Despite Spurs losing streak, Wembanyama sees ‘purpose’ and improvement from team

SAN ANTONIO — Since Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama on Sunday night produced a historic performance against the Denver Nuggets — the first player in NBA history to amass at least 22 points, 11 rebounds, six steals and four blocks in just 25 minutes of a 132-120 loss in Denver — it didn’t seem right to make him address the most negative of active numbers of his rookie season: 12 straight Spurs losses.

So, when Wembanyama met with reporters after a Spurs practice at their Victory Performance Center complex on Tuesday morning, one reporter began a tough question with a pertinent preface: “I hope you won’t find this impertinent, but what’s the greatest number of consecutive losses you’ve ever had before?”

The 19-year-old from France tilted his head in puzzlement.

“What is this impertinent?“ Wembanyama responded. “What does that mean?”

“Smart ass,” admitted the reporter, well aware the phrasing of the question had exceeded the limitations of propriety or good manners.

There was laughter, including from “Wemby,” but what followed was instructive.

“The great number of losses I had probably had to be when I was playing soccer,” Wembanyama said. “We really didn’t have a very good team.”

Wembanyama then described being the goalkeeper on his youth soccer team in Paris, when his height and length in the crease were expected to provide more than enough defense to make the team competitive. The problem then?

“When you’ve got to guard three-on-one fast breaks all day, it is tough,” Wembanyama said. “It wasn’t my fault. Really.”

Sounds a lot like the problem now for his current team.

There have been dozens of fast breaks by Spurs opponents this season. San Antonio ranks 28th in points allowed per game at 123.4. It is a major factor in a 3-14 record that is the worst in the Western Conference. How does a player for whom a 12-game losing streak and a last-place record was heretofore unthinkable maintain a shred of encouragement?

“When I see the purpose every day,” Wembanyama said at a Tuesday practice session where he was the last player to leave the court. “Everybody comes with a purpose and comes to do good at work and everybody knows where we’re going. And, most of the people here have been through everything before. So, yeah, we’re good. We’re in great hands.

“I think what’s satisfying so far is that all the areas that we’ve targeted with the coaches, individual work, we’ve gotten better at it. So, it means we’re not talking for nothing and doing work for nothing. I feel like I’m getting better every day, and it makes sense since it’s my rookie season. I’m still a teenager, but it’s probably the worst Victor we’ll ever see, as I believe I keep getting better and better every year.

“So, it’s promising.”

Promising, and then some, according to someone who knows. Nikola Jokić, Denver’s two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, got an up-close view Sunday night of what “the worst Victor we’ll ever see” already can produce, then warned those who doubt Wembanyama’s future impact.

“He’s going to change the game, 100 percent,” Jokić told reporters in Denver after scoring 39 in the Nuggets’ Sunday night victory. “He’s already on that path, so just enjoy and watch the show and let the guy change the game.”

Though the Spurs have been far more disappointing than anyone in the Alamo City had anticipated, Wembanyama’s play has kept hope alive and kept sellout crowds streaming into Frost Bank Center. Early on, three-year veteran guard Devin Vassell, the team’s No. 2 scorer behind Wembanyama, marveled as the rookie produced viral highlights every night. It was enough to prescribe patience with the process.

“This team right now is going to be so different at Game 30 and Game 45 than we are right now,” Vassell said after a 117-110 loss to Minnesota on Nov. 10. “We’re just figuring it out. There’s so much that’s going on right now.

“I’m being patient, but I also want it at the same time. So, a mutual thing. Trust me, I’m a competitor. I want to win every game.”

A little past halfway to Vassell’s Game 30 benchmark, Wembanyama already has demonstrated the skills that had basketball experts predicting he would be the most impactful No. 1 overall draft pick since LeBron James, in 2003. He will take the floor against the Hawks on Thursday averaging 19.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.3 steals in 30.1 minutes per game.

His averages for November are even better: 20.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. That may be enough for him to land Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors, even though Oklahoma City rookie Chet Holmgren has been a major contributor to the 11-5 Thunder’s surge to second in the West.

Wembanyama, though, doesn’t believe he deserves the honor and swears he doesn’t want it.

“Not when we’re losing,” he said Tuesday morning. “Not at all.”

As much as the losing weighs on him, Wembanyama has maintained a remarkable equanimity that seems to come from a very un-rookie-like mindset that allows him to play without remorse, always focusing on what comes next.

Mistakes — he leads the Spurs in turnovers (3.6 per game) — are quickly forgotten. But, shows of emotion from Wemby, good or bad, are rare.

“He goes to the next play,” Popovich told reporters in Denver on Sunday. “He doesn’t worry about making a mistake or anybody else’s mistake. He is out there to just get better, to figure it out with his team and he’s been playing an all-around game. His defense gets better and better every game as he learns the league and he learns how we want to play.”

Quickly forgetting mistakes, his own and those of his teammates, is paramount for the rookie.

“It really, really matters to me because I think the opposite would be a little bit selfish,” Wembanyama said Tuesday. “I got my teammates around me and I can’t put out that kind of energy. A mistake — I dribble off my foot, or my teammate does whatever — I don’t have to show emotion. Even when I miss a free throw, I don’t show emotions.

“All I want to give to my brothers and my teammates is good energy, and I don’t have to show nothing on the court.”

On Tuesday, he declared he and his teammates will only get better.

“I’m still learning every day, but I know I already got better since the beginning of the season. But, I know the beginning (will) not look like the end.

“As a team, I know we’re going to get so much better, and, also individually. I know it’s going to be from month to month, game to game. Almost it is going to be exponentially better.”

Exponentially better Victor?

If Jokić doesn’t doubt Wembanyama will “change the game,” neither should anyone else.

(Photo of Victor Wembanyama and Nikola Jokić: Bart Young / NBAE via Getty Images)

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