Will the Spurs Be Able to Build a Contender Around Victor Wembanyama?

San Antonio has a resplendent rookie and a storied history of success, but assembling a winner from the ground up is a new type of challenge

Victor Wembanyama doesn’t stand up so much as he unfurls. When his press conference ends, he presses his palms against the table and begins to rise—and then keeps going and going. Up and up. It’s a fluid, elongated motion that seems to take three times longer for him than for an average person.

I’ve seen Wembanyama dunk grown men to smithereens. I’ve seen him pluck shot attempts out of the air as if he were grabbing a spice jar off a tall shelf. When he’s not doing something I’ve never seen before, he’s making something routine look completely revelatory. And it’s those otherwise banal actions, like getting out of chair or closing out on a 3-point shooter, that have warped my sense of what is possible, both for Wembayama and the San Antonio Spurs.

Somehow, Wembanyama’s rookie season has exceeded the astronomical hype. He immediately buried questions about how soon his game would translate to the NBA—and then he ran away with Rookie of the Year, mounted a legit Defensive Player of the Year case, and solidified his place among the greatest rookies in league history. Over 70 games, Wemby has transformed from a curio to a genuine force, the 16th-best player in the NBA according to The Ringer’s most recent rankings. He has improved his efficiency, transitioned to full-time center, and accepted his role as the face of the Spurs (and, perhaps, eventually the NBA) with poise and maturity.

And, like the man himself, the hype keeps rising. As Wembanyama spends each passing game testing his abilities and harnessing his gifts, his first season has taken on a mythic quality, like an early-career Paul Bunyan, or a burgeoning superhero coming into his powers. Forty and 20 to beat Jalen Brunson, a folk legend in his own right; 23-15-8-9 against the reigning champs in a duel against the best player in the world. Wembanyama scaled the rookie wall and leaped from it, with averages of 23 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, and five blocks since the All-Star break. The raw production places him in elite company—both in today’s game and all time—but the speed at which he’s evolving is what’s most ridiculous. Even in his last seven games, Wembanyama has unlocked new dimensions: He averaged seven assists per game in that stretch to carry the injury-depleted Spurs to a 4-3 record. His growth curve is a vertical line.

The Wembanyama experience has been so face-meltingly spectacular that it’s thrust the entire Spurs apparatus to the forefront of NBA consciousness. Perhaps that’s why his team has been the subject of so much consternation this season. San Antonio’s poor record—just 20-60, last in the Western Conference—is no indictment of Wemby, and certainly no great shock for a team that was bad enough last year to snag the top pick in the first place. But the Spurs’ overall inadequacy—and the specific ways it manifests (namely, and most virally, passes not thrown)—has given rise to a discomfiting incongruity, like viewing a Monet in a garage.

In October, I likened the beginning of the Wemby era to a spelunking expedition and wondered what the Spurs would discover. While their, um, exploratory approach resulted in some ugly basketball, especially early in the season, it also bore fruit. The other Spurs were able to stretch their games and gain valuable reps alongside someone unlike anyone they’ve ever played with, and Wembanyama enjoyed the freedom to explore aspects of the sport that are inaccessible to literally everyone else.

Now that the season is ending, though, so is that approach. Six months after embarking into the Wemby wonder emporium, the Spurs are consulting their notes and spreading their wares on the table. What did they learn?

The 2023-24 season confirmed that the Spurs do indeed have that all-important ingredient in NBA team-building. Wemby looks every bit like a future MVP; just listen to the chorus of compliments from opponents after they encounter him. Wembanyama proved to be exactly the type of long-limbed disruptor people imagined he would be, but his unexpected readiness to anchor an NBA defense and his rapid growth on offense have undeniably changed the Spurs’ timetable for contention. San Antonio may not be a fully-fledged playoff threat a year from now, but it’s already entering another phase of building around Wembanyama, which will present an entirely new set of challenges for a franchise that’s more used to being on top than getting there.

San Antonio has won more games than any other NBA team this century, but it’s never had to build a winner from the ground up quite like this. Tim Duncan came into the league as an MVP candidate and, alongside David Robinson, won a title in his second season. From that point, the Spurs’ task was sustaining greatness, not creating it. They managed to do so better than any team in modern history, with savvy moves on the margins, ahead-of-their-time strategic innovations, and home-run draft picks. San Antonio found Tony Parker with the 28th pick in 2001, and Manu Ginobili 57th in 1999, though the latter didn’t come to the NBA until 2002. Both players developed into their Hall of Fame talents slowly, while the Spurs were already competing for titles without them. When the Spurs traded for Kawhi Leonard on the night of the 2011 draft, they similarly had a ready-made contender that could support his more gradual development until he was ready to take the baton.

If Parker, Ginobili, and Kawhi were like elegant renovations to the house that Duncan built, Wembanyama is like a blueprint drawn up by an architect from the future. Reproducing the Spurs’ earlier success won’t just be a matter of replication; San Antonio has a different kind of work to do.

In Devin Vassell, the Spurs have a burgeoning tertiary option who flashed critical playmaking gains in the back half of 2023-24 before a foot injury ended his season. They have a solid scoring wing in Keldon Johnson, who needs to round out his game in order to clarify his long-term fit, and a solid caretaker point guard in Tre Jones, who has quietly shot 44 percent from 3 since mid-February. Jeremy Sochan is a dogged defender with size and snarl that should pair well with Wembanyama in the frontcourt, and a handful of useful role players dot the back of the roster. Many of these players project to have long careers, but it’s unlikely any of them will become the type of no. 2 the Spurs need next to Wemby.

San Antonio also has a 2024 lottery pick—maybe two, if the Raptors’ top-six-protected pick conveys—but Wembanyama is already so good that it could be the Spurs’ last, best chance to draft another blue-chip prospect (at least with their own pick). Sochan and Vassell are a solid return for three late-lottery picks in the years preceding Wemby’s selection (with Josh Primo being the only whiff), but elite talent is hard to come by in that range. The Spurs’ late-round magic dust may still be floating around above the River Walk—San Antonio chose Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Keldon Johnson with three no. 29 picks in four years—but expecting to find the next Parker or Ginobili is a prayer, not a strategy.

There is, however, another path that may be increasingly available to the Spurs: chasing stars. Win-now blockbusters and tectonic free-agent signings have never been core to the team’s DNA, but then again, the Spurs have never had a player like Wembanyama. His talent, combined with the franchise’s pedigree, future draft equity, and its growing footprint in Austin (and, increasingly, across the world) have pried the door open to this approach. San Antonio’s front office reportedly sniffed around reacquiring Murray at the trade deadline and the team is expected to be in the transactional mix this summer.

Perhaps the most interesting potentially available star-level player is Trae Young, who has been linked to the Spurs in rumors since before the trade deadline. Young’s reputation as stubborn and ball-dominant seems at odds with the Spurs “way”—as does coughing up the presumed bevy of draft picks it would take to trade for him, but the on-court fit is tantalizing. His genius as a passer, and specifically as a lob-thrower, would generate a procession of easy looks for Wembanyama. (The Spurs should check in with the Cavs about Darius Garland for the same reason.) On the defensive end, nobody on earth could do more to cover up Trae’s deficiencies than Wembanyama, but there’s a real downside to marrying their inverted skill sets. Is Wemby more valuable as a cover for one-way savants, or as an amplifying center of gravity on a team with good defenders at every position?

These are the basketball questions Gregg Popovich and the rest of the Spurs front office must answer, beginning now. But given Wemby’s undeniable talent level and the league’s byzantine collective bargaining agreement, when to hit the proverbial button may be a more consequential decision than how. Move too aggressively too soon, and the Spurs risk depleting their young talent and setting themselves up for a half-decade of desperate striving, a la the Cavs with young LeBron, or even the Mavs with Luka. Move too slowly or overvalue patience, and San Antonio risks more seasons like this one, with a once-in-a-lifetime player toiling away, or growing frustrated, on a team going nowhere.

Everything I’ve written about the Spurs over the past several years has grappled with the same fundamental tension: how to reconcile my decades-long faith in the team with recent decisions that have seemed out of step with the modern NBA. This year has been no exception, except the stakes are higher. I supported the Point Sochan experiment, but as I watched Wembanyama operate on a roster utterly starved for shooting, it was hard not to waiver. Had the storybook lineage from Robinson to Duncan to Wembanyama papered over cracks in the foundation? Had the brain drain on the bench and in the front office caught up to the Spurs? Had Pop lost his fastball?

And yet, the franchise has one of the brightest outlooks in the NBA, and it didn’t just stumble into that enviable position. San Antonio has consistently drafted and developed solid NBA players, and it had the wherewithal to trade Murray, perhaps its greatest post–Kawhi success story, and bottom out at the exact right time to be in position to land Wembanyama in the first place. (San Antonio could’ve easily been in the place the Wizards find themselves after they held onto Bradley Beal one year too long.) Now, the Spurs have arguably the most untradeable player in the league, plus more future draft picks than all but the Thunder and Jazz—many of which are timed for the late 2020s, when Wemby will be in his prime.

The scrutiny over the Spurs’ lineup decisions, marginal moves, and in-game experimentation misses the forest for the trees. The Spurs are no longer the clear-cut “model franchise” they were for so much of the 21st century, but they’ve still done a lot of things right. Even this season, they have evolved from an affront to James Naismith to a team that consistently gives playoff squads everything they can handle. People might not like it. It might not even work. But the Spurs will build around Wembanyama their way, and they’ve earned the right to do so.

Last month, after a loss to the Nuggets in Austin, Popovich explained to reporters how he approaches coaching this team compared to those with Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili that won five titles. “It’s all the same,” he said. “Standards haven’t changed. Be very direct, demand, be fair, and love them. They gotta know you care about them. So, same formula from 25 years ago to today.”

That quote, proffered with the 75-year-old’s typical gruffness, is a Popovichian Rorschach test. It offers both reason to doubt and reason to maintain faith. It could be read as an admission that the Spurs haven’t changed with the times … or it could suggest that what once made the Spurs great transcends the cyclical trends of the NBA. I’ll take it as reason to believe—though not quite as big a reason as the 7-foot-4 one at the center of it all.

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