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The case for Victor Wembanyama to play more center

The Spurs are better off with Wemby near the basket on both ends of the floor, and they need a shakeup.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs made it clear well before the the start of the 2023-24 season that Victor Wembanyama would start his career at power forward. It made plenty of since at the time (and, to an extent, still does): he needs time to build up his core strength, they have a starting-caliber center who can spread the floor and take the tougher assignments in Zach Collins, and playing forward would give Wemby mismatches and the freedom to roam around on both ends instead of tying him down to the post.

However, early as it is, it might be time to start rethinking if he shouldn’t be playing more center than he already is. (So far, he was played 123 of his 511 minutes without either Zach Collins or Charles Bassey on the floor, about 24 percent of the time.) First, let’s look at some stats. Of course, as is always the case early in a season and especially for a rookie, it should be noted that the sample sizes are still small. With that being said, in what should be little surprise to anyone who has watched, while Wemby is pretty evenly spreading the wealth in terms of where he’s shooting from on the floor, the closer he is to the basket, the better off he is. Below is the percentage of his shots based on distance from the basket, followed by his shooting percentage in each range (courtesy of basketball-reference.com).

As you can see, he’s shooting 74.1 percent around the rim (where he takes about a fifth of this shots), a solid 48.2 percent within 10 feet (another fifth), but the shooting numbers slowly decline in the midrange (about a fourth of his shots) all the way down to 27.5 percent from three, where he takes nearly a third of his shots with 5.4 attempts per game. That’s also about what he shot from three in France, so this isn’t a slump; it’s just who he is as a shooter right now and something he needs to improve on if he’s going to keep shooting that many.

Beyond the paint being his best scoring zone, there are other benefits of having Wemby down near the basket on offense as well. For one, if he receives the ball there, he’ll be more inclined to keep it up high and put the shot up rather than put the ball on the floor, which has been a big weakness due to his high dribble making it too easy for defenders to strip the ball: a huge part of his team-high 3.6 turnovers per game. Down low, if defenders swarm, they’ll either foul, or if he can’t get a shot up, he can still keep the ball up high while looking for an open shooter or just keep the ball moving, and if his teammates can improve their own three-point shooting, the Spurs offense will be unlocked.

The final offensive case for playing Wemby at center more is being near the basket gives him a better opportunity to grab the offensive rebound and/or tip the ball in. He’s already averaging 2.1 offensive rebounds per game despite a decent amount of possessions ending with him out on the perimeter, and with the Spurs’ well-known shooting struggles, the more second chances and fewer empty possessions they can get, the better.

On the defensive side, Wemby is not getting pushed around as much as many thought he would (although there’s still work to be done). He’s 12th in the league in total defensive rebounds while pulling in 7.4 per game, and that’s despite him playing some perimeter defense and (by design) often running the court before even knowing if the opponent’s shot went in in hopes of receiving the ball in transition. However, with the lack of a point guard and his teammates struggling to find him at times, it might be more beneficial to have him defending the paint than leaking out in transition.

Speaking of defending the paint, not only is the rookie third in the league in blocks at 2.6 per game, but if you watch closely, players in general aren’t even trying to shoot near him, instead often choosing to dribble back out and reset the offense rather than challenge him one-on-one. His mere presence in the paint is a deterrent, and if his teammates can keep up their defensive rotations around him, life will get a lot easier on that end.

Finally, there is the assumption that simply changing things up might help the Spurs out of their extended slump. We’ve already covered how the “Jeremy Sochan at point guard” experiment is not going well and how Zach Collins is having to do too much on offense to keep things rolling, but there’s more to it than that. Wemby needs a real point guard to help set him up, and it’s hard to ignore that in 193 minutes together, he and Tre Jones have a positive net rating of 8.1 (how much the team is outscoring opponents per 100 minutes). At the same time, Wemby and Collins are -14 in 327 minutes together, and Wemby and Sochan are -18.4. (As a side note, Wemby and Bassey — who isn’t the shooter or passer Collins is — are -10.7 in 61 minutes together.)

Of course, two-man groups don’t tell the whole story, and unfortunately, with Devin Vassell and Tre Jones both missing some time, the Spurs have yet to have any five-man line-up record even 100 minutes together this season. Even so, their preferred starting lineup (when healthy) of Wemby, Collins, Vassell, Sochan and Keldon Johnson leads the team with 84 minutes together, and their net rating is -14.6. The sample sizes only get smaller from there, but replace Collins with Jones — which by default moves Wemby to center and Sochan back to his natural position of power forward — and that group has a whopping net rating of 55.7.

Granted, it’s just in 16 minutes together, and that number certainly would not hold up over a longer stretch, but it still begs the question of why not try it more often when all those players are healthy and available? This is not a knock on Collins (who is in a shooting slump but should eventually bounce back), but more about how it puts Wemby at center and in more ideal positions on both ends of the floor, plus it gives the Spurs a much-needed true point guard to help run the show.

None of this is to say Wemby should stop playing power forward, that Collins needs to be completely benched, or that Sochan shouldn’t keep working on his point guard skills, but if this stretch of the season is all about experimenting, then it pays to keep trying new things (especially when some things aren’t working), and Wemby spending more time at center would certainly have its benefits. If nothing else, the Spurs need a confidence-boosting win, and the status quo is not looking like it will provide that any time soon.