‘Until we find a good recipe’: How Victor Wembanyama is embracing life at the 5


VICTOR WEMBANYAMA SAW the play developing before he even crossed half court.

He had Tre Jones and Julian Champagnie to his right. On his left, Jeremy Sochan controlled the ball while Devin Vassell ran to the wing. Once he entered the frontcourt, Sochan dribbled toward Vassell before cutting back toward the center of the court, where he handed the ball off to the San Antonio Spurs’ 7-foot-4 rookie sensation at the top of the key.

Wembanyama, setting up the two-man game that has become so effective for the Spurs of late, immediately fired the ball to Vassell. Sochan slowly backed away, giving Wembanyama and Vassell all the space they needed on the left side of the court.

Wembanyama and Vassell both knew what came next.

Wembanyama moved as if to set a screen for Vassell but instead slipped the screen between Charlotte Hornets’ defenders Nick Richards and Miles Bridges. Vassell hoisted up a lob over their outstretched arms to a waiting Wembanyama, who slammed it home.

As Wembanyama jogged back up the court, Vassell and Sochan were ahead of him. He pointed at them, acknowledging both of their roles in the play.

“It’s something we didn’t do two months ago, a month and a half ago, moving the ball and making quick plays like this,” Wembanyama said that night. “Also throwing lobs like this, Devin has been improving greatly very fast.

“So those kinds of efforts when we share the ball like this, it’s really unstoppable.”

The alley-oop was part of a run of 13 consecutive points for Wembanyama in the third quarter of a 135-99 win over Charlotte, by far the largest victory of the season for San Antonio, and its fourth since moving Wembanyama into his current role as the team’s starting center.

When the regular season began, the Spurs made it clear that despite his status as the tallest player in the league, they did not see Wembanyama as a center. He was listed as a forward during summer league, and when the regular season began, the No. 1 overall pick found himself starting alongside Zach Collins, who was designated as the team’s man in the middle.

Yes, Wembanyama would get spurts where he was the lone big on the court, but the plan was to keep those minutes relatively limited.

That plan changed on Dec. 8, when, having lost 15 consecutive games, the Spurs replaced Collins in the starting five with guard Malaki Branham, making Wembanyama the starting center.

The result? A 21-point, 20-rebound, 4-block night for Wembanyama. The move didn’t change the Spurs’ losing ways — they fell to the Chicago Bulls 121-112 and would go on to lose two more to set a mark for the longest losing streak in team history at 18 in a row — but it showed how effective Wembanyama can be at center, where he has begun to put up the kind of numbers that had the 20-year-old touted as the best prospect to come into the NBA in a generation.

“I’m ready to get any role and play any position and especially with our offense,” Wembanyama said last month. “I might be the 5 on paper, but I’m the 1 30% of the time and I love how we play … So the position really doesn’t matter.”

AT HIS HEIGHT, Wembanyama always seemed likely to end up playing center, even if he insisted in the preseason it wasn’t his position.

Last season with French squad Mets 92, Wembanyama had a similar role to the one with which he started this season in San Antonio: play the center position at times but also have another capable big man on the floor so he could float between the 4 and the 5.

Lately, though, Wembanyama has spent most of his limited minutes — he’s still on a minutes restriction after spraining his right ankle before a game in Dallas last month — as the Spurs’ lone big, something he’s getting more comfortable with.

“I’m glad we can experience stuff and figure out my role. I’m a rookie,” he said. “It’s also me figuring out how I want to play now but also for the future how we want to build. We’re still trying some stuff.”

Since the team made the switch to having Wembanyama open games as the man in the middle, his production has gone up. Over the past 14 games, Wembanyama is averaging 20.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.8 blocks while shooting 48.1% overall and 33.8% from 3-point range despite playing just 26.7 minutes per game.

Part of the improved production on offense is because Wembanyama is getting better looks at the basket while playing center.

According to Second Spectrum, prior to Dec. 8, Wembanyama had a quantified shot probability — or an expected effective field goal percentage — of 48.5% and an average field goal distance of 14.6 feet. From Dec. 8 on, his quality shot percentage is at 52.3% while his average shot distance is at 12.7 feet.

“They’re figuring out that [Wembanyama] is [7-4], you can throw it up in the air and when he rolls you got to get a pocket pass in there,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

Wembanyama’s defensive assignments have also changed. Since Dec. 8, he has defended opposing centers on 59% of half-court possessions compared to just 34% prior to the starting lineup switch, according to Second Spectrum — and that doesn’t account for matchups against Anthony Davis (31 possessions) or Kristaps Porzingis (20), both of whom are listed as forwards by Second Spectrum but who — like Wembanyama now — start as the lone big man for their respective teams.

The biggest change from the positional switch, however, has come in Wembanyama’s passing. He has upped his assists per game from 2.5 to 3.7 and recorded his first career triple-double — 16 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists — in a win against the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 10. It was the second-fewest minutes played for someone who finished with a triple-double in NBA history.

Wembanyama was hitting cutters, nutmegging defenders, throwing 70-foot passes up the court and finding shooters open for 3s.

“I think putting me at the 5 also gave me the opportunity to make [plays for] teammates more and to use me more for the team as a facilitator,” Wembanyama said. “So it’s something that’s worked pretty well lately.”

Even when Collins returns from the ankle injury that has held him out since Dec. 28, he’s likely to stay in the second unit. Spurs center Charles Bassey suffered a torn ACL in December, and Collins will likely get all the backup center minutes, which means limited time with Wembanyama. Collins and Wembanyama shared 398 minutes together in 19 games prior the lineup change but just 25 minutes in six games after.

While moving to center has resulted in improvement for Wembanyama, the team still isn’t winning the way it wants. The Spurs were 3-17 prior to the move and have gone 4-14 since — but 4-10 in games Wembanyama has played. However, Wembanyama believes the move — like all the Spurs’ other lineup experiments this season — has been worth trying.

“Experimenting in different areas of the game, it’s always something important and interesting to me,” Wembanyama said. “Every game is different, but we’re going to see and try until we find a good recipe.”

OF THE FIVE Spurs players who started the regular-season opener against the Dallas Mavericks, Wembanyama is the only one who has remained in the starting lineup for every game he has played this season.

San Antonio has used 12 different starting combinations — including four different ones in the five games Wembanyama missed due to injuries or rest — as Popovich tries to figure out what works best around his 20-year-old phenom.

The season began with Wembanyama at power forward, Collins at center and the 6-foot-8 Sochan in an experimental role at point guard. Collins was the first to shift to a bench role, followed temporarily by Sochan after the point guard experiment ended.

San Antonio has now landed on a starting frontcourt with Wembanyama, Sochan and Vassell, with Keldon Johnson, the team’s leading scorer a season ago, moving to a sixth-man role.

“I mean it’s definitely different, but I mean with any change it takes the adjustment period,” Johnson said. “It’s something that we embrace and we’re going to make the best of it and I think it’s definitely what the team needed.”

With Vassell sliding to the frontcourt and Johnson moving to the bench — where he’s still scoring 17.6 points per game and taking more shots per game than he was as a starter — a spot in the starting lineup eventually opened up for point guard Jones, who replaced an injured Branham on Jan. 2, and remained in the starting five even after Branham returned.

The Wembanyama-Jones pairing is one of San Antonio’s two regular two-man combinations that have resulted in a positive net efficiency rating this season (111.4 offensive rating, 105.9 defensive rating), along with Wembanyama and Vassell (105.1 offensive rating, 104.5 defensive rating).

Learning to play alongside Wembanyama, whether he is at forward or center, has been a key development this season for Vassell, who signed a five-year, $146 million extension prior to the season. He’s seen as a building block for the Spurs next to their rookie phenom, and the new lineups have helped their two-man game grow and develop.

“Those are two of the people we want to have the ball a lot since they’re our skilled players in a sense,” Popovich said. “Seeing those two guys meld together is important for us. They’re doing pretty well.”

On Dec. 26 against the Utah Jazz, Wembanyama spun out of a post-up in the short corner and Vassell hit Wembanyama for an alley-oop layup. Later in the game, Vassell had the ball at the top of the key as Wembanyama came to set a pick. Vassell passed the ball to Wembanyama and immediately cut to the goal behind his defender for a layup.

Prior to Dec. 26, Wembanyama was setting 9.5 on-ball screens for Vassell per 100 possessions. Since then, that’s up to 17.6 on-ball screens per 100 possessions, leading to 1.03 points per direct pick. It’s that type of two-man game that has given the Spurs hope for the future, even as they linger at the bottom of the Western Conference.

“Me and Vic just feed off each other,” Vassell said. “This is our first time really kind of getting into a two-man game. I think that us building that relationship and building that type of chemistry is going to be scary once we really get it down pat. I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to guard us, so I’m excited for that.”

Whether it’s Vassell and Wembanyama’s partnership, the budding connection between Wembanyama and Jones or any other lineup combination Popovich and the coaching staff want to throw out there, the rookie is ready.

Because he wants to win.

“In Detroit, I was playing the 1,” Wembanyama said. “[Against the Hornets], I was playing more of the 5. Being put at center doesn’t, with this coaching staff, it doesn’t mean putting me in a box. So I don’t care. At the end of the day, I’m ready to do anything for this team.”

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