The Spurs’ rebuilding project is about more than just Victor Wembanyama

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Big Vic Energy is a renewable source of power for the city of San Antonio that the state of Texas should invest in for the next 20 years.

In his debut, Victor Wembanyama — the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft — provided both a glimpse of the future and a reality check by the Mavericks. ESPN and The Association have slowly begun cycling out of their King James NBA phase and replacing it with around-the-clock Wemby-A coverage. The energy was so palpable for Wembanyama that the Spurs raced out to an early lead in the first quarter on Wednesday night. Wembanyama is the first S-Class rookie since LeBron James. Not coincidentally, Brian Windhorst has spent months infiltrating his inner circle now that James is on his way out.

However, Luka Dončić did what present-day supernovas do by becoming the third player to deliver a 30-point triple-double in an opener, joining Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook. Last night, Dončić had to feel like the Denver Nuggets losing in the attention economy to a Laker team they throttled in four games.

For his part, Wembanyama swallowed up a patented Kyrie Irving fadeaway in his first 40 seconds, but Luka Magic delivered the coup de grâce late. In the final minute of regulation, Dončić rolled down the clock, set up his defender for a nasty step-back, and drilled it with Devin Vassell’s hand in his face and as Wembanyama closed out too late with the help-side contest. Wembanyama never quite got there and Dončić’s triple stuck a fork in the Spurs. It was a reminder that despite the hype, these Spurs aren’t ready yet.

Wembanyama had a valiant debut effort, but rarely created his own shot, and mostly relied upon a scant supply of spot-up or pull-up triples. In only 23 minutes of action, he still managed to record 15 points, shot 3-for-5 behind the arc, and accumulated five rebounds, two steals, and two assists, along with a block. His numbers are actually impressive on a per-minute basis, but most of his scoring aggression came in spurts.

In contrast, Scott Henderson, Brandon Miller, Ausar Thompson, and Amen Thompson all struggled or were non-factors in their respective debuts.

Wembanyama, 19, is a few years younger than his freak-of-nature big-man predecessors Ralph Sampson and Yao Ming were during their respective career openers. Five years ago Dončić entered the NBA as a unique European prospect with a precocious game that allowed him to procure a EuroLeague MVP at 19. Windhorst never traveled to Spain or Slovenia to ingratiate himself with Dončić, though. Dončić is a showstopper now, but he was decidedly average in his welcome to the NBA, recording 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists in a loss to the Phoenix Suns.

The Spurs can get started on chiseling Wembanyama’s life-sized monument, but contrary to popular belief, this team isn’t just Wembanyama and associates. Last week, after Steve Kerr surmised that Gregg Popovich appeared rejuvenated after a few seasons spent scraping the bottom of the standings, the Spurs’ hoops professor incredulously quipped back, “What was I being rejuvenated from? Was I in a mental institution or was I depressed and curled up in my bedroom or something? Steve’s an a—hole.”

Popovich was being facetious, but he had a point after spending the last few years of his Spurs tenure taking hits to his winning percentage while grooming a G-League Ignite graduate school basketball program headlined by Vassell, Keldon Johnson and Dejounte Murray, the latter of whom was traded to Atlanta in an effort to facilitate their 2023 Draft Lottery objectives.

Wembanyama is still the teenager most likely to get admitted into the Charles Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, but his other under-25 peers are no slouches. Vassell, 23, was awarded a five-year $135 million extension last season when he began showcasing high-volume shot creation ability after being drafted for his 3-and-D potential.

Wembanyama provided a boost in stretches in the opener, but he was a passive observer for much of the night due to early foul trouble. He tallied only six points in the opening frame. The Big Vic Energy vibes permeated throughout the Frost Bank Center, but his backcourt carried the offense. Vassell led the Spurs in scoring, to nobody’s surprise, and generated 10 open quarter points in a continuation of his preseason pyrotechnics.

In his debut, he demonstrated his ongoing evolution. The power went out on his patented long-distance shot, but his 23 points consisted of a panoply of midrange jumpers and slashes to the rim.

Keldon Johnson, 24, spent the 2021 season on Popovich’s gold medal-winning Team USA roster and parlayed that into 20-point per game averages as the Spurs leading scorer. Vassell’s offensive ceiling is higher, but the former 29th overall pick will be a permanent figure in Wembanyama’s orbit. Eventually, they’ll have to invest in a dynamic point guard. Jeremy Sochan runs the point like a prep school guard who’s been instructed to make simple reads, don’t turn the ball over and throw two-handed chest passes while learning an overly complex offense.

As for Wembanyama, we know he won’t be stranded like Anthony Davis was in New Orleans. The Pop and R.C. Buford Spurs have a habit of locating gems to surround their stars. Ginobili and Parker came after Duncan. Leonard was a crucial piece who helped keep in the title hunt and was pivotal to their fifth ring. There have been misses like Josh Primo and Lonnie Walker. The work started years ago. Wembanyama stands tallest, but he’s got support.

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