Pictures of past winners of the Las Vegas Summer League tournament plastered the walls around Victor Wenbanyama during a press conference at the Thomas and Mack Center on Friday night. There were NBA stars who played here early in their careers and LeBron James, who made his first public appearance after signing with the team, wearing gold shorts that read “Lakers” on the front. There is also a photo from 2018.
Summer League kicked off the year after James’ rookie season, so the first rookie to watch was Dwight Howard, the top pick in 2004. As Wenbanyama was speaking to reporters, he saw a photo of Howard smiling on the wall to his right.
“The Beatles?” joked one team executive that night when asked what the hype around Wenbanyama, the San Antonio Spurs’ No. 1 overall pick last month, would compare to. The closest comparison in practice is James’ entry into the league in 2003.
Wenbanyama just finished his debut performance wearing the Spurs jersey, scoring nine points, eight rebounds, three assists and five blocks. He made 2 of 13 shots, but sometimes looked tired.
None of this is important to his long-term future, nor is it predictive of what his career will be like. But for Wenbanyama, his first few days in Las Vegas not only introduced him to NBA play, but also informed the absurdity of his fame brilliance. Coming out of the experience, he was a little depressed, but still kept his smile and composure as he continued on his journey.
Wenbanyama just finished his season in France three weeks before the NBA Draft. It was a foregone conclusion that he was chosen as the overall winner, but that moment still brought tears to my eyes.
The Spurs immediately began developing him. The next day, he went to dinner with the organization’s legends, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Manu Ginobili, and began learning from them.
They knew his body needed rest, so he sat out last week’s game in Sacramento to defend his Las Vegas debut. He will also miss this year’s World Cup, which was supposed to strengthen the French national team.
And when Wenbanyama began playing and practicing with the Spurs’ summer league squad, they focused on learning together again.
“The enthusiasm as a coach is obvious,” said Matt Nielsen, who coaches the Spurs summer league team. “He wants to do the right thing.”
Friday night saw Wenbanyama and the Spurs take on the Charlotte Hornets and June’s No. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller.
The Thomas and Mack Center, a well-worn arena on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, dresses up once a year as the center of the NBA world.
A few weeks after the Summer League NBA Draft, all 30 NBA teams are coming together with rosters including the latest draft picks to hopefully avoid injury during exhibition games. Scouts, team owners and executives dot the lower bowls, while the league’s biggest stars leave casinos, clubs and sponsor appearances to stop and sometimes sit courtside for games.
A typical Summer League crowd might fill half of the lower bowl, but a good crowd could pack it in and spill over to the upper deck. On Friday night, the entire arena was packed with some 18,000 spectators looking to see something great.
Wenbanyama had some bright moments, but not the ones the audience had been waiting for with bated breath. He missed layups and dunks on all 11 shots he threw. He wasn’t the center of the Spurs’ offense for most of the game. Defensively, his natural build and eight-foot wingspan allowed him to block jump shots even when they were delayed.
On at least one occasion, Miller fell victim to 16 points and 11 rebounds on 5-of-15 shooting.
After the match, Wenbanyama said he wanted to improve his conditioning and said he was “exhausted” every time he came out of the game. He said he needs a better understanding of the plays demanded by point guards and the team’s defensive system.
“I wasn’t sure what I was doing on the court tonight, but I’m trying to learn for the next game,” Wenbanyama said. “The important thing is to be ready for the season.”
It was Wenbanyama’s calm reaction. He wasn’t feeling very well, but he still seemed to keep his composure.
That didn’t stop observers from drawing conclusions about his future, or fans of pop star Britney Spears mocking his performances.
Yes, it’s Britney Spears.
She tried to approach Wenbanyama from behind Wednesday night but was stopped by a Spurs guard who waved his left arm at her. Las Vegas police said the security guard’s actions had punched Mr. Spears in the face, but Mr. Spears said he went too far and asked for an apology.
Wenbanyama said she never saw her face during the face-to-face meeting, but that left her fans frustrated. Police said no charges would be filed.
This minor controversy marked the beginning of Wenbanyama’s Las Vegas career, highlighting the absurdity that accompanies fame. But like any memory of a mediocre start, it fades as Wenbanyama’s career progresses.