Analysis | Victor Wembanyama is a star. The Spurs shouldn’t wait to get him help.

Analysis | Victor Wembanyama is a star. The Spurs shouldn’t wait to get him help.

طوبیٰ Tooba 55 years ago 0 2

Victor Wembanyama’s latest one-man carnival show packed a month’s worth of spectacular acts into a single night.

During the San Antonio Spurs’ nationally televised 125-121 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, the 7-foot-4 Frenchman threw an alley-oop to himself off the backboard; dunked over and through Brook Lopez after rotating the ball behind his back in transition; stuffed Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard at the rim late in the fourth quarter; drilled a game-tying three-pointer with a little over a minute left in regulation; and drew three defenders to tee up Tre Jones for an unguarded three-pointer that could have forced overtime. The final damage included 27 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and a half-dozen other brilliant moments.

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San Antonio need not regret a competitive loss to a top-tier opponent such as Milwaukee, especially when Antetokounmpo more than held up his end of the international star showdown with 44 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. Wembanyama, the hyped 2023 No. 1 draft pick, remains right on schedule for greatness. Indeed, his stat line of 19.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks has only been achieved by three other rookies: Hall of Fame centers David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning, all of whom spent at least three years in college before they were drafted.

But an honest appraisal of the Spurs as they approach the Feb. 8 trade deadline requires acknowledging that Wembanyama desperately needs more help. While it’s no great surprise that San Antonio (5-29) has the Western Conference’s worst record and is tracking toward a top lottery pick, the first two-plus months of Wembanyama’s career have been choppier than expected. The Spurs suffered 18 straight defeats after a promising opening week, and their minus-11.4 net rating is the worst mark since the Charlotte Bobcats posted a minus-15.0 net rating during the 2011-12 season. Young, rebuilding teams often endure growing pains as they pursue “organic development,” but that’s not the same thing as getting taken to the woodshed night after night.

San Antonio struggles on both sides of the ball — especially when Wembanyama is off the court — but the worst crimes occur on offense. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich’s bold experiment of shifting Jeremy Sochan from power forward to point guard hasn’t panned out. Jones, a more traditional floor general, got his first start of the season against the Bucks, but he lacks the size and athleticism to be an ideal long-term initiator for Wembanyama. In truth, there is no one on the roster capable of filling that role now or in the future. Devin Vassell is the Spurs’ top talent next to Wembanyama, but he is wired as a bucket-getter and should stick to what he does best.

For all of Wembanyama’s gifts as a scorer, shot-creator, finisher, rim-protector and help-side defender, the first few months of the season have made it clear he will only reach his full potential with help from a ballhandling setup man. He’s tracking toward Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, not LeBron James or Nikola Jokic. What’s also clear: Antetokounmpo needed three years of gradual development to have a star’s impact when he first arrived in Milwaukee, but Wembanyama, who turned 20 on Thursday, has already reached that point. He isn’t a project and shouldn’t be treated like one.

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After selling off Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl to position themselves to draft Wembanyama, the Spurs must now shift gears and become buyers to facilitate his continued growth. While bottom-dwelling teams typically cut costs and stack draft assets at the trade deadline with an eye toward the summer, Wembanyama’s exceptional game should make the Spurs an exception to this practice.

In weighing short-term trade options, San Antonio must look first to longer-term alternatives. This summer’s top free agent point guards — Jrue Holiday, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey — will have better options than San Antonio, and there’s a steep drop in talent after those headliners. Meanwhile, the 2024 draft class is regarded as relatively weak. Of the few point guards among the projected top-10 picks, none appears ready to drive wins immediately.

Finding the right guard to complement a premier big man is an age-old basketball conundrum: The Los Angeles Lakers drafted Magic Johnson to run “Showtime” alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Orlando Magic traded for Anfernee Hardaway to pair with O’Neal, and the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Russell Westbrook and Harden to flank Durant on the perimeter.

More recently, the Thunder flipped the order of operations by taking center Chet Holmgren with the No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft to create a killer duo with all-star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. After missing last season with a foot injury, Holmgren has surprisingly emerged as the early rookie of the year favorite over Wembanyama given his strong production, excellent efficiency and the Thunder’s status as one of league’s best teams.

Serbian teenager Nikola Topic would be a logical draft target for San Antonio, but lottery luck can come and go. The Spurs would be foolish to bet the next year or two of Wembanyama’s career on ping-pong balls alone, and they might find a more replicable model by turning to Davis’s time in New Orleans.

Davis spent his rookie year playing with Greivis Vasquez, who was competent but unremarkable. The Pelicans then proactively traded for Holiday, who was a budding star at the time. Together, Davis and Holiday made the postseason twice and won a playoff series in 2018, though their supporting casts never quite came together and Davis eventually outgrew the Pelicans.

New Orleans was criticized at times for doing too much, too soon by acquiring veterans as it built around its young centerpiece, but Davis made the all-star team every season he played alongside Holiday. The 6-10 big man also never blossomed as a frontcourt distributor. Without Holiday’s orchestration, secondary scoring and on-ball defense, Davis’s patience with New Orleans would have been tested to an even greater degree. What’s more, it’s not a coincidence Antetokounmpo only won his first title after Milwaukee traded for Holiday to spread out the offensive playmaking responsibilities and shore up its perimeter defense.

To be clear, San Antonio doesn’t need to act rashly and mortgage its long-term flexibility: Chris Paul, Malcolm Brogdon, Tyus Jones and TJ McConnell are among the veteran stand-in options expected to be available before the deadline. Maybe there isn’t a Holiday to be found, but the Spurs can at least shoot for a Vasquez-type capable of providing a steadier set of hands down the stretch. Or, put another way: If Wembanyama is to be the heir apparent to Tim Duncan, San Antonio must find him an Avery Johnson as it conducts a broader search for his Tony Parker.

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