliott. Popovich said that Duncan, Ginobili, and LaMarcus Aldridge have visited the Spurs’ practice facility occasionally. Though Wembanyama didn’t offer much advice, he described the Spurs’ former players as “good, kind, and caring people.” He views Popovich the same way. “He’s been everything that I’ve expected as a mentor and as an honest person,” Wembanyama said. “He really, really loves his players. He does everything for his guys. He might be tough sometimes. But there’s never a doubt that it’s not for the best. So, I’m very grateful for that.” That may not have assuaged Wembanyama’s conflicted feelings that his strong play has not led to more wins. It has helped the 20-year-old Wembanyama understand how to contextualize his ongoing dominance with the Spurs’ ongoing struggles. “There are always ups and downs,” Wembanyama said. “But the slope is going up more. So, it’s good.”

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