Skip to main content

'A Remarkable 20-Year-Old': How Spurs' Victor Wembanyama Has Continued to Improve

The San Antonio Spurs once again found themselves in the loss column after a Monday afternoon bout with the Atlanta Hawks, but despite the continued woes this season, Victor Wembanyama has proven to be a consistent bright spot with still room to grow.
  • Author:
  • Publish date:

Walking into a practice facility almost two hours North of his usual one in San Antonio, Victor Wembanyama towers over his "by-affiliate" teammates on the Austin Spurs.

Instead of shooting around at the San Antonio Spurs' brand-new Victory Capital Performance Center, the rookie takes reps ahead of playing in the G League at the H-E-B Center in Cedar Park — and while it isn't a bad place to be, Wembanyama would rather stay in San Antonio. 

Much rather, in fact.

The closest that San Antonio's rookie will come to playing in Austin this season will be during the team's now-annual two-game I-35 series in what the team hopes can become an expansion of viewership into a bigger market, but still, that isn't the same as being sent down to the Austin-based team to get reps on a smaller stage.

Yet, the possibility alone — albeit slim — is enough to motivate Wembanyama to play harder, better and more consistently. And that was evident against the Atlanta Hawks.

"I like to be coached," Wembanyama said. "I like to be threatened, and sent to the G League if I don't play the right way. I like when there's consequences to my mistakes."

On paper, it might not look like the generational rookie needed any consequences. He finished the night with a 26-point double-double in just 27 minutes, notching five blocks and a pair of steals as well to complete a well-rounded night, but besides his balanced stat sheet, nothing about his or his teammates' performances was well-rounded.

It was quite the opposite, actually. 

By the end of the first half, Wembanyama had zero points to his name. He hadn't scored a single time, and given his status as the team's No. 1 option and frontman, it made sense why Popovich coined the first 24 minutes against the Hawks as his team's "worst first half" of the season — at least that's how the rookie rehashed it.

"I can't remember the word he used," Wembanyama said of the veteran coach's halftime spiel. "But he said we were being embarrassed. It was probably the worst first half we'd had [this season]."

And when asked if Popovich said it as kindly as he had, his answer was simple:

"Oh, hell no. ... It wasn't the worst, but he was pretty pissed."

Dec 28, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) walks to the locker room after warming up before a game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center.

Dec 28, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) walks to the locker room after warming up before a game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center.

San Antonio failed to score 20 points in either of the first two periods, and as a result, Atlanta found itself with a 35-point cushion entering the third quarter. The Spurs' shooting was off, their offensive efficiency was about as good as their defensive efficiency, and the Hawks were taking full advantage.

So, Popovich took an extreme measure — benching every starter but Julian Champagnie and Jeremy Sochan to start the second half. 

Instead of the now-usual Devin Vassell, Tre Jones and Wembanyama pairing with Champagnie and Sochan, it was Dominick Barlow, Blake Wesley and Cedi Osman who got the second-half nod — and it worked. The Spurs began to play better, more together and even mounted a run to keep the game close throughout the latter 24 minutes.

"The starters needed some sort of message or infusion of something whatever,” Popovich said. “I thought the starting team in the third quarter made their point. ... They played [and] they competed.

"That made it a good night."

Sitting on the bench to start the second half of a game he had already seen minutes in was foreign to Wembanyama since joining the NBA. No matter what experiments the young team had tried, it never affected the rookie more than just his role being either a center or a power forward. 

He was untouchable — at least, until Monday afternoon. But despite being switched out in favor of Barlow, Wembanyama didn't take it as an insult, but rather a source of motivation. A wake-up call, of sorts.

"He wanted to put players he could trust to give 100 percent on the court," the rookie said. "It's important to learn in a [new] role sometimes. Tonight, the bench players showed us how to do it in the second half."

Behind their bench unit, the Spurs cut the 35-point lead down to just 20 entering the fourth quarter and went on to also win the fourth quarter to fall short by just 10. Basketball calls for just four quarters, but the turnaround shown by San Antonio likely would have resulted in a win with an extra period of play.

But that's a scenario the Spurs will have to just accept as a "What If?"

"It's all on us," Wembanyama explained to a scrum of reporters after the game. "They didn't do anything different. We were just being ourselves and playing together in the second half. Nobody is going to do the effort but us."

The Spurs found their rhythm in the second half and put forth an overall respectable game. It was their start that sunk them in the end, which is a silver-lining in its own right, but the larger evidence at hand was more about Wembanyama himself.

Besides being sent to the G League, the rookie experienced a worst-case scenario in Atlanta. He was benched ... and he was okay with it. 

Obviously, the reason he was benched isn't something Wembanyama would ever describe as acceptable, but instead of griping about the decision and displaying his ego, he used the move as a learning experience.

And that was easily seen by Popovich.

Jan 10, 2024; Detroit, Michigan, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks to center Victor Wembanyama (1) in the second half against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich talks to Victor Wembanyama.

"He's receptive to any type of coaching," the coach said of his rookie." [He has] a really high IQ. He understands the game intuitively. You explain something to him and he understands it. 

"He's a remarkable 20-year-old."

Wembanyama — as the shining star of San Antonio — has been nothing short of remarkable since joining the NBA. 

He's shown off his ability to take over a game as well as simply play an efficient piece of it. If it's not on offense, it's on defense, though more recently, it's been both. 

He's been everything San Antonio has hoped for on the court, but he has off of it, too — and that's only made him more impressive to his teammates and his veteran coach. 

But among all possible plusses, there is one in particular that's stood out to Popovich about Wembanyama. He's a tone-setter.

"Aggressiveness," Popovich said when asked what's improved the most about the Spurs rookie. "Running to the bucket. Not being so concentrated on 3-point shots. Running the floor. ... He's really learned how to do that, and that sets the tone for everybody."

As Popovich continues to see growth in Wembanyama, he'll continue to call upon his number. And when needed, he'll call the number of another Spur, but that's not proven to be an issue for Wembanyama, nor will it it be.

He's simply ready to listen to the advice he's given. And he'll improve because of it.

"All of the advice I've gotten from the coaching staff, they've done a great job letting me know which mistakes I shouldn't [make] through film. ... We've gotten better. I've personally gotten better.

"I've adapted my game more to the league, and it shows."