PHOENIX — There’s a strange feeling when you’re in the building for that, “Holy s—!” moment, the rare, special game where a young prodigy cemented his place as one of the game’s next big stars.
While it didn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a Rocket, to determine that Victor Wembanyama was likely on that trajectory, Thursday was that day for him. His 38-point outburst was the exclamation-point performance, the game that told everyone the league’s Next Big Thing had officially arrived.
In case you missed it, the San Antonio Spurs’ 7-foot-4 French phenom took over in crunchtime in his fifth NBA game, scoring 10 points in a pivotal 12-0 run to break open a tied game late in the period of the fourth quarter, as San Antonio swept the two-game series in Phoenix with a 132-121 win over the Suns on Thursday.
It was a rather fortuitous passing of the torch, at least in my view. I had the good fortune to be in such a game nearly two decades ago when a 19-year-old Kevin Durant made a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer for Seattle (*sobs for a while*) to beat Atlanta on Nov. 16, 2007. As luck would have it, I was also in the building when the game’s next logical successor to Durant’s mantle offered his own rookie breakout against the now-grizzled Durant and his current team.
Wembanyama wasn’t exactly chopped liver in his first four games as a professional, but this was something entirely different, a performance that served notice to everyone that, A) his ceiling may be even higher than we think, and B) his learning curve to get to that point may be faster and steeper than we expect. Even in the short time since we’ve seen him in summer league, he looks like he’s adding skill, balance and speed to a package that’s almost unprecedented in league history. His rate of skill acquisition over the last 18 months is simply amazing. What this could portend for the future is truly terrifying.
What makes Wembanyama special is that he is a 7-4 player with the ability of a guard to handle the ball and shoot. That last skill was on display in crunchtime on Thursday, salvaging the Spurs’ win after they gave up a 27-point lead.
In particular, he seemed to seize the moment when he got the ball with a little more than two minutes left and the Spurs up by seven, quickly dribbling to his left before pulling up for a 3-pointer over Drew Eubanks. As it bounced into the net, the residents of the Footprint Center began to head for the exits, and Wembanyama’s Spurs stunned the Suns for the second time in three nights. (All in all, it’s been a rough week for Arizona sports fans.)
What struck me about that play in particular (see clip below) was the same thing I saw when I was watching Wembanyama’s pregame shooting drills with some scouts: how much balance Wembanyama had with his jump shot. Before, any sideways dribbling action would often result in him leaning like the Tower of Pisa as he launched his shot, as the momentum of his big strides carried his frame beyond the braking capacity of his ankles. He can still do some of it, but that lateral angle isn’t exactly conducive to a repeatable, high-percentage delivery.
Just look at him now. Let this giant beat a defender with a jab-step move and a zippy dribble to his left; rather surprisingly he took a hard sideways dribble against Eubanks and still planted his left foot with enough force to stay square to the hoop and jump straight up and down with his soft going out Splash. How do you defend it?
Wembanyama said after the game that he was just playing with the flow — the shot was the result of a cross screen that sent Durant off him and let him attack Eubanks.
“At this point it’s more instinct,” he said. “In the fourth quarter, you just have to make big plays.”
It was his fourth quarter on short notice — he’d follow it up with a quick catch-and-shoot after a similar screen left him against Eubanks again to shut down the run — but this dominant performance began at the opening of possession. On Phoenix’s first drive (after Jusuf Nurkić blatantly stole the tip to hand Wembanyama his first jump ball loss of the season), he had a little “bonjour” for Devin Booker to set up a quick transition 3 for Spurs; San Antonio flew up and down the court throughout the half en route to 15 fast-break points, most of them by the speedy Devin Vassell.
However, speed is another area where Wembanyama himself seems to have made significant progress over the past year. Instead of moseying up and down the court, he zips from end to end with big strides and gets fast-break points in the process.
Watch here as he gets two easy transition baskets for himself. At first, he semi-contested a corner 3 and was still ahead of the pack for the fast-break dunk. In the second, he stops Durant’s drive to the rim by easily flipping his hips while closing to stay in defensive position (most players his size are toast in that situation) then beats the rest Phoenix big men on the floor about a mile for a massive slam in the middle of the lane:
Of course, that’s just an inventory of a few plays that I think best symbolize some of the physical improvements Wembanyama has made since his time in France. (I saw him twice in person last year and also revealed some of his video games for the NBA app.)
But what really makes Wembanyama must watch TV, night after night, are the moments we haven’t seen before, the little wonders that leave you laughing and rewinding in gentle wonder like this . big and long it can also be coordinated.
There are Inspector Gadget’s left-handed dunksthe plays where he made other giants look Lilliputian by reaching for rebounds over his head (including one where he made the 6-10 Durant look like Muggsy Bogues, fruitlessly reaching for ball as Wemby pulls it out), the crossover dribbles and pulls- to 3s that he unhesitatingly pulls off as if every 7-4 player has this in his bag.
“He’s an incredible talent. Everybody knows that,” Booker said. “Just trying to figure out what he is, because we’ve never seen him.”
And his impact on Spurs cannot be understated. Their legendary 74-year-old coach, Gregg Popovich, appeared fully reinvigorated, barking coaching points at players from the sideline and during timeouts and making one sweet look after another. pa for Wembanyama at every dead ball.
“He’s a multifaceted player,” Popovich said, “and he’ll pass it to the open guy. But he’s got confidence in himself, and he’s made some incredible plays. That’s a pretty good combination, if ever there was one.” you have such skill and you are still ready to pass.”
His Spurs teammates are still learning just how big a weapon he has, seemingly just beginning to understand that any ball thrown in the general direction of the rim and about 10 feet high is likely to result in an assist . This season, he’s redirected some scary lob pass attempts at the basket, including at least two Thursday.
“He is a multifaceted player.”
Pop in Wemby after his career-high 38 PTS 🗣️ pic.twitter.com/Gz1xOEzqUO
— NBA (@NBA) November 3, 2023
Meanwhile, the rest of the Spurs project is progressing with fits and starts. They looked poised for prime time tonight but it wasn’t even four days ago in a miserable 42-point loss to the LA Clippers when the offense completely stalled. The team is giving 20-year-old non-shooter Jeremy Sochan on-the-job training at point guard, a position he has never played before, and lining up a 6-11 center — either Zach Collins or Charles Bassey — next to Wembanyama to protect him physically.
Both things, however, tighten the space and sometimes leave Wembanyama without a runway to finish moves. (For example, one play on Thursday saw him blast a defender with a blistering left-right crossover, only for Bassey’s defender to be waiting for him in the lane and a drop-off pass deflected into the mitts of Bassey.)
It could get worse before it gets better, as Vassell hurt his groin in Thursday’s game and is likely to miss time, according to Popovich. He was Spurs’ leading scorer entering the game and tormented Phoenix in the first half and was also the main source of spacing gravity in the starting group.
However, the Wemby phenomenon is likely to be the league’s nightly attraction for the foreseeable future. Already, he may be good enough to guarantee the Spurs another high lottery pick for their rebuild; there’s no whining for them, with every key player 26 or younger and the Spurs looking at cap space in the summer of 2025, but it’s still amazing that he’s rethinking the team’s timeline five games into the season.
That’s how special Wembanyama was on Thursday. Suns fans may have been disappointed to leave the building, but everyone in the building will be talking about his night for a long time.
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(Victor Wembanyama photo: Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images)