Even if you haven’t seen The Karate Kid, you know that scene. The one where Daniel, with a white hachimaki pulled tightly around his noggin, complains about the menial chores handed down to him by Mr. Miyagi. Fence painting? Deck sanding? Where’s the karate?
Of course, then we see that each of Daniel’s tasks has prepared him to take down Cobra Kai (until the latter’s renaissance nearly 40 years later). It’s a moment that’s been recreated time and again, so even if you haven’t seen the 1984 hit, you’re no doubt familiar with the trope. At the conclusion of the a-ha moment, Mr. Miyagi enjoins a wide-eyed Daniel to “Come back tomorrow.”
Now, what does a scrawny, undersized Italian-American youth have to do with the San Antonio Spurs’ seven-foot-three French basketball phenom? Maybe not much, aside from both of them being teens with a steadfast desire for access to “more information,” something Victor Wembanyama requested of coaches several times since training camp started.
In other words, Wemby wants to do more than paint fences. He wants to see the entire Spurs playbook, bow at the foot of the Ark, climb Mt. Everest, etc.
But Gregg Popovich, who’s sporting his own Miyagi-esque white facial hair these days, and the coaches have been quick to pump the brakes. “They keep telling me not to worry. It’s going to come naturally,” Wembanyama explained.
His desire to sprint before he crawls is another in a continually-growing string of tantalizing signs for the Spurs. It’s a glimpse into the inner workings of his mind. He wants to drink the ocean. He’s a fanatic, which, according to two-time MVP and reigning Finals champ Nikola Jokic, is the very essence of success:
“If you want to be good, you need to be a fanatic in basketball; that needs to be your life,” Jokic told Zeljko Obradovic, a nine-time EuroLeague champion.
But Wembanyama’s desire to learn isn’t so severe that it’s abrasive.
While Daniel LaRusso barges in on Mr. Miyagi and demands answers, Victor-san trusts in his mentors. He even chuckles that he has more time for naps now that he’s surrounded by a battalion of trainers and staffers. “Last year … I had to make sure the floor was clean before practice,” he jokes, relieved that the only role he’s expected to fulfill on San Antonio is that of player.
And frankly, such a cool demeanor is refreshing.
In an era where players are quasi-GMs, check themselves in and out of games, and use their index fingers to direct trades as much as the half-court offense, it’s refreshing to see a player able to allow the team to guide his development.
The Spurs, for their part, are wise to have the lessons come nice and easy. What’s the rush?
Where there’s a plan, each lesson builds. When each lesson builds, it’s impossible to skip steps. On one hand, Wemby has every right to want a fast-track to the “Spurs Way” – he’s the most hyped Frenchman since Napoleon Bonaparte, playing for a team that’s completed its own Reign of Terror. On the other, he’s a teenager entering the most challenging basketball league in the world.
Before he knows it, Wembanyama will be called on to help the coaches make mid-game adjustments. The entire playbook will open up, and the trust will be in the player’s hands. But, crucially, that only comes at the end of the natural progression.
As for when a player is handed the keys to the castle, it comes down to one person.
“I must stress that the coach ultimately decides,” Obradovic concluded in the interview with Jokic.
I referenced this interview on the @DNVR_Nuggets podcast today.— Adam Mares (@Adam_Mares) September 19, 2023
Jokic surprised Obradovic (Phil Jackson of Euroleague) when he told him that he watched his seminar.
He also pointed out a detail in one of Obradovic’s games and suggested an adjustment that Obradović has since… pic.twitter.com/grm8GWixeA
The Spurs are currently in the infancy stages of its own Miyagi-Daniel LaRusso-inspired journey. But it takes two – the fiery athlete and sage mentor – to pull it off. Thankfully, it looks like Spurs have precisely the ingredients to make it happen.
Oh, and don’t mistake Wembanyama’s calmness for apathy. He’s asking for more of the Spurs’ playbook for a reason. He’s starving to achieve his potential and, in all likelihood, will remain ravenous until the day he retires.
Put another way, Wemby will come back tomorrow.