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Victor Wembanyama’s defense is rapidly improving, but the Spurs are still far from contending.

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.

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.


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