Numbers, History & Semantics: Victor Wembanyama's Curious Case For DPOY

Going by advanced statistics and history, San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama is not the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, but he does have a case through semantics — is that enough?
Mar 27, 2024; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) warms up
Mar 27, 2024; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) warms up / Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Being a big man in the modern-day NBA is a polarizing task.

The job description of olden centers — that is, to live in the paint and play strong defense — has vastly shifted. Yes, the height aspect remains as a big factor in rim-protection, but no longer are bigs required to stay in the paint. Now, they shoot 3-pointers and facilitate the offense.

Or, in Victor Wembanyama's case, they Shammgod.

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Spurs point guard Tre Jones is hunched over with his eyes up, his hands dribbling and his mind thinking.

It's a normal possession for San Antonio — right down to the fact that it was playing from behind — and as far as Jones was concerned, Wembanyama was looking to get open.

With that in mind, he began the play.

Wembanyama approached Jones from the left side, setting a screen that allowed him to drive just inside the 3-point line. After he broke the plane slightly, he kicked the ball back out to Wembanyama.

Then, the rookie did the rest of the work.

Victor received the pass, and thought for a fraction of a second. Once he decided where he was going and how was going to get there, he went.

It took him three steps.

"This whole season has been an education in the sense that he’s learning the league,” Popovich said, referring to Wembanyama's ability to pick up moves and reach a high level of fluidity.

Wembanyama dribbled once beyond the arc, then took a large step with his left foot — bringing the ball with him before quickly shifting it to the right side of his body — then his right, and with one fell swoop, his shot hit the glass and found the bottom of the net.

It was a Shammgod. But as impressive as it was, it was just one highlight amidst a game that the Spurs ended up winning at home over Minnesota.

Jan 27, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Victor Wembanyama (1) reacts after a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Jan 27, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Victor Wembanyama (1) reacts after a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. / Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

That's just how Wembanyama operated all season long.

Since joining the San Antonio Spurs over the summer, the rookie has been nothing short of incredible on the court. He's broken viewership records on social media and made the Spurs one of the league's spectacles despite their lowly record.

Standing 7-foot-4, the rookie averaged 21.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3,9 assists and nearly five stocks while dealing with a minutes restriction for the better part of the late-winter months. That's impressive enough on its own, but account for the fact that he's freshly 20 years old, and you have a generational prospect.

While that might not be too surprising for the myriad NBA fans who were forewarned of Wembanyama's ceiling, it was least surprising for the forward himself, who claimed to only be "15 percent" of the way to the top of what will be his "prime."

“It’s impossible to be surprised by your own performance, good or bad,” Wembanyama said of his first-season performance. “Because, ultimately, everything is a result of your own work and your mentality. I always want more, so I’m not surprised.”

Add well-spokenness to Wembanyama's long list of talents.

He knows how he can improve — and how he intends to go about doing it — but while his future remains unpredictable, properly addressing the heights that he reached as a rookie is slightly easier.

Wembanyama is a shoo-in for winning the Rookie of the Year award. He one-upped Oklahoma City's Chet Holmgren in just about every stat except personal record, which would be much kinder to Holmgren as the Thunder possess the No. 1 overall seed in the West while the Spurs sit at No. 14.

So, consider Wembanyama the Rookie of the Year. He's earned it. And, as he put it, he deserved it.

"I'm a competitor, so I want to go at everyone," Wembanyama said back in December. "I want to be the 'bad guy' on the court.

"At the end of the day, I'm going to get what I deserve."

Apr 5, 2024; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas (17) shoots over San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama (1).
Apr 5, 2024; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas (17) shoots over San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama (1). / Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

But what about the second award he's been nominated for? What about being the Defensive Player of the Year?

Well, there's certainly some more things to think about. That award isn't quite a shoo-in, but it's also not sitting in Wembanyama's favor.

The Spurs rookie has a curious case amidst a battle of numbers vs. semantics. Let's look at it.

Numbers & History: How Has This Gone in the Past?

Never before has a first-year NBA player taken home the title of the league's best defender since the award's inception after the 1982–83 season.

Wembanyama, being just 20 years old, is already at a disadvantage. It's not solely because of his age — the award should be given to the best defender regardless — but it's what tends to come with youth.

To make it simple, the Spurs were not good during Wembanyama's first season.

While that can be excused for a more individual award like Rookie of the Year, team standing plays a much bigger role in a bigger title such as Defensive Player of the Year.

And why?

As the saying goes, defense wins championships. So, shouldn't the team with the league's best defender at least be contending?

Taking a look at the last 10 years would prove that answer to be an astounding yes. Here's the data:

NBA Defensive Player of the Year results from the past 10 seasons.
NBA Defensive Player of the Year results from the past 10 seasons. / Data compiled by Matt Guzman

Every single winner of the past ten seasons helped their team to the playoffs. Two made it to the NBA Finals and, as it stands, Draymond Green is the only Defensive Player of the Year winner to also win a championship.

As far as age goes, no player won the award before their fourth season — which for the record, was Kawhi Leonard during his time with the Spurs — let alone their first one.

The oldest winner is a tie between Minnesota's Rudy Gobert and Boston's Marcus Smart, who both earned the honor in their eighth season. And if Gobert is to win again, he'd become the oldest once more.

So, with just one season under his belt and a team nowhere near the playoff picture, history stands against Wembanyama. He'd be the first rookie to win it, but also the first player on a team in the bottom half of their conference to do it.

That being said, the Frenchman isn't new to making history, but what do the numbers say?

Three categories should be taken into consideration here: On court stocks (steals + blocks), total win shares and overall defensive rating.

Mar 15, 2024; Austin, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Victor Wembanyama (1) blocks a shot. The rookie tallied an overall defensive rating of 111.2 this season.
Mar 15, 2024; Austin, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Victor Wembanyama (1) blocks a shot. The rookie tallied an overall defensive rating of 111.2 this season. / Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Win shares numerically express how important each player was to their team's overall success. A player with a high win share was integral to their team's ability to win, while a player with good stats but a lower win share total was strong, but not as important to the team as far as record went.

More often than not, the runner-up of each of the winners listed above was either outmatched in two categories, or all three. A year like 2017, for instance, where Joel Embiid was Gobert's runner-up, the 76ers' big man tallied less stocks per game, had less win shares and a worse overall defensive rating.

He was a clear No. 2.

Other years, the race was closer. In 2016, the Golden State Warriors boasted one of the most elite teams assembled with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Green.

Its defense relied heavily on Green and, despite Rudy Gobert — that year's runner-up — having the same rating and more win shares, he still fell short. Why?

Two factors could have decided the vote. One of them was team standing. That season, Gobert's Jazz finished 5th overall in the Western Conference, while the Warriors topped all 15 teams en route to an eventual NBA title.

And if the standings didn't do the trick, Golden State lost Durant for 20 games to an MCL sprain, and in his absense, the Warriors still managed to post the best team defensive rating — led by Green.

So, it wasn't all numbers.

Green's situation was likely the reason that, as it should be mentioned, human voters decided to name him the league's best defender. Numbers do matter, yes, but Green won over the voters with his ability to adapt.

If situation does play a role, then where does that place Wembanyama?

Let's look at the third factor.

Semantics: The Rookie's Case

Victor Wembanyama set the NBA's all-time view record on social media with his sky-walking dunk against the Boston Celtics.

The post, on Instagram, generated over 88 million views in just a few days, and further reinforced the way the rookie was viewed not only by fans, but by players, too.

"I'm not an idiot," Boston Celtics guard and former Spur Derrick White said with a smile. He was referring to Wembanyama's viral play in which he was the lone defender — and how he chose to duck out of the way. "I was hoping he'd take another dribble, but he just picked it up and I never saw it again. ... That was crazy.

"The things he can do on the court is pretty special."

Special. It's a word that's been synonymous with Wembanyama since he came into the league, and while nobody is likely to argue against that, there is the case to be made against him for Defensive Player of the Year.

A side-by-side comparison between the Spurs rookie and Gobert shows pretty clearly what it showed for many of the winners and runners-up in the past 10 years.

Wembanyama has more stocks, but less win shares and a worse defensive rating. It isn't much worse, but it's worse.

So, with the numbers reading as they do — that is, essentially putting a nail in Wembanyama's Defensive Player of the Year coffin — and history not being on his side, why is it that there's such a big debate over whether or not he could take home the hardware?

That's the enamor that Wembanyama has brought to the NBA. He's special. Unique. Unlike anything we have ever seen before.

Jan 26, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Victor Wembanyama (1) blocks a shot against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Jan 26, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Victor Wembanyama (1) blocks a shot against the Portland Trail Blazers. / Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Wembanyama is the only player in history to record over 1,500 points, 250 blocks and 100 3-pointers made. He's a perfect product of today's NBA, while simultaneously serving as a glimpse into the future of its big men.

If Wembanyama were to win the Defensive Player of the Year, he'd be defying history and advanced statistics. His "wow factor" would be the determinant.

Dare I say it: Rudy Gobert would be snubbed.

But that's exactly where the argument stems from. Gobert is the best defender on one of the NBA's best defenses, and because of his strong play, the Timberwolves are in a strong position in the playoffs.

Victor Wembanyama is the best defender on a West-bottomed Spurs team and while he's wreaked havoc on defense — both behind the arc and at the rim — he wasn't able to carry his young team to the postseason. Not yet.

Voters this year are faced with a dilemma: Do they side with numbers and history, or do they add on to what could quite possibly be the story of the NBA's best-ever rookie?

It's a curious case, and one that will certainly take some time to sort through. Both Gobert and Wembanyama are deserving of the title for different reasons, and however the cards fall, there will be a case to be made for the other candidate.

So, off to the races it goes. Pulling Wembanyama's logic one more time, if he "deserves" it, perhaps he'll win it.

If not? He's got plenty more years to do so.

And he'll tell you that, too.

“I know that Rudy [Gobert] has a very good chance of winning it this year, and it would be deserved,” Wembanyama said. "So, let him win it now because after that, it’s no longer his turn.”


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Matt Guzman

MATT GUZMAN

Matt Guzman is a sports journalist and storyteller from Austin, Texas. He serves as a credentialed reporter and site manager for San Antonio Spurs On SI and a staff writer for multiple collegiate sites in the same network. In the world of professional sports, he is a firm believer that athletes are people, too, and intends to tell stories of players and teams’ true, behind-the-scenes character that otherwise would not be seen through strong narrative writing, hooking ledes and passionate words.