How Victor Wembanyama shattered the rookie wall



SAN ANTONIO — Victor Wembanyama slumped in the chair in front of his locker following the San Antonio Spurs’ 117-101 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 3. Rather than meet with the media on the podium outside the locker room, he held his postgame availability right at his locker.

He had scored 19 points in the loss, but it came on 5-of-16 shooting. It was the Spurs’ seventh game in 11 nights — their last at home before their annual Rodeo road trip that would keep them away from San Antonio until Feb. 29 — and it looked like the lengthy NBA season was beginning to take its toll on Wembanyama.

Had he hit the dreaded rookie wall?

Even though Wembanyama was a professional in France, he played in only 34 regular-season games last season. The loss to the Cavaliers marked his 44th as an NBA player.

But with his hoodie pulled over his head, Wembanyama insisted something else was to blame for his sluggishness: allergies.

“Usually it leaves in one or two days,” Wembanyama said. “But I think my body is not used to this kind of effort so my immune system is also impacted.”

Wembanyama, who has put considerable time and effort into preparing his 7-foot-4 frame for the grind of professional basketball, insisted he was fine, allergies aside. When the Spurs returned to the court three days later in Miami to start the road trip, he was closer to form, shooting 7-of-13 from the floor in an 18-point, 13-rebound effort.

But the following night in Orlando, he had just 15 points and one rebound. Two nights later in Brooklyn, he was limited to four rebounds.

Questions about the rookie wall began to surface. There had been some chatter at summer league — where the Spurs shut him down after two games — that Wembanyama might play around 50 games the entire season, and he was already at 46.

Then, two nights later, Wembanyama put up one of the finest performances of his season: 27 points, 14 rebounds and a career-high 10 blocks in a 23-point win over the Toronto Raptors.

Just like that, any discussion of the rookie wall was silenced. Since that date he’s had one of his best stretches of the season, despite an ankle injury that cost him two games, and he is looking to finish the season on a high note — both individually and for the team.

“How important is it? It’s the whole point,” Wembanyama said following Tuesday’s loss to the Houston Rockets. “Coach said it again tonight in the locker room. It’s our job and this is what we’re here for, to win as soon as possible but also in the long run. So there is no other option.”


THE TRIPLE-DOUBLE against the Raptors came two games before the All-Star break and set the tone for what Wembanyama was capable of doing in the season’s second half.

In his first game after the break, Wembanyama narrowly missed becoming the second rookie in NBA history to record a 5×5 game, finishing with 19 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 5 steals and 5 blocks, leaving observers wondering when he might join that exclusive club.

The answer? One night later.

In a narrow loss to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, Wembanyama put up 27 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, 5 steals and 5 blocks, becoming the 15th player to record a 5×5 — and the first to average a 5×5 over the course of two games.

“He doesn’t have a ceiling,” James said after the game. “He can do whatever he wants to do with his career.”

In the 10 games following the mini-slump in which he recorded five rebounds over two games, Wembanyama averaged 23.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 5.2 blocks per game, while playing just 30.5 minutes a night. It took the Rockets putting All-Defensive team player Dillon Brooks on Wembanyama while also sending double-teams on nearly every touch to slow him down — and he still recorded his ninth consecutive double-double, his longest streak of the season.

“I wouldn’t even say Brooks was a problem tonight guarding him, really just the many bodies they were throwing at him on the help side,” Spurs point guard Tre Jones said. “When they’re bringing one, two, three extra defenders, it’s gonna be tough for him to get looks.”

For the season, Wembanyama is averaging 20.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and a league-leading 3.4 blocks in 28.8 minutes. He’s on pace to become just the second rookie ever to lead the league in blocks since the stat became official in 1973-74, joining Manute Bol. He’d be the first rookie ever to average 20-10-3-3 in that same time span and just the seventh player to accomplish that stat line regardless of years played.

“I think we’re so used to it,” Spurs forward Jeremy Sochan said of the absurd stat lines Wembanyama is producing as a rookie. “There’s still moments where we’re like, ‘Oh, what was that? We ain’t never seen that before.’ But I think overall, we’ve seen so much of what he’s done and what he can become and what he is going to become that it’s kind of normal for us now.

“We just know he can do way more than he’s doing right now, and what he’s doing right now is unbelievable.”

As the season has progressed, Wembanyama’s jumper has come along with it. Through his first 21 NBA games, Wembanyama was shooting a dismal 25.0% from 3, worst in the NBA among the 89 players who were attempting at least five per game. Since the start of February, however, Wembanyama is shooting 40.9% on 3s, which ranks 24th in the NBA in that span (minimum 5 attempts per game).

“He’s had a good opportunity to see the whole league now as far as players and the Rodeo road trip, All-Star break, hitting the wall here and there,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “and he’s come through it magnificently.”

Wembanyama’s block numbers have gone up as well as the Spurs’ defensive strategy has shifted. Prior to Jan. 1, the Spurs were allowing the seventh-most 3-point attempts per game, and Wembanyama was averaging 3.1 blocks per game.

Since Jan. 1, the Spurs are allowing the third-fewest 3-point attempts per game, chasing shooters off the line and forcing them to the middle, where Wembanyama is waiting. He’s averaging 3.7 blocks since then.

In a March 3 win over the Indiana Pacers, the Spurs held the league’s highest-scoring offense to 105 points. In their previous matchup, Indiana scored 152 points.

When asked what was different, Sochan pointed to the team knowing what their schemes were and where Wembanyama, who had six blocks, was at all times.

“It’s just understanding who we have,” Sochan said. “When Vic is in, he’s a guy who we want him to help, and everyone else just kind of stays back because it’s f—ing Vic, you know what I mean?”


WEMBANYAMA TOOK THE court 75 minutes before tip-off Monday night, as he has all season long.

However, while going through his normal routine, in between shots from the left block, he called for a pause in the action.

The rookie had just missed two games because of a right ankle sprain suffered on March 5 against the Rockets. He was favoring his right hip during that game and had been listed as questionable going into the night because of left shoulder soreness.

On the floor, Wembanyama wanted to get a quick set of pregame stretches in. First, he did hip rotations with both legs. Then he stretched his 8-foot wingspan up as high as he could go before bringing both hands down, almost putting both palms on the court. One more hip rotation and he was good to go.

Stretching is a part of the normal maintenance plan for the rookie as the bumps and bruises of a typical NBA season begin to pile up.

“No matter the circumstances, we have to do what we can and do it a lot because we are not going to have quality time all the time,” Wembanyama said of keeping his body ready. “For example, we might have to take a nap on the bus or eat snacks somewhere. Quality is always important, but we also have to do a lot of quantity to be game ready; ice, pressure, everything.”

Wembanyama has played in 58 of a possible 66 games so far. When he sat out the Spurs’ visits to the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors last week, it marked the first time all season he’d missed consecutive games.

And he doesn’t plan on missing many more.

Despite the looming Paris Olympics, where the French native will get to represent his home country, there are no plans to end his rookie season early — even though the Spurs have very little to play for, heading toward what could be just the fourth 60-loss season in franchise history.

“It’s no question for me,” Wembanyama said. “I mean, how much do I want [to finish the year]? As much as I’ve wanted it all season. I have this responsibility towards my team.”

Following a disappointing showing in the Skills Challenge at All-Star Weekend, Wembanyama laid out his goals for the remainder of the season.

“Not have any regrets and have a better record at the end of the season than what we’ve won so far and also last season,” Wembanyama said.

The Spurs were 11-44 at that point and are just 3-8 since then. To finish with a better record than last season’s 22-60 mark, the team has to go 9-8 the rest of the season. That’s a tall order for a team that has yet to string together three consecutive wins.

“I don’t pretend to know what we’re going to do,” Popovich said on Tuesday. “We have a lot of possibilities ahead of us, whether it’s [having] money in the bank or draft picks or being creative tradewise. All those things are on the table. But aren’t they for every team? I don’t know why we’re any different. We’re just younger.”



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