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Victor Wembanyama: A Halfway Update on the Good, the Bad, and the Unbelievable

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It’s only been half a season. He’s only played 35 games. Yet, San Antonio Spurs phenom Victor Wembanyama has already shown himself to be one of the most versatile players in NBA annals. Here’s the scary part: He’s still improving by leaps and bounds.The player once described by LeBron James as not a unicorn, but “more like an alien,” came into this season as one of the most highly anticipated rookies in NBA history. Considered by most to be the best prospect to enter the league since James in 2004, Wembanyama was the top pick in the 2023 NBA Draft after a breakout season as a teenager in France, and he was the prize when the San Antonio Spurs won the draft lottery in May.After a promising early start, including a 38-point eruption in his fifth NBA game, Wembanyama and the Spurs both had some hiccups. Teams scouted him more seriously; bigger, heavier opponents played him more physically and forced him into off-balance jumpers; and an unready Spurs roster offered him little help. San Antonio lost 18 consecutive games — a feat quickly buried when the Detroit Pistons lost a record-setting 28 straight soon after, but awful nonetheless. Meanwhile, Wembanyama put together a series of rough shooting nights, hitting only 43.3 percent in November.Of late, however, we’ve seen more consistent flashes of his dominating potential and relatively fewer stretches of wayward shooting. Even as the Spurs have continued to struggle — the team is just 7-32 on the season — Wembanyama’s performances have steadily improved, including a dominant start to his January.“I think you can see how he plays, and what an unbelievable talent he is,” Dallas Mavericks star Luka Dončić said earlier this season. “I really enjoy watching him.”As we reach the halfway point of Wembanyama’s first season, now is a good time to take stock of the heralded rookie’s first season and some of the positives and negatives thus far.Let’s start with the eye candy. No player in the league produces more highlights per minute than Wembanyama. In just half a season, he’s already generated a mind-blowing YouTube catalog, using his unprecedented combination of length and skill to perform feats we just haven’t seen before on a basketball court.Take one random play from Monday’s game in Atlanta. Wembanyama catches the ball on the move at the 3-point line and then does something we aren’t accustomed to seeing from a 7-foot-4 player — a lefty drive into a behind-the-back-dribble into a dunk.Watch it below. The Hawks’ Jalen Johnson played good defense that seemingly was going to force Wembanyama into a tough, contested hook shot. He stopped the rookie giant on his initial thrust left, but Wembanyama had the body control to hit the brakes, avoid a charge and change his attack angle. Johnson then slid his feet when Wembanyama effortlessly went behind the back to change direction and was on his hip as he started to leap from well outside the charge circle. Johnson looks like he’s loading up to challenge a jumper or hook shot and then … boom.For 99 percent of players, that’s a tough, contested jumper, floater or hook shot in the lane. Except for Wembanyama, who — with his right foot planted well inside the jump ball circle — just reached up his Inspector Gadget arms toward the rim and kept extending and extending until he dunked it right over Johnson. That was one of nine dunks he had just in the second half of the Spurs’ loss. In a related stat, only nine of Wembanyama’s 557 shot attempts this season have been blocked.Now that we have everyone excited, let me be Debbie Downer and take things down a notch. For starters, his team stinks and Wembanyama hasn’t been good enough to overcome that. While the Spurs’ recent results have been moderately better, there is no question that they’ve been a disappointment. They’re young and lack other players of Wembanyama’s caliber, but the expectation was that they’d be more competitive. Wembanyama and point guard Tre Jones are turning into a formidable combination. (Michael Gonzales / NBAE via Getty Images)Partly, that’s a result of lineup constructions that at times have seemed like they were designed strictly to sabotage Wembanyama’s development. The Spurs began the season by attempting to play second-year pro Jeremy Sochan at point guard, despite his showing no real qualifications or aptitude for playing the position.They also lined up another center, Zach Collins, next to Wembanyama in the frontcourt, pushing Wembanyama further to the perimeter at both ends. The Collins-Wembanyama pairing was outscored by 11.8 points per 100 possessions in its 25-game run. Hopefully, we’ll never see it again.Meanwhile, the Spurs seemed almost defiantly resistant to playing their one real point guard, Tre Jones, together with Wembanyama. Lineups with Jones and Wembanyama together have outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions this season, no mean feat on a team that otherwise is bludgeoned by 9.1 per 100, yet only recently have they shared the court with any frequency.Additionally, a series of turned ankles in December has the Spurs pulling back the throttle on Wembanyama’s court time. He reportedly will sit out in Charlotte on the front end of a back-to-back on Friday night. He hasn’t played a back-to-back since Nov. 18 and has been capped at a maximum of 27 minutes since Dec. 17.Nonetheless, even since opening day, Wembanyama’s progress has been evident. It helps that he’s in more situations to succeed now. Slowly but surely, the Spurs have groped and stumbled their way into a more workable lineup. After a disastrous first quarter of the season, the Spurs finally moved Sochan off the ball, moved Collins out of the starting lineup, and shifted Wembanyama to center. Lo and behold, keeping the 7-4 guy closer to the basket seemed to pay some dividends.Meanwhile, it took an injury to basically every other guard on the team to make it happen, but Jones is finally starting at point guard.Since Christmas, Wembanyama has gone to another level. In 10 games he’s scored nearly a point a minute — 232 in 242 minutes — while shooting 62.6 percent inside the arc and upping his free-throw rate, including his first two double-figure free-throw games. Defensively, he’s blocked a ridiculous 5.2 shots per 36 minutes in this stretch, and some of them have been absurd physical feats. Watch here as he swipes down at the ball as Atlanta’s Trae Young gathers it … and then magically blocks Young’s floater attempt with the same hand. Trae had zero chance, Wemby ate him up pic.twitter.com/YgS0KpDHNK — CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) January 15, 2024At the offensive end, the low-percentage, off-the-dribble long 2s that characterized much of his early-season output have steadily diminished. In its place are hard rim runs. Jones keeps looking for him in the air, and other Spurs have caught on to the fact that it’s impossible to overthrow Wembanyama.Who’s up for a SLOB Lob? Wemby catches the inbound lob for 16 PTS in the 4Q 💪 📺 Hawks-Spurs is LIVE on TNT pic.twitter.com/gnNe43K8RO — NBA (@NBA) January 15, 2024When I asked where Wembanyama had improved the most, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich offered this assessment of his progress after Monday’s game in Atlanta,“Probably in aggressiveness,” Popovich said. “Running to the bucket and not being so concentrated on 3-point shots. Running the floor, being that target. Of course, the team has learned that they need to throw those passes, it’s not something we were used to. He’s learned how to do that and understands that it sets a tone for everybody. Wembanyama could become the third player in Spurs history to lead the league in blocked shots as a rookie, joining David Robinson and Tim Duncan. (Brian Babineau / NBAE via Getty Images)“Defensively he’s becoming a really good rim protector, and obviously he’s tall. And long and he should be, but he’s figuring out how to make that a definite priority. And everyone else is learning how to handle that, playing around him.”You can see the numerical evidence for Popovich’s statement all over the place, including in some of the numbers referenced above. While Popovich focused on the 3-pointers, that quantity has changed less than Wembanyama’s overall reliance on jumpers off the dribble.Additionally, the visual evidence for Wembanyama’s rim runs is hard to miss. He got the…”



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