LAS VEGAS – Giddy pre-teens strutted through a busy exhibit hall at the inaugural NBA Con on Saturday, cradling fresh boxes of sneakers, while a teenager sat on a couch in a cramped back room and chopped it up with legends.
As triple-digit temperatures baked the streets outside the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, San Antonio Spurs French phenom Victor Wembanyama held a microphone and a captive audience hung on his every word in a conversation about the NBA’s past and future.
“As of today, I’m just a rookie,” the French phenom told Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Isiah Thomas, who moderated the panel discussion. “I don’t have one NBA game in me. I just have everything to learn. The truth was, well, I didn’t know what I was doing [in the NBA Summer League opener on Friday]. And for the next matches I probably won’t know what I’m doing either. But it will come as time goes by and hopefully we will be ready for the season. I’m still a child. [I’m] just ready to learn.”
Wembanyama took another solid step in that direction Sunday with a rebuttal in Game 2 of his NBA 2K24 Summer League experience. Fresh off a shaky performance Friday in his debut, Wembanyama hit the gas early, speeding to a 4-for-5 shooting first half that returned 11 points with six rebounds, a pair of blocks and just one turnover.
As “go Spurs, go” chants echoed in pockets throughout the arena near the end of San Antonio’s 85-80 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the rookie would finish the contest with a team-high 27 points on 9-for-14 shooting , 12 rebounds in the game, three blocks and a steal, cementing an eye-popping glimpse of what appears to be on the horizon.
“I wish we would have won the game,” said Wembanyama. “Personally, it’s normal to get better every game. Two days ago was my first game. I had so much going on with the draft. For me, it’s just me becoming comfortable with myself and my body. Before today I had two practices and one match. So it’s just a matter of getting started.”
Wembanyama turned up the aggression from the start, drilling his second try of the night from 17 feet out with 4:44 left in the opening quarter. An overly reverent start to his debut last Friday negatively affected the rookie’s ability to find a rhythm. Wembanyama made up for it in Game 2, lighting up Portland for nine points on 3-of-3 shooting in the second quarter alone.
“It’s Summer League and he’s got a big future, a big season coming up and all that,” Spurs assistant coach Matt Nielsen said. “But there’s no doubt there’s a lot of attention and I’d be lying if he didn’t feel some of it [in the summer league opener]. I can’t speak for him. But I think he showed the talent that he is and the resilience that he just stepped up and wanted to get better in the areas that we talked about. He did a great job.”
The rookie picked up 16 of his 27 points in the second half as San Antonio rallied from a 13-point deficit with 6:19 left to play to close the gap to one point with 1:58 left on the big man’s 26-footer. an assist from Malachi Branham.
“He’s great,” Spurs guard Blake Wesley said. “He’s a great person on and off the court. He had a rough first as you can see. But he came back like he said he was. He’s gifted.”
The performance ended a 22-day odyssey, taking off from France and landing in New York for the NBA Draft. The day after the Spurs selected Wembanyama No. 1 overall, the big man touched down in San Antonio for a formal introduction to the city when an enterprising citizen introduced the 19-year-old to breakfast tacos while a private jet sat idling nearby. the asphalt. An epic dinner at the chef’s table at Bliss followed hours later, and the new Spur peppered franchise legends Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, David Robinson and Sean Elliott with a barrage of questions about how best to handle his new life in the spotlight.
Soon after, Wembanyama boarded a plane bound for Portland to take care of some off-court business at Nike before heading back to San Antonio to do a handful of practices with his new teammates.
By July 6, Wembanyama would find himself back on a plane headed to join the Spurs in Las Vegas ahead of his NBA Summer League debut on Friday.
Fast turnaround, for sure. But for Wembanyama this marked the beginning of the journey.
He stays in Las Vegas for a few more days, supporting his new teammates while completing a brutal daily schedule that consists of at least five different time commitments with different units tipping each morning. It’s unlikely he’ll play another minute of competitive basketball before the start of the upcoming preseason.
In fact, when Wembanyama returns to San Antonio, the club plans to sit down with him to discuss what’s next before deciding on the next course of action based on what the player wants.
“I’m glad it’s over,” the rookie said of his whirlwind schedule of non-basketball activities. “I just want to tumble. I just want to work out, [and] lift because this is my life. Every first election must go through this. It just makes me better for the future.”
In just two outings in Las Vegas, the rookie would quickly come to understand the magnitude of his presence. The illuminated digital signage that greets visitors driving into the Thomas & Mack Center parking lot constantly reads “Event Sold Out.” Indeed, the NBA Summer League sold out its first three days in Las Vegas, while Wembanyama’s two performances generated capacity crowds.
Abdul-Jabbar watched Wembanyama’s summer league debut from a courtside seat while a contingent of Spurs including coach Gregg Popovich, assistant coach Brett Brown, general manager Brian Wright and CEO RC Buford sat a few rows back and took in the moment. Veteran teammates Jeremy Sochan, Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell also took part in Wembanyama’s debut.
Interestingly, Popovich, 74, signed a five-year extension the day after Wembanyama’s NBA Summer League debut.
“It really means a lot to me that such amazing people were there for my game yesterday,” Wembanyama told Abdul-Jabbar and Thomas. “You said it was an honor for you to be with us. But it’s really an honor for me to be with you two. Yesterday during the game, every time I got the ball, I heard people start cheering. Really all this love, all this attention, I think the best thing the fans can do for me as a rookie, as a new player, [is] just [show] That love. I hope I can give it back over the years and I think the best way for me to give it back to the fans is to get some rings.”
Abdul-Jabbar and Thomas own a combined eight.
“The difficulty is learning how you can best contribute to a winning effort,” Abdul-Jabbar explained to Wembanyama. “That’s what you have to learn how to do with your skills. You’re going to find out what it’s basically in the preseason. You’re going to find out a lot about that.”
Wembanyama already seems to be gaining an understanding of the importance of rest, time management skills and saying the word “no”.
Shortly after the rookie wrapped up his conversation with Abdul-Jabbar and Thomas, he moved to another stage at NBA Con to participate in the league’s announcement of the new In-Season Tournament during a live broadcast on ESPN. Joining young stars on stage in Trae Young, Cade Cunningham, Paolo Banchero, Anthony Edwards as well as Golden State coach Steve Kerr, Wembanyama announced the participants in Group B of the Western Conference In-Season Tournament field.
Later that evening, the new Spur was scheduled to appear at the Summer Players Party at Tao nightclub, hosted by Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin and the NBA’s Players Association. Rapper Lil Baby performed at the event with players such as James Harden, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum and Chet Holmgren in attendance.
However, Wembanyama was a no-show.
He declined to attend the exclusive invite-only party despite signing the richest deal in Fanatics history. The rookie instead opted to rest heading into Sunday’s matchup against the Trail Blazers, maintaining a disciplined sleep regimen that includes the forward putting away his phone for the night well before 1 p.m. 22.00 on most occasions.
“It takes a while. You’ve got things to learn,” Abdul-Jabbar told the future Spurs franchise before looking into the crowd.
“He’s an intelligent young man. He’ll get it done.”
Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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