Spurs are far from contenders, but Victor Wembanyama’s defense is on the rise

PHILADELPHIA – A few weeks ago, Joel Embiid said he wondered if Victor Wembanyama knew what he wanted.

“I think, first of all, he has to decide where he wants to play, if he wants to be a point guard, a big man or whatever.” “It’s not necessarily about whether he wants to be a point guard or a big man; It is what you want to become. Do you want to become KD or do you want to become me? Not KD, or a version of those guys: you want to combine everything. Right now, I feel like everything feels a little forced in the way it plays, which isn’t bad. Because the only way to improve is to play and learn. That’s the only way. You make a lot of mistakes and you learn.”

The learning of Wembanyama.

The San Antonio Spurs rookie center is processing how to destroy NBA offenses at a seemingly geometric pace. He’s become a defensive terror since the Spurs moved him from power forward to center in mid-December, giving the league a glimpse of what the future might hold, even in the five-out, zero-inning version of the game. most NBA offenses. Basketball without position, he meets the defender who inhales the space. And he meets a rookie who is already incredibly good at defending without fouling.

“I’m surprised? No,” Wembanyama said after blocking six shots in the Spurs’ win Saturday over the Washington Wizards.

“Especially as a young player, as a rookie and with a coach like ours, it all starts with defense,” he said. “Growing up in Europe, to earn your spot on (a) professional squad at 15 or 16, you have to play hard on defense. So it’s returning to that role as a new guy in the league; “Somehow it feels good to have that difficult role sometimes.”

And there’s a clear divide in Wembanyama’s impact: pre-Tre-Jones as a point guard and post-Tre-Jones as a point guard.

In San Antonio’s first 19 games, the Spurs ran a spell experiment, putting second-year forward Jeremy Sochan on the ball, playing Wembanyama at power forward and starting Zach Collins at center. There was a methodology for the decision; San Antonio wanted to use the first quarter of the season to let Wembanyama play and adjust to the NBA game. It’s not that the Spurs didn’t care about winning or losing, but… they really didn’t care about winning or losing. A broader picture had to be considered.

And the Spurs lost 18 in a row between Nov. 5 and Dec. 13.

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During that stretch, Wembanyama shot 42 percent from the field and 26 percent from 3-point range. His assist-to-turnover ratio was .872. The Spurs’ opponents were shooting 39 percent on 3-pointers; and 54 percent in 2s. And San Antonio gave up an average of 121.5 points per game, losing by an average of 13.1 points per game.

But shortly after, Gregg Popovich moved Collins to the bench and put Jones in the starting lineup at point guard. He moved Sochan back to power forward and put Wembanyama at center. The skies cleared.

Wembanyama is shooting 51 percent from the floor since mid-December, including 34 percent on 3-pointers. His assist-turnover ratio is 1.24.

But the Spurs’ defense also improved dramatically. They were tied for 28th in the league in defensive rating (120.5) in November. In December they ranked 21st in the league (118.6). After 11 games in January, they are in 15th place (115.6). Wembanyama is blocking 3.5 shots per game over that stretch. And his net rating is down to -5.9 from -13.1. They are only 5-15 in that stretch, and on Monday, setting the 76ers team record for points in a game. Of course, the Spurs are still one of the worst teams in the league. But they are also the youngest. And his overall defensive numbers are moving, quite significantly, in the right direction. It’s a start.

Wembanyama are ninth in the league in Dunks and triples‘ Estimated defensive plus-minus, at plus-3.0. That’s 14 spots ahead of Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren, Wembanyama’s main rival for the NBA Rookie of the Year award. He is ninth in Dunks and Threes defensive rebounding percentage (29.5). And Wembanyama leads the league in blocked shots per game (3.2).

“Some of the things he does, I’ve told everyone from the beginning, you can’t understand it,” Spurs guard Devin Vassell said Monday. “You’ve never seen anything like it. I keep saying that he makes the game easier for us and we have to make it easier for him. Defensively, we have to make that impact. If we funnel people to the basket, we know he’s going to go and erase it. So we have to make sure we respond to his man to make sure he doesn’t get the rebound, or whatever the case may be.”

There are garden types coming down the lane, trying to accommodate this 7-foot-4, unfolding mantis in mid-flight. There are blocks of reels highlighted against star players: at the beginning of the games, as Wembanyama dealt Ja Morant hereand in times of crisis, as applied here to Giannis Antetokounmpo. And there are the blocks that defy logic or almost anything you’ve seen defensively in the last 60 years. Yes I know He did this kind of thing in Metropolitans 92 last season.. But, with all due respect, there is a slight difference in talent between the LNB Pro A League and this one.

I want to say that is this?

Here’s another angle. He does not look at the ball he is about to block.:

Washington’s Marvin Bagley is 6-11. The average height of 18-year-old men in the United States, in 2014, was just above 5-8. Anyone who is 6-1 or taller, among men 20 years or older, is in the 95th percentile of all men in the US., depending on height. Bagley is a statistical anomaly.

What is Wemby then?

“Normally, I would be able to go up and over people, because I’m 6-11,” Bagley said. “But guys like that, you have to be a little more crafty or create something for yourself or your teammates.”

As the game is played today, you’d probably build someone with Wembanyama’s build to challenge shots: long and agile, with incredible ability, as Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse noted, to change direction. Nurse was talking about how Wembanyama cuts off the offense, but the same principle applies on the other end.

“It goes both ways,” Popovich said, echoing Nurse.

“He (Wembanyama) also likes to be on the perimeter, touch the ball a little bit and that kind of stuff. It’s a lot easier for him now than it would be (back then) when someone was guiding him with their hand, touching him and hitting him. Imagine Isiah (Thomas) or someone above him. So, it’s an easier environment for a perimeter guy. And defensively, he can roam more, like Joel does. We call them ‘roamers’, or I do. They don’t specifically protect one guy all the time. His job is in the paint, at the rim, changing shots, blocking shots, doing that type of stuff, so people have to change what they’re doing offensively. And then the other players, the complementary players, have to respond, to the point of realizing that this guy is going to go to the basket all the time.”

One of the most impressive features of Wembanyama is that it does not attract crowds.

Newbies, and especially great rookies, have a target on their back. The league insists that its officials consider everything and everyone to be equal. Maybe that’s true on Earth II. But newbies here usually don’t get the benefit of the doubt.

Wembanyama, however, has only been left out of one match so far. With rare exceptions (Monday’s game against the 76ers was one of them), he doesn’t commit many primary defense fouls, as happened when Embiid went to the basket and took the 20-year-old for a walk. He only averages 2.4 fouls per game.

Popovich had fun with me last weekend when I asked him how Wembanyama’s defense had evolved since the start of the season. (The assumption here is that he does not want to be seen as having “taught” defense to Wembanyama, who was tutored by one of the game’s great coaches, Vincent Collet, Wembanyama’s coach at Metropolitans 92 and the national team coach French that Wemby will be featured this summer at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris).

“I say, ‘Put your hands somewhere else and stop fouling,’” Popovich said. “That’s between the ears. You tell everyone how to do it, how to track and how to do it, what’s appropriate and what’s an inappropriate crowd. Some kids get it; some guys don’t. He is smart, he understands it and he has figured it out.”

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Sochan has to be a part of this too, if Spurs are to get defensive traction in the coming years. He was selected ninth in the first round of 2022. as he put it before the draft, with opponents. He doesn’t care if he gets submerged; he keeps talking. And playing.

“I think that bothers people,” Jones said.

Now in his normal position, Sochan needs to be able to handle the four that Wembanyama can ignore. That’s probably what the second half of the season will be about.

“I think it’s scary. Scary. “As we get older, more mature, our bodies become more mature, it will be scary,” Sochan said. “I think it will be difficult to score against us. And I think it’s going to allow us to win a lot of games, so I think it’s exciting. I feel like as the season goes on, Vic and I are getting closer, on and off the court. He has become great. …It’s just talking, just knowing…instincts too. Sometimes defense isn’t about the X’s and O’s; It’s about instincts. Simply reading, reading and reacting. Sometimes they beat me and he is the one who helps me. Or he is the other way around. Gold is stolen. Or rebounds, because he blocks everything.”

On Wednesday, Holmgren and the Thunder arrived in San Antonio. With a potential MVP on Holmgren’s side in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the most diverse and difficult offenses in the league, along with a team defense that is ahead of schedule, OKC showed how far the teams have to go. Spurs, even as Wembanyama added another skin to his collection.

Education continues and the learning curve always extends into the distance.

— AtléticoJosh Robbins contributed to this story.

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(Photo of Victor Wembanyama blocking a shot against the Trail Blazers: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)