The Victor Wembanyama Interview: Wemby Goes Deep on His Historic Rookie Season

The Spurs sensation sits down (thankfully) for an exclusive with The Ringer to talk about Jokic, Embiid, Pop, and a rookie season unlike any other. “I always want more, so I’m not surprised,” he says.

“I’m just a human … or am I?”

A smirking Victor Wembanyama posed that question to me toward the end of our interview on Monday, the day after his historic rookie season came to a close.

Sometimes I wonder the same thing. Standing at 7-foot-4, Wembanyama towers over everyone in every room and on every court. And there’s a wisdom and maturity about him that’s rare for a 20-year-old. These gifts, both physical and mental, have propelled him to one of the greatest rookie seasons the NBA has ever seen.

Before the 2023 draft, I called Wembanyama the greatest prospect since LeBron James, likened him to a Gen Z Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and said he has a chance to be the GOAT. And yet, Victor’s first season with the San Antonio Spurs exceeded even my lofty expectations. But not Wemby’s.

“It’s impossible to be surprised by your own performance, good or bad,” Wembanyama told The Ringer. “Because, ultimately, everything is a result of your own work and your mentality. I always want more, so I’m not surprised.”

Wemby is a bit of a stoic, but he has a healthy ego and confidence too. During our one-hour sit-down, he said he has a chance to become the greatest defensive player ever. When I began to frame a question about how he feels being labeled as the next LeBron James or Michael Jordan, he smiled and asked, “People say that?” Of course they do, and he knows it more than anyone: Of everyone I’ve spoken to around the league, in San Antonio, and in his circle, Victor seems the least surprised about his production.

Wembanyama became the 10th player in NBA history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks in a season. He was the first rookie to do it. He was the first player to do it in under 30 minutes per game. The other nine players are all Hall of Famers, something that Wembanyama also hopes to achieve.

“The goal for me in my life is to accomplish myself and to be a complete human being,” Wembanyama said. “I’m free to do what I want and what I need to do, and there’s nothing that is going to stop me from doing so.”

I’ve had extended sit-downs with a lot of great players over the years, from Nikola Jokic, to Steph Curry, to Joel Embiid. They’ve all been a privilege. But I’ve never spoken with a young athlete more in tune with what he needs to do to reach his full potential than Wembanyama. Frankly, I was blown away over the hour Victor and I spoke about his legendary rookie season, his rapid development, and what he’s focusing on next.

You can listen to the full podcast on The Ringer’s NBA Draft Show or watch the full interview on the Ringer NBA YouTube page. Below are three of my favorite excerpts, plus extra stats and observations on Wemby’s rookie season.

Wemby on His Immense Defensive Potential

One of Wembanyama’s most memorable games was in February against Oklahoma City, in which he hit a late clutch 3 and then blocked Chet Holmgren on the following possession to seal the victory. Victor and I discussed that moment and his mindset going into that win following two blowout losses to the Thunder earlier in the season. But I also wanted to ask him about a play from earlier in that same matchup that exemplifies what makes him such a game-changing defensive player:

Holmgren sets a screen for Jalen Williams, and Wemby goes into his typical drop coverage. He’s so large that can effectively defend them both at once, containing a drive or pull-up from Williams and then preventing the lob to Chet by pirouetting around to intercept the pass over his head.

It’s an unorthodox way of defending a pick-and-roll, yet it works for Wemby because of his blend of length, agility in tight spaces, and spatial awareness. Wembanyama can do things no other player can, and he’s still exploring the limits of what he’s capable of.

“I’m just experimenting, and sometimes it’s not going to work. But when it works, I’m just going to keep doing it,” Wembanyama said. He first tried defending lobs this way when he was playing in France, and now, he’s using it a tool that most NBA players have never seen before. “If I keep trying this, I’m going to get dunked on every once in a while,” Wembanyama said. “The alley-oop is one of the highest percentage field goals, so if I can stop it as much as I can, it’s great.”

Experimentation seems to be a theme with Wemby, whether it’s his one-footed floater 3s, swooping one-handed layups, or spinning interceptions defending pick-and-rolls. That’s part of why it’s difficult to project his ceiling. Could Victor warp defense the way Steph did offense? “It’s hard to say,” Wembanyama responded. “Defense has always been an aspect of the game where I felt comfortable. I’m curious to see it. And I’m waiting to be challenged as well by my coaches, by my teammates, to get new, bigger roles. Maybe being able to guard every position. But also, maybe for the last possession of the game because as of today, when the opponent point guard has the ball, I’m not going to guard him. But, yeah, there’s plenty of possibilities and some unconventional ones, just like offensively.”

Unconventional possibilities. Yeah. Victor knows. The Spurs can build this out however they want to. Adding another big who can defend the rim would allow Wembanyama to roam on the perimeter and harass smaller, quicker guards:

In the clip above, Wembanyama defends the speedy Immanuel Quickley on a switch and fully extends his arm to poke the ball away.

Wembanyama had success against players of all shapes and sizes this season, from speedy guards to bigs, and most of his success came near the basket. After all, he is an elite rim protector: He led the league with 3.6 blocks per game and allowed the seventh-best field goal percentage at the rim of the 60 players who defended at least 200 such shots, per Synergy. Wembanyama was dominant as a rookie, despite not having ideal teammates around him. But as San Antonio adds more supportive pieces, the coaching staff will have the schematic freedom to get creative, perhaps in ways we’ve never seen before.

Wemby on the Spurs’ Future

The Spurs lost 60 games in the season they landed the no. 1 pick to select Wembanyama, and they lost 60 again during his rookie season. However, over Victor’s 71 games, the team notably improved.

Over his first 27 games, Wembanyama played the majority of his minutes as a power forward next to Zach Collins, who struggled this season. In those games, the Spurs had a minus-8.6 net rating with Wembanyama on the floor.

In late December, Collins was moved to the bench, and Wembanyama became the starting center. Over the next 22 games, until the All-Star break, the Spurs had a minus-2.7 net rating when Wemby was on the floor.

After the break, over Wemby’s final 22 games, the Spurs had a plus-2.4 net rating with him on the floor. So the Spurs went from one of the league’s worst teams to below average to good with Wembanyama.

“I’m pretty satisfied with the growth we had together this year,” Wembanyama said.

The low points of San Antonio’s season quite clearly bother Wemby, though. So I asked him if he at least acknowledges the improvement the team experienced in his minutes on the floor. “It’s definitely a good improvement, and this is one more reason, and I’m satisfied with it this year,” Wembanyama said. “There’s even more stuff to experiment and to develop defensively, but at least we have some info now on what we can do and what we do well.”

In the same way Wembanyama has transformed the game, he has transformed the plans of the Spurs front office. Considering how good Wemby already is, how aggressive will San Antonio be in making additions to the roster? Could the Spurs pursue a star that becomes available as soon as this summer? Will they bide their time and try to build through the draft?

The Spurs’ plans could be dependent on what happens on lottery night. The Spurs finished with the fifth-worst record and therefore have a 10.5 percent chance of landing the first pick. Plus, they could receive another first from the Raptors if it falls out of the top six, which has a 54.1 percent chance of happening. If it doesn’t, the Spurs will hold the rights into the future, when they’ll have 11 additional firsts plus three swaps. (The Spurs have all of their own future firsts plus four additional firsts from other teams—two unprotected from the Hawks and one protected each from the Bulls and Hornets. They also have swap rights on future picks with the Celtics, Hawks, and Mavericks.)

With so much draft capital and cap flexibility, the Spurs are well positioned to surround Wemby with high-level talent. I asked Wemby whether any players have reached out to him about teaming up in San Antonio.

“Yeah, I’ve received some messages,” Wembanyama responded. “Even from prospects. But I try to sustain my role. It’s a whole new world that I’m eager to discover. For sure, one day or the other, I’ll have to be involved in this, I guess, even though I’m staying in my role as a player.”

Wemby declined to discuss specific front office moves. “I trust the front office and coaches,” he said. But it’s no surprise that other players are viewing the Spurs with increased interest. Wembanyama is a transformative player. It’ll be on the Spurs to put the right roster around him in order to contend annually.

Wemby on His Next Step

Wembanyama is already an elite defender, but he needs to make strides to become an elite offensive presence and thus the NBA’s best player. This season, he made his most dramatic improvement as a 3-point shooter off the dribble, making 39 percent of his dribble-jumper 3s.

Two years ago in France, he didn’t take many such 3s. One year ago, he made only 21.1 percent of them, per Synergy. Now he’s taking heat checks from the logo, looking like a stretched-out Steph.

The next step will be to improve his catch-and-shoot ability from 3 after making only 28.3 percent of those as a rookie.

“I feel way more comfortable when I have some momentum,” Wembanyama said. “Sometimes when I just catch and shoot with no dribble, I just feel like my arms are so low. My hands are so big, I feel like I’m stuck in a box. You know how Wilt Chamberlain was very bad at free throws? He was so good at hook shots and running finger rolls because he had momentum. … I feel kind of the same because there’s so much going on with such a small basketball, and so I feel way more comfortable when I can flow into my shot by being in movement already.”

The Spurs also like to get Wemby in motion toward the basket. Among players who stand at 6-foot-10 or taller, he ran the sixth-most pick-and-rolls, just behind Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. His possessions weren’t nearly as fruitful as theirs, but the Spurs are trying to get him reps to develop.

When Wembanyama took one dribble on drives to the basket, he turned the ball over on 8.9 percent (a fairly high rate) of those attempts, according to Synergy Sports tracking data provided to The Ringer. And on drives with two or more dribbles, he turned the ball over around 13 percent of the time, which ranks near the bottom of the league. Clearly, Wembanyama needs to improve his handle on drives. And he knows it.

“Often, when I get the advantage on my defender after a fake or a jab step or whatever, I go to the basket. But when the defender comes back, he can knock me off a little bit, my balance,” Wembanyama said. “Being a little bit lower on my legs to bump into the defender or resist—if I work on that, my finishing is going to get much, much better.”

Victor added that he will work on taking sharper angles on drives and his timing passing the ball on baseline drives. Incredibly, Wemby has already made progress in this department, dramatically tightening his handle with moves like in-and-outs and crossovers. Everyone I’ve spoken to around the Spurs and in Wembanyama’s circle is in awe of how quickly he masters moves that he practices.

For example, Wembanyama said that midway through the year, the Spurs told him to attack the rim with greater frequency instead of settling for perimeter shots. From October through February, 63.3 percent of Wembanyama’s shots came in the restricted area or beyond the arc. In March and April, that number skyrocketed to 75.96 percent.

It was when he’d fall into old habits that Gregg Popovich would get his angriest. “‘This is what you were doing day one,’” Wembanyama recalled Popovich saying in those moments when he’d settle for a midrange jumper or fadeaway. “Like, I learned that six months ago. I need to stop, you know?” Wembanyama said. But it worked: Wembanyama’s skill development and San Antonio’s emphasis on layups and 3s helped fuel a late-season offensive surge: Seven of his 10 highest-scoring games, including his 40-point, 20-rebound banger against the Knicks, came in March and April.

As for his relationship with Pop, Wembanyama had glowing things to say about the 75-year-old coach. “I mean, before meeting him, I would’ve thought he was more of an asshole,” Wembanyama said with a laugh. “But he’s actually very fair.”

Popovich may have retired by now if it weren’t for the opportunity to coach another generational talent in Wembanyama, as he did with Tim Duncan many years ago. Duncan became a five-time champion and a Hall of Famer under Pop. Somehow, a similar future doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility for Wembanyama. It seems like a matter of when, not if, he becomes the NBA’s best player.

“Over the last years growing up, I’ve just learned to know myself so much more that I’m sure of who I am and what I’m doing, and there’s just nothing that could push me out of my way,” Wembanyama said. “Nobody could have expectations for me, really. I have my own expectations, and 99 percent of the time, they exceed all those expectations.”

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