LAS VEGAS – Giddy pre-teens strutted through a busy exhibit hall at the inaugural NBA Con on Saturday cradling fresh boxes of sneakers, while a star teenager sat on a couch in a cramped back room chopping it up with legends.
As triple-digit temperatures baked the streets outside the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, San Antonio Spurs French phenom Victor Wembanyama held a microphone and a captive audience clinging to every word of a conversation featuring the past and the future of the NBA.
“As of today, I’m just a rookie,” the French phenom told Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Isiah Thomas, who moderated the panel discussion. “I don’t have one NBA game in me. I’ve just got everything to learn. The truth was, yeah, I didn’t know what I was doing [in the NBA Summer League opener on Friday]. And for the next games, I’m probably not going to know what I’m doing, too. But it’s going to come as time goes and hopefully, we’ll be ready for the season. I’m still a kid. [I’m] just ready to learn.”
Wembanyama inched another solid step Sunday in that direction with a bounce-back performance in Game 2 of his NBA 2K24 Summer League experience. Fresh off a shaky showing Friday in his debut, Wembanyama smashed foot to gas early in speeding to a 4-for-5 shooting first half that yielded 11 points to go with six rebounds, a pair of blocks and only one turnover.
As “go Spurs, go” chants echoed in pockets throughout the arena near the end of San Antonio’s 85-80 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the rookie would finish the contest with a team-high 27 points on 9-for-14 shooting, a game-high 12 rebounds, three blocks and a steal in cementing an eye-popping glimpse of what appears to be on the horizon.
“I wish we would’ve won the game,” Wembanyama said. “Personally, it’s normal to get better every game. Two days ago was my first game. I had so much (stuff) going on with the Draft. To me, it’s just me getting comfortable with myself and with my body. Before today, I had like two practices and one game. So, it’s just getting going.”
Wembanyama ratcheted up the aggression from the onset and drilled his second attempt of the night from 17 feet out with 4:44 left in the opening quarter. An overly deferential start in his debut on Friday negatively affected the rookie’s ability to find a rhythm. Wembanyama remedied that in Game 2, lighting up Portland for nine points on 3-of-3 shooting in the second quarter alone.
“It’s Summer League, and he’s got a big future, got a big season coming and all of that stuff,” Spurs assistant coach Matt Nielsen said. “But there’s no doubt there’s a lot of attention, and I’d be lying if like he didn’t probably didn’t feel some of that [in the summer league opener]. I can’t speak for him. But I think he showed the talent that he is and the resilience that he just stepped up and wanted to be better in the areas that we spoke about. He did a good job.”
The rookie racked up 16 of his 27 points in the second half as San Antonio rallied from a 13-point deficit with 6:19 left to play to close the gap to one point with 1:58 remaining on the big man’s 26-footer off an assist from Malaki Branham.
“He’s amazing,” Spurs guard Blake Wesley said. “He’s an amazing person on and off the court. He had a rough first one as you can see. But he bounced back like he said he was. He’s gifted.”
The performance capped a 22-day odyssey, taking off from France and landing in New York for the NBA Draft. The day after the Spurs selected Wembanyama No. 1 overall, the big man touched down in San Antonio for a formal introduction to the city, as one enterprising citizen acquainted the 19-year-old with breakfast tacos while a private jet sat nearby idling on the tarmac. An epic dinner at the chef’s table of Bliss followed hours later, and the new Spur peppered franchise legends Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, David Robinson and Sean Elliott with a plethora of inquiries about how to best handle his new life in the spotlight.
Soon after, Wembanyama boarded a flight bound for Portland, where he’d take care of some off-the-court business at Nike before heading back to San Antonio to grind through a handful of workouts with his new teammates.
By July 6, Wembanyama would find himself back on a plane en route to join the Spurs in Las Vegas ahead of his Friday NBA Summer League debut.
Hectic turnaround, for sure. But for Wembanyama, this marked the beginning of the journey.
He’ll stay in Las Vegas a few more days supporting his new teammates while completing a brutal daily schedule that consists of at least five different time commitments with various entities tipping off every morning. It’s unlikely he’ll play another minute of competitive basketball before the start of the upcoming preseason.
In fact, when Wembanyama returns San Antonio, the club plans to sit down with him to discuss what’s next, before determining the next course of action based on what the player wants.
“I’m glad it’s over,” the rookie said of his whirlwind schedule of non-basketball activities. “I just want to hoop. I just want to work out, [and] lift because this is my life. Every first pick’s got to go through this. It just makes me better for the future.”
In just two outings in Las Vegas, the rookie would quickly come to understand the magnitude of his presence. The lighted digital signage greeting visitors driving into the parking lot of the Thomas & Mack Center continually read “Event Sold Out.” In fact, NBA Summer League sold out its first three days in Las Vegas, while Wembanyama’s two showings generated capacity crowds.
Abdul-Jabbar watched Wembanyama’s Summer League debut from a courtside seat, while a contingent of Spurs including coach Gregg Popovich, assistant coach Brett Brown, general manager Brian Wright and CEO R.C. Buford sat a few rows behind taking in the moment. Veteran teammates Jeremy Sochan, Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell also attended Wembanyama’s debut.
Interestingly, Popovich, 74, signed a five-year extension the day after Wembanyama’s NBA Summer League debut.
“It truly means something to me that such great people were in attendance for my game yesterday,” Wembanyama told Abdul-Jabbar and Thomas. “You said it’s an honor for you to be with us. But it’s truly an honor for me to be with you two guys. Yesterday during the game, every time I got the ball, I heard the people start cheering. Really all this love, all this attention, I think the best thing the fans can do for me as a rookie, as a new player, [is] just [show] that love. I hope I can give it back over the years and I think the best way for me to give it back to the fans is get some rings.”
Abdul-Jabbar and Thomas own a combined eight.
“The difficulty is learning how you can best contribute to a winning effort,” Abdul-Jabbar explained to Wembanyama. “That’s what you’ve got to learn how to do with your skill set. You will find out what that is basically in preseason. You’ll find out a lot about that.”
Wembanyama already seems to be gaining an understanding of the importance of rest, time management skills, and saying the word, “no.”
Shortly after the rookie wrapped up the conversation with Abdul-Jabbar and Thomas, he headed over to another stage at NBA Con to take part in the league’s announcement of the new In-Season Tournament during a live broadcast on ESPN. Joining young stars on the stage in Trae Young, Cade Cunningham, Paolo Banchero, Anthony Edwards as well as Golden State coach Steve Kerr, Wembanyama announced the participants in Group B of the Western Conference In-Season Tournament field.
Later that night, the new Spur was scheduled to appear at the Summer Players Party at Tao nightclub hosted by Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin and the NBA’s Players Association. Rapper Lil Baby performed at the event with players such as James Harden, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum and Chet Holmgren in attendance.
Wembanyama was a no-show, though.
He declined attending the exclusive invitation-only party, despite signing the richest deal in Fanatics history. The rookie instead opted for rest heading into Sunday’s matchup against the Trail Blazers, maintaining a disciplined sleeping regimen that includes the forward putting away his phone for the night well before 10 p.m. on most occasions.
“It takes a while. You have things to learn,” Abdul-Jabbar told the future of the Spurs franchise, before looking into the crowd.
“He’s an intelligent young man. He’ll get it done.”
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