Coming into the 2023-24 season, it was a foregone conclusion that Victor Wembanyama would start the year playing forward. With Zach Collins coming off a career year, and the rookie not quite ready to face the physical centers of the NBA, playing the four seemed like a good starting point. That lasted just over 20 games into the season. Now the San Antonio Spurs have unlocked Wembanyama’s value at the center position.
On December 8th, Wembanyama took over the starting center position from Collins, and has excelled. In December, the rookie averaged 18.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists, and is averaging 23.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists in January —despite playing on a minutes restriction. His shooting percentages have increased as his three point attempts have decreased. In the games since his switch to center, Wembanyama has shot 46.7% from the field and 33.3% from deep.
Part of that has to do with his shot diet. Wembanyama is attempting more shots at the rim, with 37.1% of his shots come from that range. The Spurs are running more high pick and roll with Wembanyama and Devin Vassell, which has helped the big man get open in the paint. They’ve started running more flex and curl screens or other actions to get the big man position inside. Former Pounder, Noah Magaro-George had a good breakdown on one way the Spurs have been getting their center open:
Spurs with a new wrinkle in their Horns + Pinch + Flex set: pic.twitter.com/LtuSSv9zZV— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) December 27, 2023
Because Collins has struggled to shoot the ball from deep this season, the spacing was awkward when the big men shared the floor. Now that Wemby is the sole big man out there, usually surrounded with four perimeter players, the floor is spaced for him to operate all over the floor. It’s also opened up more opportunities for Wembanyama to work as a passer.
Collins thrived as a playmaking hub in the high post for San Antonio. The Spurs have a lot of strong cutters for their big man to hit, like Tre Jones, Jeremy Sochan, Keldon Johnson and Malaki Branham. Wembanyama’s length and instincts allow him to find angles many other can’t. Playing at the top of the key, Wembanyama can use his gravity as a scorer to open up angles and lanes for his teammates. There are still times where he will force a pass, or throw one away, but that’s what you expect from a 20-year-old rookie. You’d like to see his 2.8 assist to 3.2 turnover ratio improve, but the process with him at center looks much better.
Among the various benefits Wemby's seen since moving from the 4 to the 5 is it's allowed him to operate as a playmaking hub much more often.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) January 2, 2024
His assist rate has jumped from 13% to 23.7% as the Spurs' starting center. pic.twitter.com/gR3HLQc0g9
There were question marks surrounding Wembanyama’s ability to guard the bigger centers at the NBA level. Since switching to the five full-time, he’s had to match up with physical bigs like Brook Lopez, Jarrett Allen and Nikola Vucevic. These centers have attempted to bury Wembanyama under the basket, but his length and defensive instincts allow him to contest shots at the basket despite a strength disadvantage. The impressive block against Giannis Antetokounmpo in crunch time last week is a great example of this. Wemby takes the contact, and still contests with his length. Wemby is blocking a league-high 3.3 shots a game, and has a 9.8 block percentage, the highest in the NBA.
San Antonio has looked much better on both ends with Wembanyama at the center position. Furthermore, it’s improved the play of other Spurs like Sochan and Vassell. Gregg Popovich has optimized the starting five even more by putting Jones in the first group. Over the last two games, the starting five of Jones, Vassell, Julian Champagnie, Sochan and Wembanyama has played 63 possesions, producing a 117.5 offensive rating and a 106.6 defensive rating and a +10.9 net rating. Swap out Jones for Branham, and that group has played 90 possessions for a -14.7 net rating.
This season has been one of experimentation for the Spurs. The goal of this year has clearly been figuring out what the they have in Wembanyama and the rest of the supporting cast. If they’ve learned anything from the first 30+ games, it’s that Wembanyama should be at the center position long term. The rest of this season will be about figuring out the best lineup to put around him.