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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Bucks

On his 20th birthday, Victor Wembanyama proved he belongs.

Milwaukee Bucks v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

So many times when young players go against the best in the NBA, they are quickly humbled. That’s part of what makes Victor Wembanyama’s success this season so amazing to watch.

In a night where not many expected the San Antonio Spurs to be in a game with the Milwaukee Bucks, Wembanyama rose to the occasion and had one of his best games of the season. The big man had 27 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocks, going 10-18 from the field. He made highlight play after highlight play in a game that feels like it will be the norm once he enters his prime.

He did it all against two good post defenders. While the Bucks haven't been a good defensive team so far this year, particularly in transition, they do have two of the best paint protectors in the league in Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Wembanyama went through Lopez a few times for strong finishes in the post. He went at Giannis off the dribble. Hell, he even threw one off the back board and dunked it himself! In the clutch he had two incredible defensive plays, rotating from one end of the floor on a double team to the opposite side to block a three pointer. Then when Antetokounmpo was bullying his way inside, Wembanyama met him at the rim for a clutch stuff.

As we’ve seen multiple times for the rookie, he showed up in the clutch. With the Spurs down three he stepped confidently into a deep ball to tie the game. With the Spurs down three with one possession to go, the rookie caught the ball on the wing, drawing three defenders toward him. He could have taken a difficult three, but instead made the correct read, finding the wide open man in the corner. Tre Jones missed the shot, but the processing ability from Wembanyama in a high pressure situation was impressive. When his teammate was frustrated with the result, Wembanyama took him under his arm and told him it was okay. That’s a leader right there.

We saw a glimpse into what the Spurs future could look like. Wembanyama and Devin Vassell creating a one-two punch scoring the basketball. Keldon Johnson providing energy off the bench. An efficient playmaker tying them all together. It may not be a winning formula right now, but with some time and development, it could become something fun.

Observations:

  • In all of the poetic waxing of Wemby’s performance, I neglected to mention just how awesome Vassell was on Thursday night. He was aggressive and got deep into his bag of tricks for a 34-point performance. He shot the ball well from deep, but I was most impressed with some of the tough finishes he got to go down late in the game. The fake and step through against Damian Lillard was a sweet highlight from the fourth quarter. This is the type of aggression the Spurs need from Vassell on a nightly basis. When he lets it fly, good things happen.
  • The Spurs played their first game starting a real point guard, and the results were as expected. Jones finished with 18 points and 6 assists. He was great pushing the tempo in the open court, and getting the Spurs set in the half court. Typically the Spurs offense will break down and become disjointed for long stretches of the game. With Jones out there, even if the Spurs stagnated, the point guard pulled them together and got the offense flowing again. Even when Malaki Branham returns from his injury, it may be worth keeping Jones in the starting 5.
  • The bench lineup kept the momentum going for San Antonio on Thursday. They were unbelievably thin with injuries to Branham, Zach Collins and Doug McDermott. Cedi Osman, Dominick Barlow, Keldon Johnson and Blake Wesley stepped up in their absence. Osman in particular was disruptive on defense, pushed the pace in the fast break and knocked down some key threes. Barlow was great defensively and is steadily improving as an offensive player. Not enough can be said about Johnson’s spirit and fight off the bench. He’s taken on the sixth man role with pride and played well. Wesley didn’t have much of a statistical impact, but competed on the defensive end and didn’t make too many mistakes. If San Antonio gets this collective effort every night, they’ll be much more competitive down the stretch.