SAN ANTONIO – Victor Wembanyama’s experience has largely put people to sleep.
Until 7:12 of the fourth quarter of the No. 1 overall pick’s NBA debut, Wembanyama had largely shown a penchant for fouling out and being ignored by his San Antonio Spurs teammates in the post, with a few moments of brilliance mixed in.
But when Wembanyama was forced off the Spurs bench one last time in the fourth quarter, with his team trailing by five points, he transformed into the planet basketball fans hope to become all the time.
The Dallas Mavericks won the game 126-119, thanks to a 33-point triple-double from Luka Dončić, but Wembanyama helped bring it closer by scoring nine of his 15 points in the final seven minutes of the game.
The 19-year-old, 7-foot-4 Frenchman who entered the league with huge hype, shot 6 of 9 from the field with five rebounds, two steals, one block, five turnovers and five fouls in 23 minutes played. almost let all the air of its beginnings escape.
“It could have been frustrating, but always keeping my head up is good for my teammates,” Wembanyama said afterwards. “I can’t show it (frustration) on the field. We learn, we learn every day.
Wembanyama, born in Le Chesnay, a western suburb of Paris and who was MVP and defensive player of the year in the French professional league last season, committed his fifth foul just 26 seconds into the fourth quarter when he raked Dončić on the arm.
It was fair to wonder if coach Gregg Popovich would give him another chance: He missed the final 8:37 of the third quarter because of his fourth foul, a charge. It looked like Wembanyama’s first Summer League game in Las Vegas, where he failed to live up to the huge expectations placed on him.
But Pop, a five-time NBA champion and the league’s winningest coach, didn’t just return to Wembanyama. He made sure Spurs were looking for him and the results were surprising.
After numerous rolls to the hoop in the first half in which his Spurs teammates simply wouldn’t throw him the ball, Wemby finished his next rotation to the rim by catching a lob and dropping it. He drained a 3-pointer with 6:04, then his catch and dunk in traffic with 4:56 left put the Spurs ahead, 113-112.
Wembanyama had another big moment – a feather jumper over Dallas’ Grant Williams to tie the match at 115.
“One of the hardest things for a player is getting into foul trouble, never getting into rhythm and getting in and out of the game, that kind of thing,” Popovich said. “So I thought his maturity showed even at a young age where he would come in with the last, I think seven minutes, and just play. We did things for him. He executed, otherwise a lot of guys would have been completely out of action at that point because they, like you said, were struggling and hadn’t found their rhythm. So I thought he had a wonderful outing.
Dončić finished the game with 10 of his 33 points in the final quarter. He added 14 rebounds and 10 assists, along with his 3-pointer with 30.1 seconds left, but Dallas led by seven points.
Kyrie Irving added 22 points for the Mavericks, including a 3-pointer with 1:51 to put Dallas away for good, and a layup off a steal from Dončić with 1:24 left for a 123-119 advantage.
Dereck Lively II, the Mavs’ rookie with 11 picks after Wembenyama’s draft, contributed 16 points and 10 rebounds to Dallas’ victory in his debut.
“Yeah, I think the world is watching,” Dallas coach Jason Kidd said. “And that’s exactly how it is; the game is global. And yes everyone is there to see Victor. But there is an adversary and it is us. And we think we have some really good guys in this locker room as well.
Devin Vassell, signed to a five-year extension worth $146 million before the start of the season, led the Spurs with 23 points.
Wembanyama’s debut started promisingly before taking a long nap.
Irving has made a career of running his 6-foot-2 frame into a lane of giants, spinning around them and making improbable shots at the rim.
But shooting a jumper over Wemby? This is an entirely new and difficult task for Irving and the rest of the NBA.
On his first defensive possession, Wembanyama closed in on Irving and knocked back his jumper near the foul line. These shots simply aren’t supposed to be blocked by a defender who isn’t guarding the shooter, but Wembanyama is so quick and long that he was able to reach Irving’s shot even though it was out of his hand.
The 18,947 Spurs fans in the building to witness the reintroduction of their proud franchise to the national stage after years of dormancy, were going delirious for the entire block.
And you can bet they loved it – loved it – when Wembanyama’s first 3-pointer went in at 8:24 in the first quarter.
“It seemed surreal for a while,” Wembanyama said. “I just feel very lucky to be here.”
In the span of four minutes, Wemby had already become the greatest 3-D player in NBA history.
“I want to give the best show to the fans, especially here in San Antonio and in France,” Wembanyama said. “But it’s still my job – I have responsibilities to my coach and my teammates. So really (the pressure) is not what matters.
More than 200 requests for media accreditation have been made to journalists in eight countries, a Spurs official said.
“Victor has been the subject of a lot of attention for a very long time,” Popovich said. “And, you know, that’s not going to change. Fortunately for us, he is a very mature, priority-oriented young man who knows what he wants. He’s already a pro. He’s a professional. I don’t need to teach him what it means to be a pro. His parents and other coaches have done it before.
(Photo: Daniel Dunn / USA Today)