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Victor Wembanyama is learning when to shoot and when to pass in crunch time

Wembanyama is looking for his teammates in the clutch when opponents hone in on him, but being selfless has its downsides.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs had two close losses against East playoff teams in the last few days. It was great seeing how the young players reacted to the pressure of games coming down to the wire. For the most part, everyone did well.

The one player that received the most scrutiny for his performance in the clutch was, understandably, Victor Wembanyama. The rookie sensation made two passes in the closing moments instead of taking the potentially tying shots himself and there’s a discussion to be had about whether that was the right decision. So let’s look at both plays and determine if Wemby made the correct call.

Wembanyama had to pick between two bad options against the Bucks and chose correctly

Against the Bucks, the Spurs attempted to get Devin Vassell a three after the inbound. Jeremy Sochan passed to Vassell, who passed to Tre Jones on the right side of the floor. Wembanyama faked a screen for Jones, turned around quickly tried to get Vassell open. It didn’t work, so Wembanyama and Vassell went into a pick-and-roll that Milwaukee trapped. Vassell got rid of the ball and gave it to Victor. Right after that, there was a fraction of a second in which Damian Lillard was still moving off Jones, but Wemby was still catching the ball when that happened. When he had control, the options were taking a heavily contested three or making the extra pass for a corner three. Wemby passed the ball.

It seems like the correct decision. It’s understandable to point out that 6’2” Lillard was not going to be able to block the shot, but Wemby has shot just 21 percent with a defender two feet or closer this season and has only made 25 percent of his total catch-and-shoot threes. He needs room to let it fly and even then he’s not a marksman. Jones is not a reliable outside threat but he’s made 29 percent of his outside shots. Now, Jones has been worse from the corners than above the break and has actually shot better when contested on catch-and-shoot looks, according to Synergy Sports, but expecting Wembanyama to remember all of that would be crazy. He probably knows that Jones isn’t a good shooter, but he was wide open for the corner.

The last question that some have probably pondered is whether Jones should have been on the floor in the first place and actively involved with the play, considering the team needed a three. The answer is Jones is the team’s best passer and the original play was designed for Vassell coming off a screen. Pop probably went with the guy he thought would deliver the pass on Vassell’s shooting pocket, which is understandable.

Wembanyama should have taken the shot against the Cavaliers, but his selflessness is not what led to the loss

Against the Cavaliers, Wembanyama tapped a rebound to Tre Jones, who immediately surveyed the floor as the big man leaked out and passed ahead to Keldon Johnson. As Johnson looks up, he sees Wembanyama has inside position against Caris LeVert in the paint. Unfortunately Wemby doesn’t seal LeVert, who takes the inside position back as Johnson is about to throw the pass. Wembanyama catches with LeVert behind him and Jarret Allen quickly approaching, then before even looking at the rim gives Jeremy Sochan the ball in the dunker’s spot. Sochan catches the ball, sees Allen and decides that instead of challenging the big man, the move is to try to find Johnson at the wing. The pass is too low, Johnson can’t control it and the Spurs turn the ball over.

It’s hard to blame the big man for just making the extra pass to someone open, but Wembayama should have probably taken the shot. The extra quarter of a second it took to get the ball to Sochan meant that Allen got in a better position to get a block than he would have been had Wemby gone up with it as soon as he got the pass from Johnson. Sochan makes the right call not challenging the Cavs’ center but his pass is terrible. If Johnson had been able to corral the ball and had decided against taking the three, there’s a chance he would have been able to find Wemby in the paint with space, but the type of shot the rookie would have gotten would have been the same as the one he passed up. Simply put, if Wembanyama has a smaller guy on him deep in the paint, he should probably try to shoot, even if a shot blocker is lurking.

Should Wemby get relentlessly criticized for arguably being too unselfish in this situation? Not really. Sochan was open when he made the pass and there was enough time left on the clock to set up another opportunity to tie the game. If Johnson had relocated to the corner, Sochan would have had an easier time making the pass, too. Ultimately what doomed the Spurs was not Wembanyama’s decision-making but what his teammates did after his initial pass.