FOX Sports NBA Analyst
In the NBA, San Antonio is referred to as “The Iron Dome” in deference to the Spurs’ ability to control everything the organization does. That’s why their two most recent business moves – signing coach Gregg Popovich for a whopping five-year contract extension worth $80 million and restricting No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama to two summer league games – caught everyone’s attention.
Because they spoke so loudly about Spurs’ intentions.
And what did Spurs want to convey to the world? That they will bring Wembanyama in this way (carefully) and that this is the one who will (pop) do it.
“He’s only 19 and needs development work for a transfer to the NBA,” said a Western Conference scout. “I would expect both stress management and competition management. Feed him a careful diet of challenges early in his career.”
“Since Spurs are going to put him under a $350 million contract in a couple of years, anyone in the NBA who has a problem with that is going to tell him to fuck off.”
The Iron Dome will also appear to be at full capacity when it comes to how carefully Spurs are developing the 7-foot-100-pound Frenchman, who is being hailed as the NBA’s next-generation talent. He would make his summer league debut at the California Classic in Sacramento, first against the Charlotte Hornets and No. 2 pick Brandon Miller on July 3 and then against the Lakers on July 5.
That plan was scrapped without explanation, and the debut was rescheduled to San Antonio’s Las Vegas Summer League stay, which also opened against the Hornets and Miller. Wembanyama played against both the Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers before the Spurs decided the world had seen enough of him for now and, while no injuries were reported, announced his stint in Las Vegas was over.
The five-year extension for Popovich – already the league’s oldest head coach at 74 – was interpreted as a way for the Spurs organization to let everyone know they were okay with Wembanyama, however he sees fit to bring Wembanyama with them .
“They wanted everyone to know that we still have the best coach in the league,” said the Western Conference assistant GM. “He was full of energy again when he won gold at the Tokyo Olympics (as head coach of the US national team). And last year he loved coaching the young Spurs players. He loves the boy from Baylor (Jeremy Sochan). He’s as energetic as I am.” “I’ve never seen him. The Victor thing is the icing on the cake.”
This is a top notch topping.
While some fans and media found his two Summer League performances unimpressive, local scouts and executives were convinced the only side that could keep him in check are Spurs.
“It wasn’t a single thing he did, it was his overall skills that impressed me,” said the Western Conference vice general manager. “The only fear is that there is so much hype surrounding him – how can he live up to that? LeBron (James) didn’t get that much hype when he performed. But Victor seems cut out for it.”
Scouts, GMs and other executives expect the Spurs to buck this hype. No one sees Wembanyama playing anywhere near the 33 minutes a night that last year’s No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year forward Paolo Banchero put on for the Orlando Magic. And Wembanyama appears to agree with that approach, having also independently announced that he will not play for the France national team in FIBA World Cup competition later this summer to focus on preparing for his debut NBA season .
“Spurs are probably going to be doing a lot of work on his body and managing his minutes, not using him in back-to-back games, etc., which is smart,” an Eastern Conference assistant GM said. “You will do it right.”
The consensus is that Wembanyama could still win the Rookie of the Year award with limited minutes, but that Spurs will not prioritize winning the award.
“Wemby has by far the best odds (at ROY),” said a Western Conference assistant coach. “He fills out the stat sheet without even trying.”
But he’s also expected to be a far bigger target for opponents than either the Hornets’ Miller or No. 3 pick Scoot Henderson.
“They won’t face the same pressure,” the Western Conference assistant coach said. “Any NBA player will say, ‘I’m going to lock up Victor.’ No one will want to embarrass themselves for him.
It speaks to the high expectations placed on Wembanyama that the Eastern Assistant GM said offensive expectations should be tempered by pairing him with the Lakers’ Anthony Davis (a career scorer of 24 points per game) rather than Kevin at this point of the Phoenix Suns compares Durant, a four-time scorer.
“Wemby is exactly where I expected him to be,” he said. “His offensive play is closer to Anthony Davis than Kevin Durant right now and I don’t know if people who have only watched highlights knew that. But his defensive ability is already pretty high and that’s where he’ll put most of his value in his first year.”
No one had a clear idea of how Spurs would play him, except they doubted it would play in the middle where he would be more likely to face off against stronger opponents looking to test his physical stamina.
“I see him as a small or power forward playing on the touchline,” said the Western Conference assistant GM. “The game has become pretty positionless anyway. What position does Kevin Durant play? They play specific sets and make sure he touches the ball on the ground every time. There is no doubt that he has the skills to do so.” will allow them to play through him. He’ll be fun to watch for sure, that’s for sure.”
But expect that fun to come in carefully controlled doses. The rival Western Conference scout thinks that’s smart, pointing to the injury-plagued careers of 2019 draft No. 1 pick Zion Williamson and 2019 draft No. 2 pick Ja Morant. Both feature an explosive playstyle that makes it difficult for them to stay sane.
“If (Wembanyama) is a 15-20 generation player, don’t break him in first grade or second grade,” he said. “And they can give Zion and Ja as examples of caution.”
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books: Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with Parkinson’s disease at a young age, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds”. He also has a daily podcast called On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
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