Media day for the San Antonio Spurs typically runs back familiar themes. Players who underwent transformative summers set off #MuscleWatch chatter; everyone gets asked about offseason focuses; Gregg Popovich shuts down a narrative or two; and, in recent years, starting lineup intrigue.
Monday’s official kickoff to the 2023-24 season was no different. The freshly inked and fully recuperated Devin Vassell talked about his improved physique and his expectations to finish better around the hoop. Everyone was asked about offseason focuses. Pop looked to reframe the focus away from just Victor Wembanyama after being asked a 2nd question on the subject (mine), and intrigue abounded over which one of last year’s starters will be pushed to the bench.
And that’s where the similarities end this year, largely because of the aforementioned 7-foot-3 first overall pick. (FWIW that listed height feels conservative after seeing him in person.) As you might expect, the media turnout was also much larger than in recent years. ESPN is here now, after all, and so, too, is a French correspondent. Whereas last year’s big story may have been Jeremy Sochan’s fiesta-tinged dome, a large crowd drew around Wembanyama as he posed for pictures in uniform, first by himself, then with teammates Jeremy Sochan, Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson. Those returning players were repeatedly asked about their new teammate, then asked how it felt to get repeatedly asked about that teammate. Compared to seasons past, things were simply different.
“He’s just a freak of nature,” said Sochan of Wembanyama with his unshakable toothy grin. “It’s not a normal thing to see — someone that tall, that agile, come and block a shot or dunk it from some weird place. He’s done a lot of stuff that makes you say, ‘Oh snap, that’s crazy.’... He’s special. It’s exciting.”
“Let’s just put it this way,” said Vassell. “I think every game he’s going to do something that makes you turn around like, ‘Huh?’ It just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes he makes the hoop look so little... Y’all are gonna have a great time watching him this season. It’s gonna be fun.”
When the French 19-year-old took to the podium, his answers impressed. Each considered, thorough and incredibly well-articulated answer from, again, a teenager from France. It’s one thing to hear of his preparation for the moment and mental makeup, it’s another to watch him in action.
“I think pretty quick I’ve learned to know my teammates and they’ve learned to know me,” he said. “I’m here to make sacrifices for them, and they’re also going to make sacrifices for me. They know it’s different and that it’s gonna happen, a lot of attention. At the end of the day, we’re in practice and I ask, ‘What can we do to make this team better?’ It’s all about basketball first.”
On the topic of their opening day starting five, it felt like the Spurs have an idea in their heads going into training camp and preseason, but they’re keeping us reading the tea leaves right now and reconciling that with what we know and assume. We know that Wembanyama will start; we’re pretty sure it’ll be as a nominal 4 alongside Zach Collins; we can be pretty certain the $146 Million Man will, too; we got a tone-setting soundbyte from Pop around the willingness to come off the bench and a curiously comprehensive answer from Sochan to a question about playing point guard:
“I think I would be comfortable. Again, I think it would be an experiment. It’s gonna be days where it looks beautiful and it’s gonna be days where it’s like, ‘Ah, I don’t know about that.’ But at the end of the day, I have a growth mindset. I feel like it’s a position I can excel in and help the team. I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun if that happens. We’ll see.”
Maybe this suggests we’re in for a weird, big starting five; maybe the two quotes set the table for Sochan to fully push his boundaries in a Manu-esque, 6th man capacity. We’ll see. Here’s Pop when asked about last year’s lottery pick and what he thinks his natural position might be:
“If you or anyone here can help me with that, I’d be appreciative. He can play 1 through 4. Depending on circumstance, who we’re playing I can see him going to the 5 position and us going small. He’s like a utility in-fielder — do they still have that? The sky’s the limit. He’s one of our best passers. He can handle the ball. What is he, 6-8? He can find people. He’s really gonna be important at creating pace for us, that uptempo style that we did so much better last year. He’s gonna be very, very fun to watch.”
But the time for speculating in nearly over. Like Vassell says, the fun part is finally here — for Wembanyama, San Antonio, and everyone curious how reality might begin to approximate hype on the court. Here’s Pop when asked about initiating that process:
“He’s no different from anybody else. He has to develop, improve knowledge of the game and skills. Fortunately for us he’s very coachable. He’s very intelligent. That’s already begun for him even from the first day practicing for the Summer League, even getting used to a different kind of game.
We’ll watch him probably for the next couple of weeks without saying too much of anything to him, just so we understand his idiosyncrasies, the way he plays the game, how his body works. Everyone else, we know their game, so we gotta do the same thing with him.”
To a later question, he answered:
“Training camp is gonna be very important for us as coaches to see who fits. Is Wemby gonna be a 5, 4, 3? Is he gonna play alongside Zach? Can you put him in the post, or not? Is he a perimeter player? What is he? Who does he fit best with out there? What are the rotations gonna be? A lot of cool questions we’re gonna get to answer.”
It’s understandable that Pop’s questions all seem to gravitate towards the offensive end, which feels like the more abstract piece of Wembanyama’s game. You can imagine him rotating on defense, eating up space to take away looks and blocking a heavy volume of shots. It’s less clear what form he takes on other side of the court.
It will take a collective effort to set Wembanyama up for success, which in turn should get the Spurs back on the path to competing and contending. Pop and Co. won’t rush into any assumptions, but they will have to make decisions soon on how to move forward. That’s why even the non-Wemby questions (Who improved what this summer? Who’s starting alongside him on day one? Could Jeremy Sochan actually start at point guard? What’s a point guard anyway?) carry a heavy Wemby subtext.
That’s part of what makes the imminent Victor Wembanyama Project so fascinating to watch from both a macro and micro point of view. Yes, the results matter and, yes, plenty of winning should be the standard to which it is held, but it’s the process that guides it, spearheaded by one of the sport’s greatest minds and within the context of a gold standard organization, that should command attention every step of the way.