Victor Wembanyama launches his bid to lead the San Antonio Spurs back to basketball’s top table while the defending champion Denver Nuggets are chasing a dynasty as the NBA season tips off on Tuesday.
After a hectic off-season that saw a slew of coaching changes and blockbuster trades, the NBA’s marathon 82-game season gets under way with a double-header featuring four teams from the Western Conference.
The Nuggets host LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in a rematch of their Western Conference finals duel last season, while the Golden State Warriors entertain Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns.
French teenager Wembanyama, meanwhile, the number one draft pick hailed as a once-in-a-generation talent, will get his first taste of competitive NBA action when the Spurs face the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday.
The 19-year-old from the outskirts of Paris has given every indication so far that he is ready to deliver on the hype that led James to label him an “extra-terrestrial” before he arrived in the NBA.
Wembanyama averaged just over 19 points a game in four preseason appearances for San Antonio and did enough to suggest that his goal of returning the Spurs to the playoffs this season is well within reach.
At 7ft 4in (2.25m) tall and with a wingspan estimated at 8ft, Wembanyama’s rate combination of size and skill signals the emergence of a game-changing talent.
Perhaps more significantly, Wembanyama possesses the sort of even temperament that suggests he will be unfazed by the lofty expectations placed on his slender frame.
San Antonio’s revered coach, Gregg Popovich, has no doubt Wembanyama can take the hype in his stride.
“One of my major concerns was to figure out how to protect him,” Popovich said.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to give him speeches about this and how to deal with that.’
“But I found out very early when I’m talking to him that he’s kind of looking at me like ‘Why is this guy telling me all this stuff?’ — he already knows it.
“He has been through it. He has got character. He has got a sense of humor. He’s intelligent. He knows how to handle it.”
The Spurs — and preseason opponents — have already discovered that Wembanyama’s size make him a unique threat both offensively and defensively.
‘He changes the dynamics’
Popovich has been encouraging Wembanyama’s teammates to pass the ball higher — beyond the reach of opposing defenders — when attempting to locate the Frenchman.
“He’s different,” Popovich said. “He changes the dynamics on the court — at both ends of the court.”
The excitement generated by Wembanyama is palpable. More than 13,000 fans turned up to a Spurs preseason practice to watch him and NBA executives say the Frenchman has attracted 95 million views across the league’s social media channels — more than any other player in the league.
“Victor has the potential here to expand the audience, expand the number of people who watch basketball, because people are so interested in seeing this one-of-a-kind player,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said in a recent conference call.
“He is going to be a treat to watch.”
Wembanyama will be attempting to lead San Antonio back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2018-2019 campaign.
For that to happen, the Spurs will have to navigate their way through a stacked Western Conference that includes reigning champion Denver and a reloaded Lakers unit led by James, back for his 21st NBA season at the age of 38.
The Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets won their first NBA title with a dominant 4-1 series victory over Miami in June but immediately began talking about chasing a second.
“I’ve got news for everybody out there — we’re not satisfied with one,” head coach Michael Malone warned.
Denver will bring back the core of the team that swept to the title last season, and the age profile of their roster indicates they will once again be the team to beat.
The Lakers, meanwhile, lost to Denver in the Western Conference finals last season and moved to improve their offense in the off-season, easing the pressure on James and Anthony Davis.
The additions of Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince and Christian Wood should give the Lakers more scoring weapons this term.
“I think we added a lot of depth, a lot of guys that have skill, size and athleticism, so I look forward to all of that coming together,” Ham said.
In the Eastern Conference, meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks landed the biggest coup of the off-season with the signing of Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers.
Lillard will form a potent partnership with Giannis Antetokounmpo as the Bucks look to return to the NBA summit. — Agence France-Presse