Victor Wembanyama gets introduction to NBA fame and game in Las Vegas
By Tania Ganguli
The walls around Victor Wembanyama, as he sat for a news conference Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, were plastered with images of past winners of the Las Vegas Summer League tournament. There were NBA stars who played there in the early days of their careers and a photo of LeBron James from 2018, when he showed up wearing gold shorts that said “Lakers” on the front in his first public appearance after signing with the team.
The summer league debuted the year after James’ rookie season, so its first marquee rookie was Dwight Howard, the top pick in 2004. As Wembanyama spoke with reporters, a picture of a smiling Howard could be seen on a wall to his right.
“The Beatles?” one team executive had joked earlier that night when asked what he would compare to the hysteria around Wembanyama, whom the San Antonio Spurs selected first overall last month. The closest real comparison is to James’ entry into the league in 2003.
Wembanyama had just finished his debut performance in a Spurs jersey, when he scored nine points with eight rebounds, three assists and five blocks. He made 2 of 13 shots and sometimes looked tired.
None of this will matter for his long-term future, nor does it predict what his career will be. But Wembanyama’s first few days in Las Vegas didn’t just introduce him to NBA play, they also introduced him to the absurdity of fame’s glare. He came out of that experience a bit subdued, but still smiling and poised as his journey continued.
Wembanyama only finished his French season three weeks ago, the week before the NBA draft. That he would be selected first overall was a foregone conclusion, but it still brought him to tears when it happened.
The Spurs immediately began molding him. He went to dinner the next day with some of the organization’s legends — Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Manu Ginóbili — to start learning from them.
They knew his body needed a break, so they had him skip their games in Sacramento last week to save his debut for Las Vegas. He will also skip the World Cup this year, where he would have bolstered the French national team.
And when Wembanyama began playing and practicing with the Spurs’ summer league team, together they focused on learning again.
“There is an eagerness that’s very clear as a coach,” said Matt Nielsen, who is coaching the Spurs’ summer league team. “He’s wanting to do the right thing.”
Friday night’s game featured Wembanyama and the Spurs against the Charlotte Hornets and Brandon Miller, the second overall pick in June’s draft.
The Thomas & Mack Center is a worn-down arena on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that once a year dresses itself up as the center of the NBA world.
All 30 NBA teams show up a couple of weeks after the NBA draft for the summer league with rosters that include their most recent draft picks, whom they pray won’t get injured during the exhibition games. Scouts, team owners and executives dot the lower bowls, and every so often the league’s biggest stars take a break from casinos, clubs and sponsorship appearances to stop by and sit courtside for a game.
A typical summer league crowd might fill half the lower bowl, and a good crowd packs it and maybe spills into the upper decks. On Friday night, the entire arena was filled to the top with nearly 18,000 spectators hoping to see something spectacular.
Wembanyama had some bright moments but did not produce the kinds of moments the crowd had waited breathlessly for. He missed a layup and a dunk, in all 11 of the shots he took. He was not the focal point of the Spurs offense for most of the game. Defensively, his natural size and 8-foot wingspan meant he could block jump shots even when he was late getting to the shot.
At least once, his victim was Miller, who scored 16 points on 5-of-15 shooting with 11 rebounds.
After the game Wembanyama talked about wanting to improve his conditioning, and said he was “exhausted” every time he came out of the game. He needed to better understand the plays called by the point guard, and the team’s defensive system, he said.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing on the court tonight, but I’m trying to learn for the next games,” Wembanyama said. “The important thing is to be ready for the season.”
It was a levelheaded response from Wembanyama, who seemed less effervescent but still poised.
That didn’t stop observers from drawing conclusions about his future or fans of pop star Britney Spears from mocking his performance.
Yes, Britney Spears.
She had tried to approach Wembanyama from behind Wednesday night and was stopped by a Spurs security guard who swung his left arm in her direction. Las Vegas police said the security guard’s actions caused Spears to hit herself in the face, but Spears said the response was overboard and asked for an apology.
Wembanyama said he never saw her face during the encounter, but her fans, nonetheless, remained irritated. Police said no charges would be filed.
That minor controversy had marked the start of Wembanyama’s time in Las Vegas, and highlighted the absurdity that can come with fame. It passed, though, just as the memory of a mundane start can, too, as Wembanyama’s career progresses.