Victor Wembanyama, the nineteen-year-old 7’4” 210 pound phenom, has been skewered by pundits and fans who expected an immediate impact on the San Antonio Spurs and the league at large.
The truth is, the best players in the league are typically drafted by the teams most in need, and therefore face an uphill battle on their rise to glory.
The paths of three of the league’s most celebrated players should shed some light on what the future of the Spurs might look like.
At 6’9” 250 pounds, LeBron James is not the most similar player in size and stature to Victor Wembanyama. But as the top pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, he and Wemby have one thing in common — they created the most buzz around them before the draft and have the brightest spotlight illuminating their rookie campaigns.
LeBron kicked off his illustrious career with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In his rookie season 2003-04, the Cavs went 35-47. The following year they went 42-40. Making a leap in his third season, the 2005-06 Cavaliers went 52-30 and LeBron made his first playoff appearance beating the Washington Wizards in first round. They lost the Eastern Conference Semifinals to Detroit Pistons.
The 2006-07 campaign also yielded a 52-30 record and LeBron led his merry band of Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
James eventually went on to make eight straight Finals appearances from 2011-2018, four with the Miami Heat and another four upon returning to Cleveland. He won two titles with Miami and one in Cleveland. In 2020, he returned to the Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers and won his fourth ring and fourth Finals MVP in the Orlando bubble.
LeBron has earned the league MVP honors four times, but did not get his first until his sixth year in the NBA. Last year, James passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the all-time scoring champion.
Kevin Durant, the 6’11” 240 pound second overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft, started with the Seattle SuperSonics. The team went an abysmal 20-52. The next season they made the move to Oklahoma City where the Thunder improved three games to 23-59. Like LeBron, KD’s third season saw an impressive turnaround landing a 50-32 record. The Thunder made it to the playoffs where they were knocked out in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers (who eventually won the title).
It wasn’t until Durant’s fourth season that he made a Finals appearance. He and the 2011-2012 Thunder faced off against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. LeBron won his first title and Durant took his first loss. It was another four seasons (and a move to a better team) before the twenty-eight-year-old Durant would hoist the Larry O’Brien. He won back-to-back titles with the Golden State Warriors and nabbed himself Finals MVP honors in both runs.
Durant also took the NBA MVP award in 2014. This season, he has already surpassed Hakeem Olajuwon and Elvin Hayes in all-time scoring. He most assuredly will surpass Moses Malone in the next few days, placing him in the top ten scorers in NBA history.
Like Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s size and style are more closely aligned to Wemby. At 6’11” 243 pounds, Wembanyama has garnered comparisons to the “Greek Freak.” Both were also drafted at the age of nineteen.
The fifteenth overall draft of 2013, Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks went 15-67 in his rookie season. The next season they broke even at 41-41 and made the playoffs, getting knocked off by the Chicago Bulls in the first round.
The Bucks dipped in 2015-16 with Jason Kidd at the helm. They missed the playoffs that season.
Ever since, Antetokounmpo and company have made it into the postseason. In 2021, he won his first title taking the Finals MVP along with the Larry O’Brien.
He additionally was recognized by the league in 2019 and 2020 as the Most Valuable Player. At the age of twenty-four, Antetokounmpo was at the top of the league, but just cracking into the best of his game.
All this to say that no matter what is happening this season, the Spurs are developing. Even the greatest players take time to evolve. And no team can succeed with one man. The players surrounding him have to gel and that takes time.
Finding the Silver (& Black) lining in the losses is essential to enjoying what may be one of the toughest seasons in Spurs history.
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