Victor Wembanyama’s career prologue is almost as long as he is. It already feels like Wembanyama’s in his second NBA season doesn’t it? It feels like just yesterday, when he was in the (French) Finals at the exact same time as Nikola Jokic. According to Marc Stein, Wembanyama’s scheduled NBA debut has been set for Friday when the San Antonio Spurs face off against the Charlotte Hornets in the Las Vegas Summer League.
If this feels like deja vu, it’s because Wembanyama technically had his Beatles moment against the G League Ignite’s stars of tomorrow. Well, tomorrow has arrived, sort of. The G League Ignite game was not real NBA ball. Technically, that was a team of NBA prospects. NBA Summer League is the next step. I think of it as the answer to the question I wondered aloud after trying to get a job at Radio Shack in high school only to be turned away because they told me I needed more retail experience. ‘How do you get experience if no one will hire you without experience?’
Bring on the Summer League
If only every job had a summer league. Maybe they thought I needed to work my way up from Ben & Jerry’s before I started working with the mid-dawgs in electronics sales. But this is about Big Vic who’s been working his way up the ranks slowly through France’s top domestic league and EuroLeague, then, by dipping his long glizzy-shaped toes into NBA waters by facing off against the G League Ignite in two highly touted exhibition games last October.
The Hornets are a corporate team of summer interns led by Brandon Miller, the cocky swingman who’s already been guaranteed a job with the firm. Sure he’s fouling at an absurd rate and the transition has been rough, but the hope for Charlotte is that he gets as much of this jitteriness out of his system as possible.
Hornets guard Nick Smith Jr. is another amateur hotshot the Hornets have gotten a preview of in the California Classic. Smith was the top player in his high school class while Kai Jones just needed playing time somewhere after spending his first two years in the league riding the pine. They’re rounded out by 26-year-old Kobi Simmons, the Creed Bratton of the roster.
Aside from Big Vic, the Spurs have been a must-watch because of two rising sophomores thus far in Summer League. Julian Champagnie and Malaki Branham have been the summer’s early breakout stars. Champagnie was a two-way contract player the Spurs picked up after the Philadelphia 76ers waived him. Branham is one of the two forgotten rookies from the Spurs 2022 draft class.
Meanwhile, it’s been a quarter-century since the Spurs had a rookie of any acclaim in Summer League. In his opening game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the 21-year-old Tim Duncan got absolutely dogwalked by 19-year-old preps-to-pros forward Jermaine O’Neal. The next time out, Greg Ostertag, a 7-2 stationary who averaged a career-high seven points per game mauled him to the tune of 21 points and 10 boards. A year later, he’d accumulated the highest plus-minus for a rookie in league history and two years later was hanging the first of five championship banners to the rafters.
What should Wembanyama expect?
Wembanyama is two years younger than Duncan was and at even more of a physical disadvantage because his frame looks like he got stretched out by one of Willy Wonka’s machines. In terms of experience and physicality, Wembanyama is more directly comparable to a young Kevin Durant. As I noted in the Wembanyama Slander Guide, Wemby’s three-point shooting is still a work in progress, but from midrange, he should be money sooner rather than later. His shot and sky high release are virtually unblockable, but putting them through the net is what separates the potential greats from those who meet those expectations.
Through four games in the 2007 Vegas SL, Durant averaged 24 points a night on a high volume of shots. Then, in Salt Lake City Durant chucked 78 field goals to score 57 points. Worse, he was getting clobbered on the boards, grabbing only eight rebounds in 137 minutes, which would qualify as one of the worst rebounding rates in any era.
As far as 2023 Wembanyama is concerned, the important thing to watch will be how he adjusts to NBA rules versus the European FIBA confederation rules he’s drilled into him as a professional. The expectations are high after he led France’s top domestic league in scoring and rebounding, but there are expectations that he’ll be the one of the greatest defensive cheat codes in league history. As the floor spacing has been expanded, Wemby’s pick-and-roll coverage and switching ability due to the agility he displays wrapped in a 7-foot-3 (and a half)-inch frame will be something to watch.
We’ll get a preview of all that. The numbers won’t matter. We just get to see how well he’s acclimated in a dress rehearsal before the real show begins in October.
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