SAN ANTONIO – The Victor Wembanyama experience had largely lulled people to sleep.
Up until the 7:12 mark of the fourth quarter of the No. 1 pick’s NBA debut, Wembanyama had largely shown a penchant for fouling and being ignored by San Antonio Spurs teammates in the post, with a couple of bright moments mixed in.
But when Wembanyama was peeled off the Spurs’ bench one final time in the fourth quarter, with his team trailing by five, he transformed into a planet basketball fans hope he becomes all of the time.
The 19-year-old, 7-foot-4 Frenchman who entered the league with enormous hype, shot 6-of-9 from the field with five rebounds, two steals, a block, five turnovers and five fouls that nearly let all the air out of his debut.
“It might have been frustrating, but always keeping my head up is good for my teammates,” Wembanyama said afterwards. “I can’t show it (frustration) on the court. We learn, we learn every day.”
Wembanyama, who was born in the western Paris suburb of Le Chesnay and was the French pro league’s MVP and Defensive Player of the Year last season, picked up his fifth foul just 26 seconds into the fourth quarter when he raked Dončić over the arm.
It was fair to question whether coach Gregg Popovich would give him another chance — he’d missed the final 8:37 of the third quarter because of his fourth foul, a charge.
But Pop, a five-time NBA champion and the league’s winningest coach, not only went back to Wembanyama. He made sure the Spurs looked for him.
Wemby finished a roll to the rim by catching a lob. He drained a 3-pointer with 6:04 and then his catch and dunk in traffic with 4:56 to go put the Spurs ahead, 113-112.
Wembanyama had one more big moment — a feathery jumper over Dallas’ Grant Williams to tie the game at 115.
WELCOME TO THE WEMBY ERA 🙌
7-4 Victor Wembanyama’s first NBA basket comes from behind the three-point line…
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) October 26, 2023
The Spurs stalled and Dončić closed out the game with 10 of his 33 points in the final frame. He added 14 rebounds and 10 assists, and his 3-pointer with 30.1 seconds left but Dallas ahead by seven.
Kyrie Irving added 22 points for the Mavericks, including a 3-pointer with 1:51 to put Dallas up for good, and a layup off a Dončić steal with 1:24 left for a 123-119 advantage.
Wembanyama’s debut started out so promising before taking an extended nap.
Irving has made a career out of steering his 6-foot-2 frame into a lane of giants, spinning around them and improbably making shots at the rim.
But shooting a jumper over Wemby? It’s an entirely new, and difficult, task for Irving and the rest of the NBA.
On his first defensive possession, Wembanyama closed on Irving and swatted away his jumper near the foul line. Those shots simply aren’t supposed to be blocked by a defender who isn’t guarding the shooter, but Wembanyama is so quick and so long that he was able to get to Irving’s shot even though it was well out of his hand.
The 18,947 Spurs fans on hand, in the building to see the reintroduction of their proud franchise to the national stage after years of dormancy, were delirious over the block.
And you can bet they loved it — loved it — when Wembanyama’s first 3-pointer splashed at 8:24 in the first quarter.
Within a span of four minutes, Wemby had already become the tallest 3-and-D player in NBA history.
“I want to give the best show to the fans, especially here in San Antonio and in France,” Wembanyama said. “But it’s still my job — I’ve got responsibilities toward my coach and my teammates. So really (pressure) is not what matters.”
There were more than 200 media credential requests made for reporters from eight countries, a Spurs official said.
“Victor’s had a lot of attention pointed toward him for a very long time,” Popovich said. “And, you know, that’s not going to change. Fortunately for us, he’s a really mature, prioritized young man and knows what he wants. He’s already a pro. He’s a professional. I don’t have to teach him what it means to be a pro. His parents and other coaches have already done that.”
This story will be updated.
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(Photo: Daniel Dunn / USA Today)