The walls around Victor Wembanyama, as he sat for a news conference Friday night in the Thomas and Mack Center, were covered with pictures of past winners of the Las Vegas Summer League tournament. There were NBA stars who played there in the early days of their careers and a photo of LeBron James from 2018 when he appeared wearing gold pants that said “Lakers” on the front in his first public appearance after signing with the team.
The summer league debuted the year after James’ rookie season, so its first marquee rookie was Dwight Howard, the top pick in 2004. As Wembanyama spoke with reporters, a picture of a smiling Howard could be seen on a wall to the right.
“The Beatles?” one team executive joked earlier that night when asked what he would compare to the hysteria surrounding Wembanyama, who was selected first overall by the San Antonio Spurs last month. The closest real comparison is to James’ entry into the league in 2003.
Wembanyama just finished his debut performance in a Spurs jersey, when he scored nine points with eight rebounds, three assists and five blocks. He made 2 of 13 shots and looked tired at times.
None of this will matter for his long-term future, nor is it predictive of what his career will be like. But Wembanyama’s first days in Las Vegas not only introduced him to NBA playing, they also introduced him to the absurdity of the glory of fame. He came out of that experience somewhat subdued, but still smiling and calm as his journey continued.
Wembanyama finished his French season just three weeks ago, the week before the NBA draft. That he would be picked first overall was a foregone conclusion, but it still made him cry when it happened.
The Spurs immediately began to mold him. He had dinner the next day with some of the organization’s legends — Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Manu Ginobili — to begin learning from them.
They knew his body needed a break, so they had him skip their games in Sacramento last week to save his debut for Las Vegas. He will also skip the World Cup this year, where he would strengthen the French national team.
And when Wembanyama began playing and training with the Spurs’ summer league team, the team learned again.
“There’s an enthusiasm that’s very clear as a coach,” said Matt Nielsen, who coaches the Spurs’ summer league team. “He wants to do the right thing.”
Friday night’s game featured Wembanyama and the Spurs against the Charlotte Hornets and Brandon Miller, the second overall pick in June’s draft.
The Thomas and Mack Center is a dilapidated arena on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which once a year dresses up as the center of the NBA world.
All 30 NBA teams show up a few weeks after the NBA draft for the summer league with rosters that include their most recent draft picks that they pray don’t get hurt during the exhibition games. Scouts, team owners and executives dot the lower bowls and every so often the league’s biggest stars take a break from casinos, clubs and sponsorship appearances to stop and sit courtside for a game.
A typical summer league crowd might fill half the lower bowl, and a good crowd packs it and might spill into the upper decks. On Friday evening, the entire arena was filled to the brim with almost 18,000 spectators hoping to see something spectacular.
Wembanyama had some bright moments, but didn’t produce the kinds of moments the crowd was waiting for with bated breath. He missed layups and a dunk, in all 11 of the shots he took. He wasn’t the focal point of the Spurs offense for most of the game. Defensively, his natural size and 8-foot wingspan meant he could block jump shots even when he got to the shot late.
At least once, his victim was Miller, who scored 16 points on 5-of-15 shooting with 11 rebounds.
After the game Wembanyama spoke of wanting to improve his conditioning, and said he was “exhausted” every time he came out of the game. He needed to better understand the plays called by the point guard, and the team’s defensive system, he said.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing on the court tonight, but I’m trying to learn for the next games,” Wembanyama said. “The important thing is to be ready for the season.”
It was an even response from Wembanyama, who seemed less effervescent but still poised.
That didn’t stop observers from drawing conclusions about his future or fans of pop star Britney Spears from mocking his performance.
Yes, Britney Spears.
She tried to approach Wembanyama from behind on Wednesday night and was stopped by a Spurs security guard who waved his left arm in her direction. Las Vegas police said the security guard’s actions caused Spears to hit herself in the face, but Spears said the response was overboard and apologized.
Wembanyama said he never saw her face during the encounter, but her fans, however, remained upset. Police said no charges would be filed.
That minor conflict marked the beginning of Wembanyama’s time in Las Vegas, and highlighted the absurdity that can come with fame. It has passed, however, just as the memory of a worldly beginning can too, as Wembanyama’s career progresses.