This is technically the first, but spiritually the second, in an ongoing series as we attempt to make sense of Victor Wembanyama’s development and early usage. Some of it may stick, some of it won’t, but it should all provide a snapshot of the Spurs’ process and Wembanyama’s myriad strengths.
Cherrypicking in French is cueillete des cerises, which doesn’t sound quite as pejorative as when playing pickup ball and someone sells out for an easy basket. For Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs, the concept also seems agreeable, at least in these early days of Pop and Co. kicking the tires on everything their multifaceted rookie can do on the floor.
In their preseason opener against Oklahoma City, the team continued a trend they explored in the Silver and Black Scrimmage in which Wembanyama leaks out early to establish position and/or get behind an unset defense for an advantage or quick bucket. This isn’t revolutionary stuff, and it obviously didn’t happen on every possession, but it’s another pinhole into how the Spurs choose to leverage Wembanyama’s talents.
As in their open scrimmage, the results of Wembanyama looking to get behind the defense were mixed, but still fun to watch and attempt to unpack. Whereas the main issue in the scrimmage was the accuracy on the hit-ahead passes, the loss against the Thunder showed other trade-offs on the defensive side.
Below, Wembanyama looks to time a dash off a Thunder miss, disappearing off-frame. While Chet Holmgren tries to stick with him, the OKC big is better positioned to return to the play and finish off a cut to the rim, Wembanyama still trailing behind him.
Minutes later, a similar possession but a different result: the Spurs give up multiple looks at the basket with Wembanyama already 20-plus feet away from the play. This time Tre Jones comes away with the ball and is able to dime Wembanyama up for a high-percentage look.
The Spurs will know the cost of pulling a 7-3 player with an 8-foot wingspan away from the defensive glass, but Wemby is not your typical big. He spent much of his preseason debut guarding 6-5 Jalen Williams on the perimeter, the type of assignment that likely offers advantages both tactical and related to reducing the wear on his body. If the Spurs weren’t interested in matching him against the 195-pound Chet Holmgren, it’s safe to assume they’ll be equally averse with bulkier, more traditional 5s. (The Thunder going small also matters here. Matchups against two-big lineups may alter how liberal the Spurs are with Wemby Leaks.)
With Wembanyama away from the paint, he should have more bandwidth to use his length to freelance, whether it’s bringing help around the basket, beating opponents down the floor, or in the case of the highlight below, bending space and time to create a turnover before beating his opponent down the floor.
Imagine an invisible dial next to each wrinkle in the Spurs’ Wembanyama experiment. Also imagine a sh*t ton of dials. What feels deliberate, even forced in these early days, will likely file into a deep bag of nuances that the Spurs or Wemby will audible to as time goes on. With Wemby Leaks, as with every other play that catches the eye this season, Pop and his staff will continue to tinker, evaluate and see what works and what frequency for such a unique prospect. We get to sit back and watch.