NEW YORK – Not since the height of Steph Curry mania had Madison Square Garden hosted such a pregame spectacle. Instead of the pedestrian-sized sharpshooter firing off deep ball after deep ball, fans flocked and cameras gathered along the baseline to watch the 7-foot-2 Victor Wembanyama take the hallowed ground of midtown Manhattan for the first time — on exactly 39 years since Michael Jordan did the same thing.
The Frenchman was one of the last Spurs to emerge from the San Antonio locker room. He wore long gray sweatpants and a white shooting sleeve. He worked along the perimeter, ignoring the wall of cell phones that jutted out from media members who lined the baseline like hardcovers stacked on a bookshelf. As Wembanyama walked onto the field, he interrupted a replay because the waiting Spurs employee, who was supposed to extend an arm toward the rafters and tackle the rookie’s hook, wasn’t paying full attention to the drill. But Wembanyama wanted the distraction in his line of sight.
He saw plenty of hands, arms and bodies against the Knicks all night long. San Antonio starts Wembanyama next to center Zach Collins and often places him along the 3-point line to save his thin frame from the many bruises that occur at that level. But no matter where his touches came from, New York sent two, often even three, defenders into his middle, making the teenager look like the young professional he is. Wembanyama started 0-5 and 0-3 from distance in the first 12 minutes of San Antonio’s 126-105 loss on Wednesday. He hit a short jump shot after sizing up Knicks center Mitchell Robinson on the left block. He then airmailed a triple from the top of the key.
“He’s a 19-year-old rookie who just learned about the NBA,” head coach Gregg Popovich said. “Of course it’s a learning experience.”
Spurs are still getting to know him, this defeat was only Wembanyama’s eighth game in the league. They observe and understand the limits of its immediate impact compared to its limitless potential. The San Antonio staff talk about how much fun it is to solve this puzzle, but admit they’re not sure how many combinations there are when Wembanyama is the biggest piece they’ve ever worked with.
“We don’t put him in situations until we know where he feels most comfortable and responds best,” Popovich said. “I just recently found out that he likes one block more than the other, and that’s the opposite of what you would think. So we need to watch him for a while and see where he naturally performs best.”
His preferred spot, despite being right-handed, appears to be the left block, where Wembanyam fended off his attempt to pass Robinson and where he deflected several entry passes after cutting across the paint from a screen. He seems far more comfortable moving toward the basket and engaging his opponent with a series of thrusts and spins. To their credit, the Knicks continued to use his long reach to force three Wembanyama turnovers and a 4-of-14 shooting performance, which was arguably the biggest struggle of his career to date, despite 14 points and nine rebounds. After all, New York may be the darkest, dirtiest team in the league.
“The challenge is always to stay clear and maintain our collective game,” Wembanyama said.
His posture is usually so stable that any crack in his appearance is a surprise. A San Antonio coach also said this after the game in reference to a sequence in the final seconds of the third quarter.
Wembanyama stumbled in the lane after receiving a hard foul from Isaiah Hartenstein, the Knicks’ big backup. After play was suspended, Wembanyama touched the stone with his palm, which Immanuel Quickley happily punched and tried to free himself, grabbing the phenom’s arm instead. It was then that Wembanyama showed for the first time that he was unsettled. He wiped away the pest as if he were swatting a fly.
“After the final whistle I had the ball,” explained Wembanyama. “It was just a reflex.”
Then he stepped to the foul line, a chorus of “Overrated!” rang out. booms from the most famous arena in the world. Wembanyama held the ball between his huge hands. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and lifted his shoulders. And he fired both shots confidently.
“The most important thing,” Wembanyama said, “is how we get back on our feet.”