PHOENIX — There’s a special feeling when you’re in the building for that, “Holy s—!” moment, that rare, special game in which a young prodigy establishes that he’s ready to take his place as one of the game’s next big stars.
While it didn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a Rocket, to determine that Victor Wembanyama was likely on that trajectory, Thursday was that day for him. His 38-point outburst was the exclamation-point performance, the game that told everyone the league’s Next Big Thing has officially arrived.
If you missed it, the San Antonio Spurs’ 7-foot-4 French phenom took over crunchtime in just his fifth NBA game, scoring 10 points in a pivotal 12-0 run to break open a tied game late in the fourth quarter, as San Antonio swept a two-game series in Phoenix with a 132-121 win over the Suns on Thursday.
It was a somewhat coincidental passing of the torch, at least from my perspective. I had the fortune of being at such a game nearly two decades ago when a 19-year-old Kevin Durant made a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer for Seattle (*sobs briefly*) to defeat Atlanta on Nov. 16, 2007. As luck would have it, I also was in the building when the game’s next logical successor to Durant’s mantle offered his own rookie breakout against the now-grizzled Durant and his current team.
Wembanyama wasn’t exactly chopped liver in his first four games as a pro, but this was something totally different, a performance that served notice to everyone that, A) his ceiling could be even higher than we thought, and B) his learning curve to reach that point might be a lot quicker and steeper than we expected. Even in the brief time since we saw him in summer league, he’s appeared to add skill, balance and speed to a package that was already virtually unprecedented in league annals. His rate of skill acquisition over the past 18 months has been simply phenomenal. What that might portend for the future is downright scary.
What makes Wembanyama so special is that he’s a 7-4 player with a guard’s ability to handle the ball and shoot. That last skill was on display in crunchtime Thursday, salvaging a Spurs victory after they had surrendered a 27-point lead.
In particular, he seemed to seize the moment when he took the ball with a little more than two minutes left and the Spurs up by seven, quickly dribbling to his left before pulling up for a 3-pointer over Drew Eubanks. When it splashed through the net, the denizens of Footprint Center began heading for the exits, and Wembanyama’s Spurs had stunned the Suns for a second time in three nights. (All in all, it was a rough week for Arizona sports fans.)
What had me marveling over that play in particular (see clip below) was the same thing I saw when watching Wembanyama’s pregame shooting drills with a few scouts: how much Wembanyama’s balance has improved on his jump shot. Previously, any sideways dribble action usually resulted in him leaning like the Tower in Pisa as he launched his shot, as the momentum of his big steps carried his frame well past his ankles’ braking capacity. He could still make some of them, but that sideways angle was not exactly conducive to a repeatable, high-percentage delivery.
Just look at him now. Set aside that this giant beat a defender with a jab-step move and a zippy dribble to his left; marvel instead that he took a hard sideways dribble against Eubanks and still planted his left foot with enough force to stay squared up to the hoop and jump straight up and down with his buttery soft release. Splash. How do you defend this?
Wembanyama said after the game he was just playing in the flow — the shot was the result of a cross screen that switched Durant off him and let him attack Eubanks.
“At this point it’s more instinct,” he said. “In the fourth quarter, you just have to make big plays.”
That was his fourth quarter in a nutshell — he would follow it up with a quick catch-and-shoot after a similar screen left him against Eubanks again to close the run — but this dominant performance started from the opening possession. On Phoenix’s first trip (after Jusuf Nurkić blatantly stole the tip to give Wembanyama his first jump ball defeat of the season), he had a little “bonjour” for Devin Booker to set up a quick transition 3 for the Spurs; San Antonio flew up and down the court all half en route to 15 fast-break points, most of them by the speedy Devin Vassell.
However, speed is another area in which Wembanyama himself seems to have made significant progress over the past year. Instead of moseying up and down the court, he’s zipping from end to end with giant strides and racking up fast-break points in the process.
Watch here as he gets two easy transition baskets for himself. In the first, he semi-contests a corner 3 and still gets way out ahead of the pack for a fast-break dunk. In the second, he stymies Durant’s drive to the rim by easily flipping his hips while closing out to stay in defensive position (most players of his size are toast in that scenario) then beats the other Phoenix big men down the floor by roughly a mile for a monstrous slam down the middle of the lane:
Of course, that’s just an inventory of a few plays that I think best symbolized some of the physical improvements that Wembanyama has made since his season in France. (I saw him twice in person last year and also announced several of his games over video for the NBA app.)
But the thing that really makes Wembanyama must-see TV, every night, are the we’ve-never-seen-this-before moments, the little bits of sheer wonder that leave you cackling and rewinding in slack-jawed wonder that somebody this big and long could also be this coordinated.
There are the Inspector Gadget left-handed dunks, the plays where he makes other giant men look Lilliputian by reaching rebounds over his head (including one where he made the 6-10 Durant seem like Muggsy Bogues, reaching fruitlessly for the ball while Wemby plucked it), the crossover dribbles and pull-up 3s that he nonchalantly pulls off as if every 7-4 player has this in his bag.
“He’s an unbelievable talent. Everybody knows that,” Booker said. “Just trying to figure out what he is, because we’ve never seen him before.”
And the impact he’s had on the Spurs can’t be underestimated. Their legendary 74-year-old coach, Gregg Popovich, looks completely rejuvenated, barking teaching points at players from the sideline and during timeouts and drawing up one sweet look after another for Wembanyama at every dead ball.
“He’s a multifaceted player,” Popovich said, “and he’ll pass it to the open guy. But he’s got confidence in himself, and he made some plays that were unbelievable. That combination is pretty good, if you have that skill and you’re still willing to pass.”
His Spurs teammates are still learning how much of a weapon he can be, seemingly just beginning to understand that any ball thrown in the general direction of the rim and roughly 10 feet high is highly likely to end in an assist. Already this season, he’s redirected several horrid lob pass attempts into the basket, including at least two Thursday.
“He’s a multifaceted player.”
Pop on Wemby after his career-high 38 PTS 🗣️ pic.twitter.com/Gz1xOEzqUO
— NBA (@NBA) November 3, 2023
Meanwhile, the rest of the Spurs project is advancing in fits and starts. They looked ready for prime time on this night but less so four days earlier in a miserable 42-point loss to the LA Clippers when the offense completely ground to a halt. The team is giving 20-year-old non-shooter Jeremy Sochan on-the-job training at point guard, a position he’s never played before, and lining up a 6-11 center — either Zach Collins or Charles Bassey — next to Wembanyama to protect him physically.
Both those things, however, tighten up the spacing and sometimes leave Wembanyama with no runway to finish moves. (One play Thursday, for instance, saw him dust a defender with a mouth-watering left-to-right crossover, only to have Bassey’s defender waiting for him in the lane and a drop-off pass deflect off Bassey’s mitts.)
It could get worse before it gets better, as Vassell hurt his groin during Thursday’s game and likely will miss some time, according to Popovich. He was the Spurs’ leading scorer entering the game and tormented Phoenix in the first half and also is the primary source of spacing gravity in the starting group.
Nonetheless, the wonder of Wemby is likely to be the league’s nightly attraction for the foreseeable future. Already, he might be too good to guarantee the Spurs another high lottery pick for their rebuilding effort; nobody will sob for them, with every key player 26 or younger and the Spurs looking at max cap space in the summer of 2025, but it’s still amazing that he has us rethinking the team’s timeline five games into the season.
That’s how special Wembanyama was on Thursday. Suns fans might have left the building disappointed, but everyone who was in the building will be talking about his night for a long time.
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(Photo of Victor Wembanyama: Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images)