The Spurs know a thing or two about developing talented big men. But the once-stable franchise hasn’t been good for years.
Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 dynamic forward who is this year’s most prized N.B.A. prospect, cheered with his family in France as the San Antonio Spurs won the 2023 draft lottery Tuesday night. In San Antonio, fans, perhaps understandably, celebrated like they had won a championship, yelling in bars and honking car horns.
An ESPN reporter who interviewed Wembanyama on television moments after the Spurs won the lottery acted as if the draft, which is next month, had already happened. “What are the San Antonio Spurs getting in Victor Wembanyama?” the reporter asked.
Typically, athletes in these situations try to dismiss the idea that they will be the No. 1 pick and deflect with answers about being happy with whichever team selects them and how thankful they will be to be drafted at all.
But not Wembanyama, and frankly, why would he? He isn’t a typical draft prospect, and he wasn’t going to pretend to be one, either. He didn’t deflect. He had a straightforward answer about what he could be for the Spurs.
“A team player,” he said, adding: “I’m trying to win a ring ASAP, so be ready.”
Here’s what to know about the Spurs and Wembanyama, the 19-year-old star of the French professional team Metropolitans 92.
France and the Spurs have a long and successful connection.
Tony Parker and Boris Diaw are two of the best basketball players from France to ever play in the N.B.A., and they both won championships with the Spurs under Coach Gregg Popovich.
The Spurs drafted Parker with the 28th pick in the 2001 draft. He spent 17 seasons with the team, winning four titles, and he will be the first French player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, with the ceremony scheduled for August. Parker posted a photo on Twitter of Wembanyama wearing a No. 9 Spurs jersey — Parker’s number — as a child and wrote, “Yesss he’s going to the @spurs!!! So proud of you.”
Diaw played for the Spurs in five seasons, and helped them win a championship in 2014.
“There’s a special relationship between France and the Spurs because of Tony, of course, and also Boris,” Wembanyama said on Tuesday. “I know half of the country, maybe if not the whole country, wanted the Spurs to have the first pick, so I was looking at everyone, and everyone was happy, so I was too.”
The Spurs have a great track record with big men.
Already being called the greatest prospect ever, Wembanyama will now follow in the footsteps of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, two of the best big men in N.B.A. history. Together, they led the Spurs to two championships, then Duncan led the Spurs to three more titles after Robinson retired.
The good part for Wembanyama is that Popovich, who coached Duncan and Robinson, is still there to help him develop. Still, Wembanyama is a much different player from Robinson or Duncan, traditional big men who were at their best playing in the post with their backs to the basket.
Wembanyama is comfortable scoring at all three levels of the court, adeptly dribbling around defenders to score and shooting jumpers that players his size are not supposed to be able to make. It will be a new experience for Popovich.
San Antonio is one of the most successful franchises in N.B.A. history.
The Spurs have the fifth-most championships in N.B.A. history (five), and won all of them between 1999 and 2014 under Popovich. With Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginóbili, the Spurs developed a core that anchored a dynasty.
Duncan was the best player of the group, winning the Most Valuable Player Award in 2002 and 2003. His Spurs also fended off many great teams and players to win championships. In both the 1999 and 2003 Western Conference semifinals, they beat Lakers teams led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. In the 2007 N.B.A. finals, they swept LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
“The talent, the coaching, everything in San Antonio was kind of a perfect storm,” Bryant said on the “All the Smoke” podcast in 2020. “If they weren’t in the picture, we probably would have won 10 in a row.”
The Spurs have struggled and been involved in controversy.
When the Spurs were winning, they were considered the model franchise in the N.B.A., with a great coach and stars who willingly bought into his system. But that mystique has dissolved.
The Spurs have not made the playoffs since 2019 and have become something of a punching bag in the league. At a news conference in September just before the beginning of the 2022-23 season, Popovich was honest about where the team stood: “Nobody here should go to Vegas with the thought of betting on us to win the championship,” he said. “And I know somebody will say, ‘Gosh, what a Debbie Downer. There’s a chance. What if they work really hard?’ It’s probably not going to happen.”
Popovich was right. The Spurs won 22 games, their third-lowest win total in franchise history.
Amid that abysmal season, Joshua Primo, the Spurs’ 2021 first-round draft pick, was accused of repeatedly exposing himself to a team sports psychologist during treatment sessions. The psychologist accused the team of failing to protect her and others even after she reported Primo’s conduct.
The Spurs cut Primo, and the psychologist settled a lawsuit against the team and Primo.
San Antonio couldn’t make it work with one key star.
In Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs appeared to have found their next star to lead them out of the Duncan, Parker and Ginóbili years. He helped them win a championship in 2014 and was named the finals M.V.P. But in the 2017-18 season, Leonard injured his thigh and missed most of the year.
Throughout the year, some public comments by teammates and Popovich seemed to imply that they questioned the severity of Leonard’s injury. At one point, Parker said he had the “same kind of injury” as Leonard, “but it was a hundred times worse,” and it had only taken him eight months to recover.
After the season, Leonard requested a trade and was sent to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for a package that included DeMar DeRozan. The next season, Leonard led the Raptors to their first title in franchise history.
The Spurs roster lacks talent.
Unlike Duncan, Wembanyama may not have an established big man like Robinson on the team who can help him grow.
The Spurs are laden with young players; only three players on the roster this season have more than four years of experience. Wembanyama will become the team’s best player on Day 1, responsible for carrying one of the league’s most notable franchises back to relevancy.
Of course, the Spurs have the whole summer to rebuild their team around Wembanyama. Based on how their fans are celebrating, everyone in San Antonio is ready for something new.
Source: Basketball - nytimes.com