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Victor Wembanyama can (and will) do a bit of everything this season

Thoughts, takeaways and overreactions to the Spurs’ Silver and Black Scrimmage.

San Antonio Spurs Media Day Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

The grain of salt rule is in effect for whatever you see or hear about from a medium-intensity open scrimmage for San Antonio Spurs fans. If the text below was a math formula, imagine that it’s the variable outside of the brackets that applies to everything inside.

But since there is still plenty we are hoping to glean for the imminent 2023-24 Spurs season, the team’s quasi annual Silver and Black Scrimmage serves as another reference point for us to unpack, as well as plenty of entertainment for the throngs of fans that showed up. Here’s what I saw in Saturday’s event.

The Wemby Effect is real

It would be an understatement to say this year’s event was different from any other I’ve attended since covering the team. Between the massive line curling around the now-Frost Bank Center an hour before tipoff, the energy in the building throughout and the alien masks and countless number-one jerseys in the seats, the buzz around the incoming first overall pick is palpable and should continue all season.

The announced total in attendance on Saturday was 13,200, a wild number for an intra-team exhibition, and I was told that fans lined up at the arena as early as midnight Friday just to ensure a good seat.

The starting lineup intrigue endures

In years past you might have been able to glean who might start on opening night by how players were assigned to either the Silver and Black squad. No such luck on Saturday, with Jeremy Sochan and Keldon Johnson (as well as the now-recuperated Khem Birch) healthy scratches. (It was just soreness, the Spurs said, so there shouldn’t be any cause for concern.)

To boot, the Spurs also chose not to play the recently extended Devin Vassell alongside Wembanyama. Here’s a look at the lineups:

Based on what Pop has said, we should expect to see a competition for the starting five begin (and play out) through the preseason, although it would seem that at least three of those spots are spoken for with Wembanyama, Collins and Vassell.

What looked good for Victor Wembanyama:

  • The passing: It might take a while for him to find the right balance of selflessness and healthy selfishness, but Wembanyama looks well-suited to handle however much attention defenses intend to throw his way. As we continue to see, he’s an extremely willing and creative passer — with both hands — routinely looking for dump-offs around the basket and even chancing a (successful) wraparound pass to the opposite side of the floor to set up a Devonte’ Graham three. That should ease how he handles defensive pressure, while making life easier for everyone on the team.
  • Wembanyama doing other guard/wing stuff: The Spurs have indicated that Wembanyama has spelled everyone from Zach Collins to Tre Jones in practice, and Pop said the first few weeks will be largely around experimentation and quiet evaluation. On any given night, that could mean him curling around screens like Kevin Durant or initiating offense in the pick and roll.

On Saturday we saw Wembanyama hit a three off a stepback, attempt another from the corner off an inbound, do a quarterback keeper on a dribble handoff, and isolate from both baselines. We don’t know what version of Wembanyama is the most optimal, but it seems like we will learn through some fairly liberal (and fun) trial and error.

  • Wembanyama’s lob radius: Many guards find themselves in the position Graham was in after dribbling into the lane and seeing an opposing big at the rim. A floater is a fine option for a ball-handler, but having Wembanyama in the dunker spot provides them with a fairly high percentage out, which is what we saw when he threw down Graham’s lob with ease.
  • The potential fun of Wemby look-aheads. The execution on these (a couple of overthrown, likely overhyped, passes from Tre Jones) needed work, but we saw Wemby get down the floor and attempt to seal his man. That aforementioned catch radius means he can play WR1 for some early actions that either lead to an easy spin and finish for him at the basket or cause breakdowns that set up teammates.

What didn’t:

At this stage I’m inclined to just say ‘who cares’, but will also add that his year-one efficiency numbers might not shine amid all of this experimentation. (But also who cares.)

Devin Vassell and Zach Collins look set for their best seasons yet

To close out the first period, Vassell isolated at the top of the key and finished with a nifty high-arcing floater to just beat the buzzer. Later in the scrimmage, he made threes coming off movement and off the dribble, teasing some of the offensive usage fans and the Spurs will be looking forward to. It would’ve been great to see him and Wembanyama playing off one another, but that will have to wait until (hopefully) the team’s preseason opener. Either way, the confidence and green light are both there, and everyone around the organization has raved about the work Vassell has put in ahead of what should be a big year for him.

Physically, the Spurs’ expected starting center also looked as good as ever: bouncy and strong around the rim and fluid and comfortable when pulling up (and hitting) from three. Collins has steadily looked more comfortable both in the Spurs system and with his own body since returning from a series of foot injuries that robbed him of most of the 2019-20 season, as well as a good chunk of his first in San Antonio. He’s no longer the lone 7-footer in the Spurs’ starting frontcourt, and his own ability to spread the floor combined with Wembanyama’s versatility means San Antonio can create all kinds of mismatches in a league that’s starting to trend big again.

Spurs basketball is back

In previous years, the kickoff to a new season felt like the first day of school: familiar faces, a few twists, but mostly the same stuff. It’s safe to say Saturday’s scrimmage was anything but, thanks to the arrival of Wembanyama and the buzz that followed. After months away, Spurs basketball is back, but there’s a longer figurative absence that you can feel dissipating — a return of stakes and excitement that fans can collectively latch onto once again.