Victor Wembanyama is perhaps the most hyped prospect to enter the NBA since LeBron James.
The No. 1 pick of the 2023 NBA Draft has immense pressure on his shoulders to reinvigorate a San Antonio Spurs franchise that has floundered in the aftermath of its golden years led by the Hall of Fame trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
And, so far, the Wembanyama hype has not looked all that exaggerated.
Wembanyama leads all rookies in scoring, putting up 20.6 points per night to go along with 8.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks on 50% shooting from the field.
At 7-foot-4 but with an advanced perimeter skill set, Wembanyama is among the most unique talents the NBA has ever seen, as he’s a center with legitimate guard and wing skills. He’s a player who can post up smaller defenders, break guys down off the dribble and pull up from 3. On defense, he can block and contest shots with the best of them and move his feet and use his length to stay in front of opponents.
To quote Steph Curry before the season started, “He's like the [NBA] 2K create-a-player.”
In other words, Wembanyama is a problem, and he’s already looking like a big one just five games into his NBA career.
San Antonio isn’t supposed to be very competitive this season, but it’s won its last two games to improve to 3-2 on the season. Even more impressive about this mini streak is both victories came against the Phoenix Suns, a squad expected to compete for a title this season.
The first game saw San Antonio storm back after falling behind by as many as 20 points, while the second contest saw Wembanyama explode for his best game yet as an NBA player. He erupted for 38 points and 10 rebounds on 15-of-26 shooting, showcasing the full repertoire of weapons he has at his disposal, both inside and out.
If Wembanyama keeps up what he’s doing, his ability alone might end up accelerating the Spurs’ timeline and there’s a chance we might see San Antonio compete for a play-in or a playoff spot this season.
For the Toronto Raptors, who will be seeing Wembanyama for the first time ever Sunday afternoon, they’re going to have their hands full with this rookie sensation.
The Raptors are off to a tepid 2-4 start to the season and a game against the Spurs, even in San Antonio, should be one they get. However, the Wembanyama factor and the confidence he’s appeared to inspire in his teammates will complicate matters.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, however.
All it comes down to is finding ways to slow the French phenom down.
This is a task that’s easier said than done, but it is possible should the Raptors acknowledge some of the strengths Wembanyama has illustrated so far in his young career.
Wembanyama scores a lot of his baskets from in tight, and has done so acting as a lob threat coming off as a roll man in pick-and-roll and as an adept cutter.
Because Wembanyama is a center, he often has opposing bigs trying to check him, something he has managed to exploit by simply positioning himself not just at the dunker spot, but other areas of the floor where his man might be less familiar with how to defend. With his defender in uncharted territory, Wembanyama has consistently managed to catch his defender ball-watching, allowing him to make a quick dive to the rim for an easy two points.
Another way Wembanyama has been scoring has been with quick post-ups where he’s managed to identify mismatches in either size or quickness to either turn and shoot over the top or to get to the basket.
In both instances of how Wembanyama scores inside, the Raptors should have an answer in Scottie Barnes or Pascal Siakam. Both men should know better than to be caught ball-watching, even when defending further away from the basket. And given their lateral quickness, length and strength, Wembanyama shouldn’t be able to find much of an advantage in a post-up. Yes, he will always be able to shoot over the top, but he’s likely to have a hand in his face bothering that shot.
Additionally, there’s the fact that Wembanyama is still only 19 years old. As tremendous a talent as he is, his decision making isn’t all the way there yet because he doesn’t have the experience needed. Hence, it’s important for the Raptors to find ways to speed him up and keep him off-kilter.
If he catches the ball in the post, why not send a quick double-team just to see how he reacts? If he gets the ball along the perimeter, press up into him and see how he might react to that, or maybe even just back off and dare him to fire away. If he knocks it down, you just tip your hat to him.
Wembanyama will eventually figure out how to deal with things like that, but that knowledge isn’t in his bag yet, so you might as well exploit it while it lasts.
And with Barnes and Siakam, the Raptors have the horses to experiment against Wembanyama and pick up a win while they’re at it.