Why Tim Duncan's Leadership Style Could Be Blueprint For Spurs' Victor Wembanyama

Out with the old and in with the new seems to be the saying nowadays, but as far as San Antonio Spurs star Victor Wembanyama is concerned, achieving long-term success might take following the exact opposite path.
Dec 18, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Former San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan smiles during a ceremony to retire his No. 21 jersey after an NBA basketball game between the Spurs and the New Orleans Pelicans at AT&T Center.
Dec 18, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Former San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan smiles during a ceremony to retire his No. 21 jersey after an NBA basketball game between the Spurs and the New Orleans Pelicans at AT&T Center. / Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
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If the San Antonio Spurs had miraculously won The NBA Finals in Victor Wembanyama's rookie season, he wouldn't have been able to partake in the champagne celebration.

Not that he would've wanted to, anyway.

"I feel like I'm immune to the ... distractions like partying, alcohol, drugs," the rookie said at the end of last season. "Like, why would I ever do that?

Sure, the circumstances would be much different in the instance that he was a world champion, but the sentiment remains the same: he's focused on being a leader. Wembanyama might just be 20 years old and on the youngest team in the NBA, but everything that he's proven to be thus far has him as the cornerstone for the Spurs. As such, he'll need to be a leader.

READ MORE: Why the NBA 'World Champs' Debate Has Evolved Since 2010

While he's already begun displaying those qualities — appearing in front of the media after games regardless of win or lose and keeping a strict routine during the regular season — he has more work to do. Luckily, he can look to some of his franchise's past greats.

Some of his mentors.

"To the O.G.s," Wembanyama said, addressing some of the Spurs' best players who came before he was in the league in a thank-you video to San Antonio. "Those who paved the way starting way before I was born. And who built a unique culture full of role models and greatness. ... Spurs culture was created by you."

San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) against the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center.
Nov 2, 2023; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) against the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

He had it right. From Day 1, it was clear that not only did Wembanyama have the support of the current Spurs staff and organization, but that of some of its best players. Manu Ginobili. Tony Parker. David Robinson. Tim Duncan.

Duncan, especially was a player for the 7-foot-4 rookie to learn from. He was the most recent big man to find success in San Antonio and someone who had ample interest in sticking around after his playing days were over. That leadership style made him stand out from other past Spurs greats.

But as it turns out, he'd been that kind of a leader for quite awhile. Just ask Myck Kabongo.

"Tim Duncan was my vet when I was a rookie," the former Spur said in an interview with Brandon "Scoop B" Robinson. "His leadership and the way that he goes about his business, (it's) mot much of the talking. It’s showing. ... I was like, 'Alright. Cool. I know what it is to be a professional.'"

READ MORE: Spurs-Ex Myck Kabongo Recounts Humorous Gregg Popovich Story

The Big Fundamental, as he was called, perfected exactly the parts of the game that he needed to in order to be successful. He was a master of his craft — the backboard bank shot — and used his size exactly how he should have. But on top of his talent, he made himself a role model off the court.

"Just talking about professionalism, if I didn’t have (Duncan) my rookie year, I don’t know where I would have been as a player," Kabongo said. "(I learned everything) from being on time, preparing with your body, being a great teammate to communicating."

"It helped me to have a ten-year career all around the world," the former Spur added. "I think that was a blessing."

Myck Kabongo is interviewed during the NBA Draft combine at Harrison Street Athletics Facility.
May 16, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Myck Kabongo is interviewed during the NBA Draft combine at Harrison Street Athletics Facility. / Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Wembanyama likely has a long career in the NBA ahead of him. He'll learn, too, what being a professional looks like, but if he ever were to want to sharpen those leadership skills, perhaps Duncan is the best choice of role model. Maybe he should model his leadership style after him.

What would that look like?

Kabongo emphasized that exactly. Duncan was always a show, don't tell kind of player. The few stories that exist of the power forward talking trash come from notoriously outspoken players like Kevin Garnett, who insist that Duncan would mutter "a few words" inbetween plays.

Wembanyama has been the center of similar stories, though many of them involve him being too tall to be heard when he does decide to talk trash.

"He’s so high in the air," Memphis Grizzlies rookie G.G. Jackson said of Wembanyama following his team's early-April loss to the Spurs. "So, when he talks trash, it sounds like he’s whispering."

There's already one way that Wembanyama draws similarity to Duncan. Sure, the rookie isn't afriad to celebrate, throw the ball in the air after games or into the crowd, but on the court, he's tuned into his game and his team.

READ MORE: Behind Spurs' Historic Losing Streak, Home Triumph & Quest For A Win

Advancing on the idea of showing over telling, Wembanyama was also a clear locker-room leader throughout the season. Despite San Antonio putting together a historic 18-game losing streak, he made sure to speak on behalf of his team. Win or lose, Wembanyama was the voice of reason, taking time to answer any and all questions the media posed him.

Even when it meant standing up for his teammates.


On a night when the San Antonio Spurs were to host the Charlotte Hornets at home, Frost Bank Center was packed with fans back in the building after their team had taken a pit stop in Detroit.

The game prior, San Antonio took down the Eastern Conference's bottom-dwelling squad — as it hoped it would — and returned home to face the struggling Hornets. In other words, there was reason to believe that, while the Spurs weren't so hot themselves, winning two games in a row against Detroit and Charlotte was feasible.

Those fans left that night chanting "Two game win streak."

Wembanyama finished the game against Charlotte with 26 points and 11 rebounds, including a stretch in the third quarter where he completely took over the game with multiple dunks and step-back makes. It gave the entire arena a reason to hit their feet. And it couldn't have been possible without his teammates passing him the ball.

That had been the narrative from the beginning of the season. Fans who expected the Spurs to become one of the NBA's best teams in a matter of games with Wembanyama were heavily disappointed to find out that becoming a contender takes time. As such, they figured that the only palpable explanation was that his teammates didn't want him to succeed.

READ MORE: 3 Takeaways From the San Antonio Spurs' Home Back-to-Back

That must be it.

They couldn't have been more wrong — though, for the record, not many people with actual merit ever pushed or suggested that narrative — and after Wembanyama and company secured two straight victories, the rookie made sure to let them know that himself.

“Of course I’ve heard of it, but it’s never been even close to reality," Wembanyama said when asked directly about the false narrative. "It’s nothing to worry about. I mean, I’m not a conventional player. I needed time to figure out how I want to play and how I need to play for the team. And I guess everyone needed time to figure out also how to play with me.” 

San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) shoots over Charlotte Hornets forwards JT Thor (21) and forward Miles Bridges.
Jan 12, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) shoots over Charlotte Hornets forwards JT Thor (21) and forward Miles Bridges (0) in the second half at Frost Bank Center. / Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

That much was true, too. Wembanyama needed to get adjusted to the system as much as the system had to adjust to him. Looping back in Duncan, and there lies a disparity.

Duncan wasn't an out-of-this-world entity the basketball world had never seen before. He was a player from the US Virgin Islands with past swimming aspirations and a unique story, yes, but on the court, he was fundamental. He became the system — and the face — for the Spurs.

That's Wembanyama's next task.

As it stands, the Spurs are still in a spot of much-needed improvement. They have work to do to become more cohesive, and whether that's achieved by adding young players from the NBA Draft or trading for a big name in the offseason, they're working toward it.

Wembanyama has already proved himself as a top talent in the NBA. His seven All-NBA votes are proof of that, and his continuous growth on the court are the fruits of his labor. He's working to get there, and if the Spurs do eventually becoming a consistent contender — a superhero, even — the way they intend to be, it'll be because of the player he becomes.

READ MORE: How Victor Wembanyama Became the Hero of San Antonio's 'Superpower'

What exactly that looks like has yet to be seen. Wembanyama isn't set to become the next "Big Fundamental," as his game is fluid enough to demand eyes and attention, but he can certainly lead by example in the locker room. Show up to press conferences, win or lose.

Work silently, but play outwardly.

Being a leader can take many different forms. Wembanyama is certain to find his own as he continues to carve out his place in the NBA, and the Spurs can rally behind him, but as the team culture has long proven, there might be no better way to do so than by looking at past examples.

Wembanyama is no Duncan. But that doesn't he can't take some pages from his book.


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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.