What a difference a year makes
The Spurs owe a debt of gratitude to the basketball gods, and Gregg Popovich is more than happy to act in good faith.
Last fall, when Gregg Popovich took the podium at Spurs media day ahead of what would become a well-planned developmental season — not to mention a long-term play for Victor Wembanyama — the mood was jovial. Perhaps even more so than usual during the annual event that’s always filled with positivity.
He was full of jokes, advising local media and everyone listening on the outside they shouldn’t bet on his Spurs to win the title last season, while not so subtly distracting from the slog that would eventually ensue. It was about to be a long six months, so it was smart to provide some levity while he still could.
But Monday’s yearly kickoff to the NBA season in San Antonio felt more businesslike — still lighthearted, but with greater expectations. Relatively speaking, at least.
“Even in the losses there were some great moments and some real competitiveness on the part of a lot of those guys. And of course when you add a player with Victor’s abilities, your prospects look better,” Pop said. “But this year, with development, I think one of the important factors to enhance that development is winning. Winning is as important this year as learning was in the past. So they’ve got to continue to learn, but adding more wins is appropriate, mandatory and helpful.”
Still, even as the team adds an immense talent in Wembanyama, its overall rawness and inexperience compared to the rest of a stacked Western Conference has them looking at some of the longest title odds in the league. Pop refused to give gambling advice this time around, but if he had to make a statement it would have probably sounded a lot like the one he playfully gave last year at this time.
San Antonio is still a ways out from contending for a championship, but now that it has its centerpiece in place, the necessary ramp-up toward that ultimate goal can commence. Last year served as a crash course for teaching young players how to be professionals; this year, it’s about putting those lessons into practice.
“Even when we were set to compete for championships, we never talked about wins, losses, playoffs. The only statement I ever made was, we wanted to be the best team we could be by playoff time. So I don’t talk about expectations with them,” Pop said. “It’s pretty inherently obvious we want to win. These guys wouldn’t be at this level if they weren’t winners, so I don’t think I need to beat them over the head with ‘this goal and this goal and this goal and this goal.’ Let’s just go play our asses off, compete, obey the basketball gods, respect and love each other, and we’ll see where we go.”
But this is also a time for experimentation. Perhaps the idea of taking trial runs with an unfinished product doesn’t quite mesh with the goal of winning — at least at first — but it’s an unavoidable step in the process of figuring out how the known pieces fit alongside the alien lifeform the Spurs are introducing to their lineup, even as they understand the strengths of Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Tre Jones, Zach Collins, Doug McDermott and others.
It’s a beautiful conundrum, not knowing whether or not a 7’5 guy is better on the block or outside the 3-point line. And in case you believe it’s hyperbole when Wembanyama is referred to as ‘something we’ve never seen,’ even the folks inside those practice-facility walls are trying to grasp what they’ve got in the lab.
When asked about how his prized rookie would be used, Pop responded, “I have no idea.” And while one could probably assume he’s got at least an inkling of a plan, Wemby’s versatility presents the coaching staff with a challenge it has never faced. On Tuesday, with the official start of training camp, that group will get its first opportunity this season to take a hands-on approach. But it’s going to have to take a second to assess.
“We’ll watch him for the next couple of weeks without saying too much of anything to him, just so we understand his idiosyncrasies, the way he plays the game, how his body works, and that sort of thing,” Pop said. “Everybody else, we know their game. We know what they do, so we’ve got to do the same with him.”
Despite not being able to formally practice, San Antonio has at least had a head start. Players have been in the gym all summer, running minicamps and open gyms under the watchful eye of staff as often as they’ve been able to do so. But even more importantly for Victor, the training room has been open for business. For all the attention he’s paid to his body over the years, he’s never been able to reap the benefits that come with playing for an NBA franchise until now, and it’s been a welcomed experience for a man who requires this level of care.
“Everything here is done with a purpose. I remember last year (in France), it was a really nice year but it was also really tough. Because we didn’t have the same infrastructure, we couldn’t run the same tests,” Wembanyama said. “I’ve learned as much about my body in these past three months as I had learned in the past five years. So, when I say we work smarter, it’s because we know a lot more, and the Spurs know a lot more than any of my teams before.”
Priority No. 1 for both the Spurs and Wemby’s camp was making sure they had a plan in place to keep this kid healthy. Their livelihood depends on it, and so does his. The league’s historical pathways are littered with bigs whose bodies failed them, simply because humans of that size are not built to perform the way they’re asked to on a basketball court without intensive observation and treatment.
But modern science and medicine have provided players like him with as good a chance to succeed as they’ve ever had, to the point where after just a few months in an NBA program, the main focus of conversation can be about basketball … and that’s it. Don’t get it twisted: They’ll be monitoring every step he takes, and the new Victory Capital Performance Center may eventually be remembered as ‘The House that Wemby Built,’ with a sign out front stating that he owns the place. But in general, San Antonio at least has a real level of confidence in what it will be able to do next from a health standpoint.
From an X’s and O’s standpoint? Well, we’ll see.
“Training camp is going to be really important for us as coaches to see how we think (everyone) fits. Is Wemby going to be a five, is he going to be a four, is he going to be a three? Is he going to play alongside Zach (Collins)? Are we gonna put him in the post?” Popovich asked excitedly. “If not, is he a perimeter player? Who does he fit best with out there? What should the rotations be? A lot of really cool questions we’ll get to answer.”
And those are cool questions. From the casual fan to the basketball nerd, or the coaching fraternity to the fraternity at your nearest college campus, there’s a level of excitement that stems from the deepest love of the sport — one that’s always searching for something new and different. Players at media day spoke about Wemby with a sense of awe, as if they couldn’t comprehend how a sport that has consumed their entire lives could be played this way by a person of that stature. They couldn’t explain it, except to say (on multiple occasions), “Y’all are gonna have a great time watching him.”
A year removed from setting out on a campaign they knew would be difficult for everyone from the players to the fans, the Spurs seem ready to release some pent-up energy. And with Wembanyama in tow, they’re about to do so with the reward they sought in exchange for a season of struggle.
Only the basketball gods can stop them now, and fortunately for San Antonio, Popovich has made it a point to pay homage even when his team’s wounds were self-inflicted. If those higher powers were watching, they’d know it was all for the best.
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