FOX Sports NBA Writer
LAS VEGAS — The sold-out crowd of nearly 19,000 at the Thomas & Mack Center eagerly awaited Victor Wembanyama’s debut with the San Antonio Spurs in Friday’s NBA Summer League against the Charlotte Hornets.
As he took the field, they screamed and finally got a glimpse of the 19-year-old, who’s been receiving more hype than anyone since LeBron James joined the league in 2003.
Tickets were sold out earlier this week. It was only the second time in NBA Summer League history that there had been a pre-game sell-off, following Zion Williamson’s debut with New Orleans in 2019. And it was only the fifth sell-off ever.
Six-time NBA champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in attendance, as was Jerry West (whose likeness is the NBA logo) and rapper J. Cole.
But after all the preparation, the show was disappointing.
Wembanyama’s nerves and rust were on display. The No. 1 overall pick in the draft had nine points in 2-for-13 shooting from the field, including a 1-for-6 result from long range in the Spurs’ 76-68 win, a game in which he was outplayed by No. 2 overall Brandon Miller (16 points, 11 rebounds).
Wembanyama had eight rebounds and five blocked shots. But he finished the game with the Spurs’ fourth-highest draft ratio, behind Julian Champagnie (10), Blake Wesley (nine) and Erik Stevenson (six), two of whom were undrafted.
It wasn’t the show he wanted.
“To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing on the court tonight,” said Wembanyama, who missed the Spurs’ Summer League games in Sacramento this week after last month’s draft.
Wembanyama identified his physical condition as a problem and said he needs to improve before the season starts.
“Even though it was only 40 minutes tonight, I was always tired and exhausted after being substituted,” he said. “So, I think there’s a lot of conditioning involved.”
Still, Wembanyama’s potential showed in his rockiness.
The game looked easy to him at times. He won the opening tip with ridiculous ease. He showed off some offbeat dribbles in the first quarter that wowed the crowd.
When Spurs manager Gregg Popovich sinks his claws into Wembanyama, we’ll see a more composed player. He needs to get back in basketball shape and feel confident in a Spurs jersey.
Eventually, the profound hype turns into white noise. However, Friday was feverish.
A few days before its debut, a bizarre incident went viral Britney Spears tried to congratulate Wembanyama on his success at the ARIA Hotel and Casino, a gesture that took a turn after touching him was foiled by Spurs security and filed a complaint with the police.
That drama was the first sign this week that he’s now under the scrutiny. And if he didn’t really get it then, Friday’s circus was certainly a feast for the eyes
Hours before the game, fans in Wembanyama jerseys streamed through the arena from all over.
Dallin Biorn, a 27-year-old Spurs fan, drove between 11 and 12 hours from Colorado to Las Vegas to watch Wembanyama play. He said he bought three tickets for $45 as soon as they went live and resold one of them Thursday for nearly five times that amount ($215) to fund the trip.
“I have a feeling that hopefully this is the next rebirth of our dynasty,” Biorn said of the Spurs, who won five championships in the last four seasons before missing the playoffs. “So I wanted to see him when he plays for the first time. That’s a big deal.”
Michael Escobedo, 45, flew to Las Vegas from Indiana to catch a glimpse of the Spurs star. If Wembanyama stays healthy, he believes he could become the next face of the league.
“I didn’t even know if he was going to play or not, but I still managed to do it.” [tickets]said Escobedo.
Wembanyama is 2.17 meters tall with a wingspan of 2.40 meters. He is considered an unprecedented talent. He can dribble and shoot with the skills of someone a foot shorter than him. He can also perform post-ups and rebounds, taking advantage of his incredibly unique physique.
An NBA source believes the mystique surrounding Wembanyama may even surpass that of James 20 years ago. After all, many people have only heard about Wembanyama’s talent or seen clips of him online, which has led to him becoming something of a myth.
“We knew about LeBron,” the source told FOX Sports. “We had seen LeBron play in high school. I saw LeBron play football. But Wemby was.” [in France]. It’s 2023 and obviously thanks to social media we have better access to everything. But we don’t know him. I bet if you went to this game tonight and polled the audience and asked them how many of you actually played a game, very few people would.
In a way, Friday could be considered Wembanyama’s first real NBA test, aside from two games against G League’s Ignite last October.
Wembanyama was visibly disappointed on Friday night. The normally lively interviewee was comparatively stunned and his body language changed.
But he’s expected to play Portland again on Sunday, giving him at least one more chance to wow the Las Vegas crowd before eventually shutting down to avoid injury. (Trail Blazers third pick Scoot Henderson suffered a shoulder injury on Friday and it’s uncertain if he will on Sunday.)
Back in France, Wembanyama made a name for himself. Last season, he averaged 21.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and three blocks per game for the Metropolitans 92. He was named MVP of the French LNB Pro A league, becoming the youngest player to receive this award.
While Wembanyama is undoubtedly a remarkable talent, it remains to be seen if he will become the player he is destined to be in the NBA.
“With the All-Star break, people will have a better sense of whether or not he’s all that,” the NBA source said. “I think it could be him. I just don’t know for how long. The ‘how long’ part scares me. He still has a lot of work to do on his body. He really does. Because of all the hype, folks.” We’ll be following him every night. So we’ll see if he can pull through.
For Wembanyama, Friday was just the beginning that he would surely like to forget.
He was dunked in by Kai Jones. He was out of breath. His performance was disappointing.
But Spurs believe that was an aberration for a generational talent who had only had a couple of training sessions with the side before being caught in a blindingly bright light.
“I think overall he did a good job,” said Spurs summer coach Matt Nielsen. “Obviously he gets a lot of attention. You can talk about the external things but the physicality and that was something they obviously wanted to go for as did you and overall I thought he did pretty well.”
All eyes will be on him this season, which could be the ultimate blessing or curse for a teenager carrying the burden of the world on his shoulders.
On draft night, Wembanyama cried because his lifelong dream had finally come true.
And despite it all, he took a moment on his debut to soak up the action.
“A special moment, really special to wear this jersey for the first time,” he said. “It’s really an honor.”
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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