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Victor Wembanyama receives a welcome party, then an education

The first overall pick’s debut was marred by foul trouble, buoyed by a spirited run, and ultimately punctuated with a loss.

Dallas Mavericks v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We’ve had the hyped-up Summer League games, countless media hits, a tabloid-grabbing incident with a pop star and a preseason packed with highlights and international attention — and somehow everything felt like a dress rehearsal for Wednesday’s frenetic season opener for the Spurs and Victor Wembanyama.

The Wemby Effect continues to be felt in new ways. Turn onto AT&T Center Parkway (a street name change to reflect the arena’s makeover is imminent) and you’re greeted by Wembanyama’s likeness on a billboard pushing Balance Water. In Wednesday’s nationally televised affair, the media parking lot and writers’ room were both uncharacteristically at capacity, and that’s not to speak of the throngs of fans (and media) crowding the players’ tunnel pre-game for a chance at an up-close glimpse of the man of the hour, year and hopefully decade-plus, before packing the Frost Bank Center to the rafters.

Both team and player left something to be desired in a 126-119 loss to the visiting Dallas Mavericks. With the world watching, the Spurs offense sputtered through the final 3 quarters, no one could stay in front of Luka Doncic, and Wembanyama saw only 23 minutes of action due to foul trouble. He finished with 15 points and 5 rebounds, and the Spurs took the L despite being up by as many as 12 and possessing a euphoric home-court advantage.

The early moments seemed to justify the fanfare. Wembanyama took all of 35 seconds to get his first NBA block — on a Kyrie Irving attempted mid-ranger. Fans had to wait a bit longer — 3 minutes and change — to celebrate Wembanyama’s first pro bucket, a pick-and-pop three served up, fittingly, by the other face of the team, Devin Vassell. Vassell led all Spurs on the night with 23 points and 5 rebounds.

There wasn’t much preferential treatment for Wembanyama in those early whistles, but he had only himself to blame for his 5th foul early in the 4th quarter. The big man was caught reaching (slapping?) at a driving Doncic, giving the refs no choice but to ding him and giving Pop no choice but to pull him back to the bench. Still, an adjustment to NBA officiating may be part of his learning curve.

While Wembanyama sat, he was able to watch a fully realized offensive hub continue to do his thing. Called another “Hall of Fame performance” by Gregg Popovich in post-game, Doncic waltzed around every defender the Spurs threw his way en route to 33, 13 and 10. Whereas Wembanyama’s 4 field goal attempts in the first half were all from beyond the arc, Doncic found a balance in how he attacked in isolation and also played a big role in the debut of the night’s other rookie big man, Dereck Lively II, who feasted off Doncic by rolling hard and using his size to finish strong around the basket.

Wembanyama might reflect on how to be more aggressive on offense and selective with his swipes on defense, and the Spurs will also keep learning how to best leverage his talents, be it through sets, reconsiderations of starting lineups, or collective awareness for where he is on the floor. Teammates routinely missed him on opportunities under the basket and, while Pop clearly emphasized creating closer looks for Wembanyama when he subbed back in during the final frame, those moments were lacking in crunch time.

To the rookie’s credit, he salvaged his statline and some good will with a spirited 4th quarter run, which included a lob finish, an and-one dunk off a Wemby Leak, a pull-up three-pointer and a mid-range that came off a set similar to one run constantly for Tim Duncan. That he did them at all was a reminder of his rare talents; that he did so with 5 fouls in the middle of a frustrating night spoke to the mental fortitude which should help him bring them all together.

The effort could’ve built towards a walk-off iconic performance for Wembanyama had the team closed better, but Pop still made a point of recognizing in post-game.

“I think it’s one of the toughest things for a player to get in foul trouble, and you can never get a rhythm, and you’re in and out of the game. I thought maturity showed even at a young age where he came back in the last seven minutes and played. We ran some stuff for him, he executed, where a lot of guys would have been totally out of it by then because as you said, he was in foul trouble and didn’t get his rhythm. So, I thought he had a wonderful outing, considering.”

The 19-year-old player and 74-year-old coach shared a moment in the Frost Bank Center corridors before he took the court to warm up. The words of advice, though muffled by the eager echoes above, seemed to contextualize the night as the first of many for the rookie. Yes, there’s an undeniable symbolism to Game 1, an immutable fervor, but it is just Game 1 of 82.

Fortunately for Wembanyama and the Spurs, it’s a short turnaround until the next test, Friday against the Houston Rockets. Another home game should bring a similar level of intensity as fans brace for the unexpected, whether that means more jaw-dropping highlights, hard-earned lessons or another chance for Wembanyama to mint his first NBA moment.