LAS VEGAS – The sold-out crowd of nearly 19,000 people at Thomas & Mack Center stood in anticipation of Victor Wembanyama’s debut with the San Antonio Spurs on Friday at NBA Summer League against the Charlotte Hornets.
When he took the court, they screamed, finally catching a glimpse of the 19-year-old who’s receiving more hype than anyone since LeBron James entered the league in 2003.
Tickets sold out earlier this week. It was just the second time in NBA Summer League history that there’s been a sellout in advance of gameday, following Zion Williamson’s debut with New Orleans in 2019. And it was just the fifth sellout ever.
Six-time NBA champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in attendance, as well as Jerry West (whose likeness is the NBA logo) and rapper J. Cole.
But after all the build-up, the show was anticlimactic.
Wembanyama’s nerves and rust showed. The No. 1 overall pick in the draft had nine-points on 2-for-13 shooting from the field, including going 1-for-6 from beyond the arc in the Spurs’ 76-68 win, a game in which he was outplayed by the No. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller (16 points, 11 rebounds).
Wembanyama did have eight rebounds and five blocked shots. But he finished tied for the fourth-highest plus-minus on the Spurs, behind Julian Champagnie (10), Blake Wesley (nine) and Erik Stevenson (six), two of whom went undrafted.
It wasn’t the showing he wanted.
“Honestly, I didn’t really know what I was doing on the court tonight,” said Wembanyama, who didn’t play in the Spurs’ Summer League games in Sacramento this week following last month’s draft.
Wembanyama pinpointed his conditioning as an issue, saying it’s something he needs to improve before the season begins.
“Even though it was only 40 minutes tonight, when I was subbed out I was always tired and exhausted,” he said. “So, I think there’s a lot of conditioning to do.”
Still, Wembanyama’s potential shined through his rockiness.
The game looked easy for him at times. He won the opening tip with laughable ease. He showed some fancy dribbling moves in the first quarter that wowed the crowd.
When Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sinks his claws into Wembanyama, we’re going to see a more composed player. He needs to get back into basketball shape and to feel confident in a Spurs jersey.
Eventually, the profound hype will become white noise. On Friday, though, it was at a feverish pitch.
A few days before his debut, a bizarre incident went viral in which Britney Spears attempted to congratulate Wembanyama on his success at ARIA hotel and casino, a gesture that took a turn after she touched him, was thwarted by Spurs security and went on to file a police report.
That drama was the first sign this week of the microscope he’s now under. And if he didn’t truly understand it then, Friday’s circus was surely eye-opening
Fans in Wembanyama jerseys milled about the arena hours before the game, coming from all over.
Dallin Biorn, a 27-year-old Spurs fan, drove between 11-12 hours from Colorado to Las Vegas to watch Wembanyama play. He said he bought three tickets for $45 as soon as they went live online, reselling one of them for nearly five times as much Thursday ($215) to fund the trip.
“I feel like it’s the next-coming of hopefully the rebirth of our dynasty,” Biorn said of the Spurs, who won five championships before missing the playoffs the past four seasons. “So I wanted to see him the first time he plays. It’s a big deal.”
Michael Escobedo, 45, flew from Indiana to Las Vegas to catch a glimpse of the Spurs star. If Wembanyama remains healthy, he believes he could become the next face of the league.
“I didn’t even know if he was going to play or not, but I still got [tickets],” Escobedo said.
At 7-foot-4 with an 8-foot wingspan, Wembanyama is considered a never-before-seen talent. He can dribble and shoot with the skills of someone a foot shorter than him. He can also post-up and rebound, taking advantage of his incredibly unique frame.
One an NBA source believes the mystique around Wembanyama might even surpass James’ 20 years ago. After all, many people have only heard about Wembanyama’s talent or seen clips of him online, which has led to him becoming a myth of sorts.
“We knew about LeBron,” the source told FOX Sports. “We had watched LeBron play in high school. I watched LeBron play football. But Wemby was [in France]. It’s 2023 and obviously we have greater access to everything because of social media. But we don’t know him. I bet when you go down to that game this evening, if you were to poll the crowd and ask them how many of you have actually seen him play a game, it would be very few people.”
So, in a sense, Friday could be considered Wembanyama’s first real NBA test, other than a pair of games against G League’s Ignite last October.
Wembanyama was clearly disappointed Friday evening. The usually bubbly interviewee was comparatively clipped and his body language altered.
But he’s expected to play again Sunday against Portland, giving him at least another chance to dazzle the crowd in Las Vegas before he’s eventually shut down to prevent injuries. (The Trail Blazers’ third overall pick Scoot Henderson suffered a shoulder injury Friday and it’s uncertain whether he will Sunday.)
Back in France, Wembanyama made quite a name for himself. This past season, he averaged 21.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and three blocks per game for Metropolitans 92. He was named MVP of France’s LNB Pro A league, the youngest player to receive that honor.
While Wembanyama is undoubtedly a remarkable talent, it remains to be seen whether he’ll become the player he’s billed to become in the NBA.
“By the All-Star break, people are going to have a better sense: Is he all that or not,” the NBA source said. “I think he could be. I just don’t know for how long. The ‘for how long’ part scares me. He’s got a lot of work to do on his body. He really does. Because of all the hype, people are going to go after him every night. So, we’ll see if he can hold onto that.”
For Wembanyama, Friday was just the beginning, one he’d surely like to forget.
He was dunked on by Kai Jones. He was winded. His performance was underwhelming.
But the Spurs believe that was an aberration for a generational talent who had only had a smattering of practices with the team before being thrust under a blindingly bright light.
“I think all in all, he did a good job,” Spurs summer coach Matt Nielsen said. “Obviously, there is a lot of attention on him. You can talk about the outside stuff, but physicality and that was something they obviously wanted to line up, as you would, and overall I thought he came out pretty good.”
All eyes will be on him this season, which could be the ultimate blessing or curse for a teenager with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
On draft night, Wembanyama cried because his lifelong dream had finally come true.
And despite everything, he made sure to take a moment during his debut to soak up what was happening.
“Special moment, really special to wear that jersey for the first time,” he said. “It’s really an honor.”
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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