Spurs draft French phenom Wembanyama

Published 8:45 pm Thursday, June 22, 2023

Victor Wembanyama arrives at Barclays Center before the NBA basketball draft, Thursday in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The world will be watching Victor Wembanyama, including San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

The Spurs selected the French phenom with the top pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft that was held in New York. There was little to no doubt San Antonio would select Wembanyama, who is listed at 7-foot-4 but says he is 7-3.

An emotional Wembanyama said hearing NBA Commissioner Adam Silver call his name brought him to tears, saying he has been waiting for the moment. “I’ve dreamed of this … I got to cry.”

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While there are lofty expectations on Wembanyama and the Spurs, Popovich said he will be patient with the 19-year-old.

“We’re thrilled that we were able to bring Victor on board,” Popovich said. “He’s obviously a heck of a talent, a very mature man. But just like every draft pick, whether it’s the first pick or the 27th pick or the 38th pick, we have a responsibility to each and every one to try and create an environment where they can reach the best success possible for them.”

San Antonio is looking to end it four-year playoff drought with the addition of Wembanyama.

“It’s a tough league. It’s tough to win in this league,” Wembanyama said. “Many players have tried to win for years, for decades and haven’t made it. My goal is, I’m going to trying to and learn as quick as possible because I want” to win a ring.

It marks the third time in San Antonio’s 51-year history that the Spurs have held the No. 1 pick. They are hoping Wembanyama fulfills predictions that he is a generational big man and follows in the championship footsteps of the franchise’s previous top picks of David Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997.

“Oh my God, I’m a damn Spur,” Wembanyama said shortly after being drafted. “I’m a Spur!”

In four professional seasons in France, Wembanyama showcased his versatility as a skilled ball handler, 3-point shooting range, the ability to rebound and block shots with an 8-foot wingspan and impressive athleticism. During those four seasons, averaged 12.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 assists while continuing to improve.

This season, Wembanyama was named MVP and Defensive Player of the Year after leading the French league in scoring, rebounding and blocks for the Metropolitans 92.

While Wembanyama has demonstrated his skills, Popovich wants to see it himself before beginning to offer coaching tips or advice.

Popovich said he learned that firsthand in dealing with Manu Ginobili. After attempting to reign in Ginobili’s fiery game, Popovich realized he had to let “Manu be Manu.” He plans on taking that same approach to Wembanyama, whose game is unlike any previous 7-footer.

“I learned so much from Manu about that very thing,” Popovich said. “You can’t make players into what you think they should be. You really have to understand what they have and kind of capitalize on that because no player is perfect.”

Wembanyama had expressed a desire to play in San Antonio before it became official, excited about the franchise’s five NBA championships and its history of developing international players. And his own ties to the San Antonio organization didn’t hurt.

Former Spurs forward Boris Diaw is president of Metropolitans 92 and Wembanyama spent the previous season playing for ASVEL, which is owned by former Spurs point guard Tony Parker.

“For me, San Antonio is synonymous with winning,” Wembanyama said Wednesday. “On lottery night, when the Spurs got the No. 1 pick, I was just thinking, I was feeling lucky that they got the pick. As a franchise that has that culture and that experience in winning and making, creating good players. So, I really can’t wait.”

Neither can the Spurs or their fervent fanbase, many of whom lining up to buy Wembanyama jerseys while celebrating Thursday night at a watch party at AT&T Center in San Antonio.

The Spurs’ record-tying run of 22 straight postseason appearances ended in 2019, one season after they traded an unhappy Kawhi Leonard to Toronto on July 18, 2018. San Antonio has since missed the playoffs in four straight seasons, including the second-worst record in franchise history last season at 22-60.