Spurs are far from contending, but Victor Wembanyama’s defense is on a rapid ascent

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 figure out where he wants to play, whether he wants to be a guard or a big or whatever,” the 76ers big man said. “It’s not necessarily whether he wants to be a guard or a big; it’s what he wants to become. Do you want to become KD, or do you want to become me? Not KD, or like a version of those guys — you want to combine everything. Right now, I just feel like everything kind of feels a little forced in the way that he’s playing, which is not bad. Because the only way to get better is to play through it and learn. That’s the only way. You make a lot of mistakes, and you learn.”

Wembanyama’s learning.

The San Antonio Spurs’ rookie center is processing how to wreck NBA offenses at a seemingly geometric rate. He’s become a defensive terror since the Spurs moved him from power forward to center midway through December, providing the league with a glimpse of what the future might hold, even in the five-out, zero-in version of most NBA offenses. Positionless Basketball, meet Space-Inhaling Defender. And meet a rookie who is, already, incredibly good at defending without fouling.

“Am I 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 starts on defense,” he said. “Growing up in Europe, to gain your spot in (a) professional roster at 15 or 16, you’ve got to play your ass off on defense. So it’s going back to that role as a new guy in the league — it feels good in some way to have that tough role sometimes.”

And there’s a clear cleave in Wembanyama’s impact: pre-Tre-Jones-at-point-guard, and post-Tre-Jones-at-point-guard.

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

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 floor and 26 percent from 3. His assist-turnover ratio was .872. Spurs opponents were shooting 39 percent on 3-pointers; and 54 percent on 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, soon afterward, Gregg Popovich moved Collins to the bench and put Jones in the starting lineup at the point. He moved Sochan back to power forward and put Wembanyama in at center. The skies cleared.

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

But the Spurs’ defense also has picked up, dramatically. They were tied for 28th in the league in defensive rating (120.5) in November. They were 21st in the league (118.6) in December. Through 11 games in January, they’re 15th (115.6). Wembanyama is blocking 3.5 shots per game in that stretch. And their net rating is down to minus-5.9 from minus-13.1. They’re just 5-15 in that stretch, and Embiid scored 70 points against Wembanyama and the Spurs 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’re also the youngest. And their defensive numbers overall are moving, pretty significantly, in the right direction. It’s a start.

Wembanyama is ninth in the league in Dunks and Threes’ Estimated Defensive Plus-Minus, at plus-3.0. That’s 14 spots ahead of Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren, Wembanyama’s chief rival for NBA Rookie of the Year. He is ninth in Dunks and Threes’ defensive rebound percentage (29.5). And Wembanyama leads the league in blocked shots per game (3.2).

“Some of the stuff he does, I’ve told y’all from the beginning, you can’t wrap your head around it,” Spurs guard Devin Vassell said Monday. “You’ve never seen nothing like it. I keep saying, he makes the game easier for us, and we’ve got to make it easier for him. Defensively, we’ve got to make that impact. If we’re funneling people to the basket, we know he’s going to go and erase it. So we’ve got to make sure we’re cracking back to his man to make sure he doesn’t get the rebound, or whatever the case may be.”

There are the garden-variety swats of guys coming down the lane, trying to adjust mid-flight to this 7-foot-4 mantis, unfurling. There are highlight-reel blocks against star players — at the start of games, as Wembanyama doled out here to Ja Morant, and in crunchtime, as applied here to Giannis Antetokounmpo. And there are the blocks that defy logic or most anything you’ve seen defensively in the last 60 years. Yes, I know he did these kinds of things at Metropolitans 92 last season. But, with all due respect, there is a bit of a difference in talent between the LNB Pro A League and this one.

I mean … what is this?

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

Washington’s Marvin Bagley is 6-11. The mean height of 18-year-old men in the United States, as of 2014, was just above 5-8. Anyone 6-1 or taller is, among men 20 and older, in the 95th percentile of all men in the U.S., according to height. Bagley is a statistical anomaly.

What, then, is Wemby?

“Normally, I could just go up and just go over people, because I’m 6-11,” Bagley said. “But guys like that, you’ve got to kind of be a little more crafty with it, or create something for yourself or your teammates.”

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

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

“He (Wembanyama) likes being on the perimeter too, handling the ball a little bit, that sort of thing. It’s a lot easier for him now than it would be (back) in the day when someone would be guiding him all over with their hand and touching him and bumping him. Imagine Isiah (Thomas) or somebody on him. So it’s an easier environment, then, for a perimeter guy. And defensively, he can roam more, the way Joel does. We call them ‘roamers,’ or I do. They don’t specifically guard a guy all the time. Their job is the paint, the rim, changing shots, blocking shots, doing that sort of thing, so people have to change what they’re doing offensively. And then the other players, the complementary players, have to respond, as far as realizing that that guy is going to be leaving and going to the rim all the time.”

What has been among Wembanyama’s most impressive traits is not picking up fouls.

Rookies, and especially rookie big men, have a target on their backs. The league insists its officials call everything, and everyone, the same. Perhaps that’s true on Earth II. But here, rookies usually don’t get the benefit of the doubt.

Wembanyama, though, has fouled out of only one game so far. With rare exceptions — Monday’s game against the 76ers being one — he doesn’t pick up a lot of primary defender fouls, as happened when Embiid went to the basket and took the 20-year-old along for the ride. He only averages 2.4 fouls per game.

Popovich had fun with me last weekend when I asked how Wembanyama’s D had evolved since the start of the season. (The guess here is he doesn’t want to be viewed as having “taught” defense to Wembanyama, who was instructed by one of the game’s great coaches in Vincent Collet — Wembanyama’s coach at Metropolitans 92 and the coach of the French national team that Wemby will be on this summer at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.)

“I say, ‘Stick your hands somewhere else, and stop fricking fouling,’” Popovich said. “That’s between the ears. You tell everybody how to do it, how to trace and how to do this, what’s appropriate, what’s an inappropriate foul. Some guys get it; some guys don’t. He’s smart, he gets it, and he’s figured it out.”

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Sochan has to be part of this too, if the Spurs are going to get defensive traction in the coming years. He was taken ninth in the first round in 2022 as someone who loves getting “cheeky,” as he put it before the draft, with opponents. He doesn’t care if he gets dunked on; he keeps talking. And playing.

“I think that gets under people’s skin,” Jones said.

Now at his normal position, Sochan needs to be able to handle the fours 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’s going to be scary,” Sochan said. “I think it’s going to be hard to score on 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’s gone on, me and Vic, we’ve become closer, on and off the court. It’s 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. Just reading, reading and reacting. Sometimes I get beat, and it’s him helping me. Or it’s the other way. Or steals. Or rebounds, because he’s blocking everything.”

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

The education continues, the learning curve always stretching out into the distance.

— The Athletic’s Josh Robbins contributed to this story.

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



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