LAS VEGAS – The final numbers for Victor Wembanyama in his Summer League debut: nine points on 2-for-13 shooting, eight rebounds, five blocked shots, three assists.
Not on the stat sheet: countless pictures and videos captured on phones, the couple dozen times he applauded teammates, and all the autographs that a very friendly San Antonio Spurs coach named Gregg Popovich signed at halftime for kids and other fans.
The Wemby Show is underway. The outcome on Friday night doesn’t matter much and will be forgotten in the next couple days — for the record, the Spurs beat the Charlotte Hornets 76-68. But for the 17,500 people who bought tickets, most of them just to say they saw Wembanyama’s first time sweating in a Spurs game uniform, it was a night to remember.
A night to remember for the No. 1 pick, too.
“Special moment,” Wembanyama said. “Really special to wear that jersey for a first time. It’s really an honor.”
Wembanyama did a lot of things well, which can’t be a surprise. He screened well. Passed well; he even had a left-handed shovel pass for an assist. Defended well at times; Charlotte’s Brandon Miller, the No. 2 pick in the draft, tried a 3-pointer from about five or six feet beyond the arc in the first half, and Wembanyama threw his left arm skyward and blocked it with ease. And his four-point play with 2:50 left put the Spurs up by 14, just about sealing the win.
“He’s a legit 7-6," Miller said afterward, only slightly exaggerating Wembanyama's official height of 7 feet, 3-1/2 inches. "Victor is a great guy, great off the court. He’s going to have a great career, and just to see him step up to the challenge, I think that shows a lot of heart.”
Wembanyama struggled shooting and airballed a pair of 3-point tries in the fourth quarter, got moved out of the way on a few rebound opportunities, was sort of dunked on when he was trying to defend a lob to Charlotte’s Kai Jones — Wembanyama couldn’t reach it, and fouled Jones as he threw the ball down — and had tons of moments that he’ll learn from on film.
“All in all, I think he did a good job. … You can see his basketball IQ is elite,” Spurs summer coach Matt Nielsen said.
Again, none of it mattered much, good or bad. Wembanyama’s body of work in France over the last three years more than proved his enormous potential. A 30-point game or an 0-for-30 game on Friday night wouldn’t have changed anything.
There were hundreds of phones pointed at the tunnel where he emerged for a six-minute warmup before the game. Some tickets went for more than $200 on the resale market; that's pretty much unheard of for Summer League. Fans in Spurs jerseys — they were obviously new jerseys, since they had Wembanyama’s name on them — started showing up inside the arena two games before the Spurs-Hornets matchup just to make sure they had a good seat. No. 3 draft pick Scoot Henderson played in the previous game for Portland; he came out and stood courtside for some of the second half of the Spurs game.
"I’m glad a lot of people could get to see us play," Wembanyama said.
Jerry West was courtside, as was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who’ll join Wembanyama on stage at NBA Con on Saturday for a conversation between a legend and someone who is expected to become a legend.
The numbers didn't matter. Wembanyama overshadowed everyone. And everything.
Like Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason, for example. They combined for a miracle finish to give Houston a 100-99 win over Portland in the game that immediately preceded Spurs-Hornets. Down by two with 0.6 seconds left, Eason just sort of sidearm-heaved a pass about 40 feet to Smith, who turned and beat the clock with a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Everybody celebrated, some because of Smith’s shot, some because the game was over and it was Wemby time. It would have been the talk of Summer League, under normal circumstances.
These are not normal circumstances.
And in the adjacent court — UNLV has two separate gyms under one roof — Cleveland and Brooklyn were playing simultaneous to Wembanyama’s debut. Let’s just say there were more than a few empty seats in the gym for that game; only the most ardent Cavaliers fans, Nets fans or friends and family of players on those rosters seemed to be there for that one. Meanwhile, a few feet away in the big gym, fans were seated all the way up to the rafters.
The debut was a circus. Everyone expected it would be, and that was even before he went to dinner Wednesday night and was approached by Britney Spears — the pop star who grabbed or poked at Wembanyama and set off a two-day story that generated tons of headlines worldwide. He handled all that with ease, not even knowing until hours later Spears was the person involved, and handled all the attention Friday night with ease as well.
“He's pretty cool,” Spurs teammate Julian Champagnie said, later adding, “he deserves to have this moment.”
He is a rookie. A very tall, super talented one. He will have great games in San Antonio. He will have bad games. And he's now had his first game. His NBA story is underway. The Spurs are betting that it only gets better from here.
“I just want to get better every time,” Wembanyama said, “and learn as much as I can.”
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org