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Victor Wembanyama overcomes adversity in NBA debut, but Spurs drop season opener to the Mavericks

The rookie struggled with foul trouble for three quarters before coming alive in the fourth, but the Spurs closed out the game poorly and the Mavericks pounced to secure the win.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs couldn’t start the Victor Wembanyama era with a win. After struggling with foul trouble for the first three quarters, the standout rookie came alive in the fourth to score nine of his total 15 points, but bad execution by San Antonio and great plays from the Mavericks’ stars allowed Dallas to secure a 126-119 victory on the road.

There were questions about whether the Spurs’ preseason performances were indicative of how they were going to look in the regular season, and those were answered quickly. San Antonio, using its tall ball starting lineup, played disruptive defense and tried to get out in transition while looking for mismatches in the half-court. Sochan was the one tasked with walking the ball up court the most often but anyone who got a rebound was free to push the pace. It was an extremely encouraging start to the matchup that was only missing one key ingredient: Victor Wembanyama domination. The big man, who had all eyes on him, couldn’t stay out of foul trouble in the first quarter and was used mostly in the perimeter, as the Mavericks did their best to keep him out of the paint. Despite a performance from the rookie that was less spectacular than anticipated, San Antonio looked great on offense and led by seven after one.

The second quarter didn’t have the explosive scoring of the first 12 minutes, as the pace slowed down a little and both teams dealt with droughts, but it was entertaining nevertheless. Both squads went to their more reliable scorers for stretches, with Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic getting Dallas buckets and Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson doing the same for San Antonio. The Silver and Black still hunted r mismatches inside, feeding Zach Collins against smaller players, but a half-court battle is not where the Spurs shine. Wembanyama remained quiet during this period, as the ball handlers simply couldn’t find him in good positions to score and his own eagerness to make plays on defense led him to leave his man open a few times. Dallas couldn’t really capitalize on San Antonio’s sluggishness in what ended up being a close period but chipped away at the deficit.

The big question in everyone’s mind after the break was how Wembanyama would deal with adversity. The early results were not good, as a clearly uncomfortable Wemby made some bad mistakes and quickly picked up more fouls. The rough stretch from the rookie affected the team, which looked discombobulated for a few minutes. To be fair, Jason Kidd deserves credit for what would be a huge quarter for the Mavericks because of a crucial adjustment. Rookie center Dereck Lively started the second half, giving Luka Doncic a dangerous dive man and lob threat, which absolutely dismantled San Antonio’s drop defense on the pick and roll. The threes were not falling for the Spurs and Vassell and especially Johnson didn’t step up to create shots, which gave Dallas took control of the game. The only reason things didn’t get out of hand was a fantastic performance from Tre Jones, which kept San Antonio in it.

The start of the fourth saw Wembanyama pick his fifth foul almost immediately, but fortunately Johnson woke up to have one of his characteristic great stretches to keep the game close. The teams traded buckets for a while before Pop pulled off an adjustment of his own. Wembanyama checked in at center, with a point guard and shooters around him. The Spurs, which barely ran plays for the rookie earlier, rapidly got him involved and he showed off his tremendous talent with a quick nine points in the frame to keep the score tied with under four minutes to go. Unfortunately, as the game came down to the wire, the more experienced Mavs looked more poised and their closers took over while San Antonio struggled to create any good looks. In the end Dallas escaped with a close win in what was an entertaining matchup to watch.

Play of the game

Wemby leaking out, getting the ball over the top of the defender and finishing strong. We’ll be seeing this a lot this season.

Game notes

  • For a second there in the fourth quarter, it seemed like Wemby was going to have a debut right out of a movie. After really struggling for most of the game, he came in hot and seemed on his way to overcoming adversity and getting the Spurs the win. It didn’t end up happening, but it was great to see him react the way that he did. It was a decent debut for the rookie, who didn’t crumble under pressure.
  • Devin Vassell’s mid-range jumper is a thing of beauty and when he’s feeling it, he looks like a future star. He also had some good drives and did a passable job on defense. All that was missing was the three ball, but everyone has off nights from outside. Encouraging first game of the season for Devin.
  • Keldon Johnson had a couple of possessions in the first half in which he used some smooth ball handling to create for himself. That’s new. Unfortunately, he couldn’t replicate that success in the clutch and, just like Vassell, he disappeared at times. Still, 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists are nothing to scoff at. If Keldon can be a creator, the starter’s half-court offense could be viable.
  • Speaking of starters, Jeremy Sochan had a rough one in his first night as the official point guard. There’s a difference between being able to pass and being able to create and Sochan hasn’t mastered the latter skill yet. He did walk the ball up court and handle the full-court pressure he received well enough, but he didn’t have a good night in the role he’s supposed to play. He also got killed by Doncic on the other end, but that happens to most people.
  • It feels like the Spurs’ drop defense has been a problem for a decade, at least. Poor Zach Collins didn’t know what to do when Doncic used a Lively screen. He’s just not long, athletic or savvy enough to defend in that setting. Charles Bassey didn’t fair that much better, either. The centers didn’t play poorly and it’s possible to say that Collins, who had 14 points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks actually played well, but they simply had no chance against an elite pick-and-roll maestro and a good dive man.
  • Cedi Osman and Doug McDermott probably shouldn’t play a combined 33 minutes most nights. Obviously Wemby’s foul trouble and Devonte’ Graham’s suspension played a part in that, but figuring out a rotation that features more ball handling will be necessary.
  • The difference between Malaki Branham’s body language and his stat line was stark. Branham missed his three outside shots but finished with seven points, two rebounds, two assists and a steal. He still didn’t seem happy or comfortable out there. There’s no point in reading too much into it but it was curious to see.
  • Tre Jones was probably the best player on the team. He finished with 16 points on seven shots, five rebounds and six assists and looked confident pulling the trigger from beyond the arc when the Mavs dared him to. He probably should have closed the game instead of Sochan, but it’s the first game of the season, so Pop can’t be blamed for going with his preferred starters.

Next game: vs. Rockets on Friday

The Rockets, who lost by 30 to the Magic on their opening night, will visit San Antonio looking to get on the right path. Wemby vs. Jabari Smith Jr. will be a fun matchup.