Defending Wemby: How the Clippers adjusted against Victor Wembanyama with new roster

Before the San Antonio Spurs came to visit the LA Clippers on the last Sunday of October, Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was asked about his approach to playing San Antonio rookie power forward Victor Wembanyama. Specifically, Lue was asked how his team could defend Wembanyama without putting the 7-foot-4 19-year-old from France on the free-throw line repeatedly.

“I mean it’s going to be a big challenge for us. The league’s never seen a guy like this,” Lue said in October. “Victor can handle the basketball. He shoots 3s, can post up, can pass. And so we got to be physical. But we got to be smart. Not putting him on the free-throw line, but we can’t let him get to a sweet spot, get easy catches. And we just got to make sure we’re aware of him all the time. Crashing the glass, as well.”

It took one possession for Lue’s defensive planning to be applied in that Week 1 meeting that ultimately saw the Clippers beat the Spurs 123-83. Even with 6-7 power forward Robert Covington drawing the primary assignment on Wembanyama, 6-7 Clippers small forward Kawhi Leonard was ready to switch off of San Antonio point guard Jeremy Sochan as Wembanyama rolled into the paint. Sochan found center Zach Collins at the top of the key, just as Clippers shooting guard Paul George encroached the paint as the low man from the weak side corner off of shooting guard Devin Vassell. Collins lofted a pass into the paint for Wembanyama, because why not — he’s 7-4.

But Leonard maintained physical contact with Wembanyama the entire possession after Wembanyama’s initial screen. And even though Wembanyama caught the ball, he wound up losing it to Leonard as George converged into the paint. It was one of Wembanyama’s five turnovers — more giveaways than buckets — as the Clippers held Wembanyama to a throttling 4-of-10 field goals in an 11-point performance for the top pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.

Covington and Wembanyama’s French mentor (6-8) Nicolas Batum handled the responsibility of guarding Wembanyama for the Clippers. Despite Wembanyama’s muted numbers, Lue saw how challenging it is now to defend Wembanyama, and how much challenging it will be when he develops.

“He’s a problem,” Lue said in October. “He is a super talent, and so he causes some problems. He can be a pick-and-pop five, he can be a four that’s (7-4), you got to guard him with a smaller guy. So it’s a lot of things he can do on the floor that puts you in some tough situations. And like I said, he’s a great player and he’s only going to get better. So let’s win now before three of four years down the road.”

The October meeting between the Spurs and Clippers marked the last time that Covington and Batum played for the Clippers, as both were packaged along with draft assets and forwards power forwards Marcus Morris Sr. and KJ Martin to the Philadelphia 76ers for James Harden and power forward PJ Tucker, along with since-traded center Filip Petrusev.

But it’s always nice when you can replace Covington’s responsibilities by having Leonard in that spot. And to begin a two-game miniseries in San Antonio, it was Leonard who took on the primary assignment of guarding Wembanyama. Leonard made sure to be physical, and seldom did Wembanyama get any free runs to the basket. The Clippers switched liberally, even off the ball and away from ball screen actions. When Leonard was not on the floor, Wembanyama saw the 6-5 Tucker or the 6-8 George often.

The only time Wembanyama got a basket in the paint in Monday’s 124-99 Clippers win at San Antonio was off of a George live ball turnover. The only time Wembanyama got a free throw Monday was when Clippers center Ivica Zubac was called for a defensive 3-second violation. And while Wembanyama’s turnovers were low (4:1 assist-turnover ratio), the Clippers held him to only nine points on 4-of-12 shooting, with Wembanyama missing all four of his 3-point attempts (all from above the break).

Even on post-up opportunities over smaller defenders like this fourth-quarter possession against George, Wembanyama was uncomfortable getting into the paint, ultimately settling for a midrange attempt that he can get to any time he wants but with subpar results. Wembanyama made 3 of 7 from the midrange Monday night but is shooting only 32.8 percent from that area this season (league average: 41.2 percent).

The Clippers put an emphasis on not letting Wembanyama even touch the basketball. Entering Wednesday night’s miniseries rematch in San Antonio, Wembanyama was fourth in touches per game on the Spurs at 50.0 per game, behind point guards Sochan (65.4), Tre Jones, and small forward Keldon Johnson (57.3). In the first two meetings against the Clippers, Wembanyama’s touches plummeted to 35.0 per game despite averaging 26.4 minutes. Turnovers were a major factor in this, as a Clippers defense that leads the NBA in steals per game reached a season high of 15 in both of their first two wins against Wembanyama’s Spurs. Steals are the lifeblood of LA’s defense — they are 0-4 when they don’t get at least 10 steals this season.

Wednesday’s game began as a continuation of the Clippers withholding touches from Wembanyama. In a first quarter that saw the Spurs miss 18 of 21 shots, Wembanyama failed to register a field goal attempt, an assist, or a turnover while the Spurs compiled a 3:5 assist-turnover ratio. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has said that starting Sochan, last season’s starting power forward, at point guard is the team’s experiment for this season. The growing pains are evident, as the Spurs average only 102.3 points per 100 possessions with Sochan on the floor while averaging 110.7 when Tre Jones (last year’s starting point guard) is on the floor.

Wembanyama did catch a break from the Clippers early, however. Zubac closed out clumsily on a catch-and-shoot opportunity for Wembanyama from Collins that came after a Harden missed field goal, resulting in a 3-shot foul. There’s a reason why the Clippers prefer their perimeter defenders on Wembanyama and for Zubac to be on Collins.

Blocking Wembanyama’s shot is unlikely, but watching Wembanyama miss is much more likely — he is shooting only 27.5 percent from 3 this season (league average: 36.1 percent). On the flip side, Wembanyama is shooting a strong 80.6 percent (the league average) from the free-throw line.

Wembanyama was able to lead the Spurs in scoring at halftime with 10 points Wednesday despite making only two shots, both in the second quarter. One of them was a 3 over Zubac. The other came from a Vassell pick-and-roll pocket pass to Wembanyama that saw the Clippers break all of their Wembanyama principles. New starter Terance Mann didn’t switch, new 6-8 backup center Daniel Theis didn’t recover, shooting guard Norman Powell wasn’t at the nail, low man Leonard never made contact, and 6-5 Harden stood no chance at protecting the rim against a man launching from outside of the restricted area.

The third quarter offered another example of what happens when you don’t make contact with Wembanyama. After Collins missed a floater in the lane and retrieved his own miss for an offensive rebound, George picked up Wembanyama and was flat-footed, expecting the tall forward to stay on the perimeter. But Wembanyama saw George’s passive off-ball defense and backcut him. By the time George noticed what was happening, it was too late: Wembanyama had a rim run and was open the moment his foot touched the paint.

The chemistry between Wembanyama and Collins offensively is another thing that makes San Antonio’s offense unique. Wembanyama is capable of handling the ball in pick-and-roll actions, and one of Wembanyama’s top tricks is to leverage the threat of his pull-up jumper to find a teammate in the paint. Here’s an example of Mann defending Wembanyama while navigating a Collins ball screen. Just as Zubac comes off of Collins to contest Wembanyama, the rookie finds a rolling Collins in a crowd for one of Wembanyama’s three assists. Wembanyama is turning the ball over too much (3.5 per game), but is averaging an adequate 2.5 assists per game:

Wembanyama only had two offensive rebounds Wednesday against the Clippers, and his second was ultimately stolen by Mann in the fourth quarter. But a rolling Wembanyama is a threat for put-backs. As backup San Antonio big Cedi Osman gets downhill off of this Wembanyama ball screen, a dropping Zubac contests Osman’s floater that comes off of the rim. But Wembanyama is able to get around Harden for second-chance points, almost on length alone. Wembanyama is leading the Spurs with 2.0 offensive rebounds per game:

“Obviously, very experienced team,” Wembanyama said after the 109-102 loss to the Clippers Wednesday that saw him finish with 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting. “It’s almost impossible to trick them, they don’t make mistakes, and they don’t fall for fakes, for basic tactics. It’s a good challenge, but we responded the right way in most moments tonight and soon it’s going to be even better.”

(Photo of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard boxing out Victor Wembanyama: Scott Wachter / USA Today)

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