The San Antonio Spurs are really, really good at getting the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft when franchise-altering big men are available. The team got David Robinson in 1987 with the first overall pick, and a decade later, they found themselves in the same spot when they selected Tim Duncan.
Fast forward to 2023 and Gregg Popovich got the most exciting prospect coming into the league since LeBron James. While it’s an oversimplification to say that the only thing that matters this season is getting Victor Wembanyama used to life in the NBA, the young Frenchman’s ability to consistently impact winning on a nightly basis will be something to watch. Rookies just don’t do that, but rookies aren’t like Wembanyama, who comes to the NBA after playing professionally in France. He has been working for years towards being able to hit the ground running in the league. While San Antonio will lose a bunch of games this year for no reason other than the Western Conference is brutal, Wembanyama is the new face of a talented core that will — if all goes right — lead the Spurs back to the heights they experienced when Robinson and Duncan were in town.
Biggest Question: How Good Will Victor Wembanyama Be Right Away?
The eyes of the basketball watching world are going to be on the Spurs this season explicitly because of Wembanyama. Even his highlights in the preseason make clear that we’ve never quite seen someone like this before — he might already be one of the 10-best defenders in the NBA, as his length, athleticism, and instincts are all things that completely change how an offense wants to attack on that end of the floor. Seriously, what on earth is this?
Just dribbling around him is a recipe for disaster, let alone trying to challenge him at the rim. But the thing that will dictate how good Wembanyama is from the jump in the NBA is his play on the offensive end of the floor. We’ll have to see just how much he’s asked to do right away, especially considering that San Antonio will presumably put him in the starting lineup with two guys who were effective scorers last season in Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell. It’s not hard to imagine a universe where Popovich decides to bring Wembanyama along slowly, let him get his feet under him, and let him get used to the stuff that you just can’t get used to until you’re actually dropped into an NBA basketball game for the first time.
Having said that, the early returns in the preseason indicate that the Spurs aren’t going to take things easy on him. Through four games, Wembanyama (who has played in three of them) leads San Antonio in points (19.3) and field goal attempts (12.7) per game. His five attempts from three per game is second on the team, behind only Vassell. His usage percentage of 35.2 percent leads the team by a lot. It’s all small sample size stuff, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll dive head-first into being a No. 1 option once the regular season starts, but it at least suggests that Popovich is willing to let him learn on the fly. And if that ends up working out? Perhaps we will, indeed, see a rookie make an All-Star team for the first time in more than a decade.
X-Factor: Jeremy Sochan
There aren’t as many players in the league as weird as Sochan, and this is meant to be a major compliment. Everything about his game is funky — he’s 6’9, a wonderful connecting piece on the offensive end of the floor, finds ways to put his fingerprints all over the place on defense, and plays with a kind of visible joy that is contagious. He has a pretty obvious flaw in his shooting, as he was at 24.6% on threes last year and started shooting free throws with one hand last year, but he also just turned 20 and has a ton of growing as a basketball player ahead of him.
He’s known Wembanyama for quite some time, and the two of them are interesting compliments for one another. Wembanyama is obviously the superstar, face of the franchise guy, while Sochan seems incredibly content to do whatever is asked of him to help his team win. That sort of player is invaluable if you’re an up-and-coming squad that is trying to build an identity, and seeing as how we have a pretty good understanding of what Johnson and Vassell (both of whom agreed to long-term extension with the team) are going to be as pros, Sochan’s malleability is a superpower. His individual development, particularly as a shooter, is going to be fascinating to watch, and it’s going to be fun watching all the ways Pop uses him to try and unlock the best version of Sochan.