Victor Wembanyama’s rapid growth is evident as ‘game is slowing down for him’

SALT LAKE CITY — Victor Wembanyama almost fouled out of his NBA regular season debut.

He was a step slow on his defensive rotations, often getting to the spot just in time to commit an infraction. He wasn’t versed enough defensively to stay away from contact. He picked up five fouls that night, a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. He grabbed five rebounds. He turned the ball over five times, and he played just 23 minutes.

“I had to tell myself and remind myself that it’s a long season,” Wembanyama said.

On Sunday night, in a 128-109 defeat to the Utah Jazz at Delta Center, the superstar San Antonio Spurs rookie had one foul while scoring 22 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, blocking five shots and shrinking the floor defensively at an unreal level. Pointing out fouls as a measure of improvement might seem mundane. But when you measure Wembanyama throughout the season, the mundane becomes important.

We know his talent level is high as is his physical ability. We know how imposing he is defensively, and how versatile he is offensively. We saw him create history a few nights ago with a five-by-five stat line against the Los Angeles Lakers.

We know that he has the ability and the potential to be one of the best players the game of basketball has ever seen. Heck, on a routine Sunday night against the Jazz — and let’s be clear about this — the Jazz defended him very well, Wembanyama was still easily the best player on the floor and produced multiple jaw-dropping plays.

“We know that he can do the hard stuff pretty well,” Spurs assistant Mitch Johnson said.

Because Wembanyama is so good, it’s the little things that matter. Those are the things the Spurs hope will help him round out as a player.

So, what are some of the little things? Against the Jazz and against the Lakers, Wembanyama dominated defensively and did it without fouling, which represents progress. He’s figuring out the NBA game on that end, and how to affect it at an extreme level. That’s something he wasn’t capable of in October, November, or even December. As the calendar turns to March, we are seeing a Wembanyama who is learning and improving at the craft.

What the Spurs want is for their franchise talent to start affecting games with his IQ as well as his physical ability. They want him to keep progressing as the season takes a turn for the home stretch. The games post-All-Star break are the ones earmarked for development. They are the ones that lend data as to what needs to happen during the offseason. Wembanyama’s improvement has been significant. Wembanyama is averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots in February. He’s shooting 50 percent from the field. The Spurs are a much better team with him on the floor than not. And in a rookie season that has had its share of questions as to who should be the Rookie of the Year, it’s clear that Wembanyama should be the answer.

But ask him about the challenges he’s faced this season, and he’ll tell you that the balance between success and his needing to be better at certain areas has been hard to strike. When people are in your ear speaking about how great you are, life can be like that. But, Wembanyama’s competitiveness, and his desire to be great, are advantages in this sense. He knows what the grind entails. And he knows a great game, a great week, a great season, doesn’t necessarily add up to being a great player in terms of sustained success.

“This is where I have to know that it’s a long season,” Wembanyama said. “I know that there’s a new challenge every night. I mean, you see guys like Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) and (Joel) Embiid, they might score 30 a night, but every other night they are out to score 30. Once you’ve done it and had success, it’s about repeating it.”

As the season has progressed, the Spurs have given Wembanyama more responsibility, particularly on the offensive end. He’s always been adept at rebounding then dribbling the length of the floor, making plays for himself and others. He’s always had the freedom to create in transition or in the half court. But now the Spurs are slowly but surely beginning to run their offense through him.

Against the Jazz, Wembanyama saw a bunch of post-ups that morphed into dribble-handoff action with Devin Vassell, action that turned into baskets or at least good looks at the rim. The Spurs have started to use him as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, which is unique for a player who is 7-foot-4. The Spurs also remain careful by not trying to put too much on him, which is why you seldom see his minutes load swell past 30 but his individual responsibility has increased as the year has gone by.

When you couple that with rebounds that turn into secondary transition opportunities, you can see the Spurs’ vision. Eventually, Wembanyama will be someone with full control of San Antonio’s offense. The Spurs have a long way to go when it comes to roster construction but they are slowly crafting the offense around what Wembanyama has the potential to be several seasons down the road.

“The game is slowing down for him,” Johnson said. “We want to continue the process. We consistently remind him to be disciplined, and to do the little things. We want him to be strong when he’s catching the ball. We go over different nuances on the scouting report, things like that.

“One of the hardest things for us is knowing that he’s capable of doing so much. So, we don’t want to open up the floodgates and put too much on him. We want him to figure things out as he goes. We want to provide the structure where he can continue to grow.”

(Photo of Victor Wembanyama and Walker Kessler: Chris Nicoll / NBAE via Getty Images)

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