May 25, 2024

Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama named NBA Rookie of the Year after historic season


Victor Wembanyama, the 20-year-old French star whose mere presence conjured reimaginings of what is possible in the sport, was named the NBA Rookie of the Year on Monday, earning all 99 first-place votes.

Wembanyama, the No. 1 pick of the 2023 draft, is the first unanimous top rookie since Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns in 2016. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Chet Holmgren (second) and the Charlotte Hornets’ Brandon Miller (third) were the other finalists for the league’s top rookie honor.

“My goals were to always help my team as best as I could and to get better as the year went on,” Wembanyama said on TNT after the award was announced. “I knew that, in order to do this, I had to be individually good on the court and dominant, so it was a huge thing for me and a big (award) to get.”

With a wiry, 7-foot-4 frame that allows him to cover unfathomable distances, whether he is dribbling the ball toward the rim or contesting a shot a normal man couldn’t get near, Wembanyama led all rookies in scoring (21.4), rebounds (10.6) and blocks (3.6) per game in 71 games for the San Antonio Spurs. He also was the league’s top shot blocker — joining Manute Bol as the only rookies ever to lead the league in blocks — and as a result is a finalist for the NBA Defensive Player of the Year honor, too, which will be announced Tuesday.

Wembanyama became the first player in league history to score at least 1,500 points (1,522), corral 700 rebounds (755), dish out 250 assists (274) and block 250 shots (254) while making at least 100 3s (128) in a season.

In this current era of NBA basketball, where the 3-pointer is king and even the biggest players shoot them, Wembanyama both symbolizes the era and defies it. He is the only player ever to average at least 3.5 blocks and 1.0 3s per game in a season.

“It’s always special to coach such a player, a talent,” said Vincent Collet, Wembanyama’s coach in the French pro league last season and his coach this summer for France’s Olympic team. “Americans, they call him an alien, which is very interesting. Everything is new. You cannot coach him as you coach a normal player, because he is not normal.”

Born in the western suburbs of Paris on Jan. 4, 2004, Wembanyama, or “Wemby” as he’s known, played three seasons in LNB — France’s top pro league. His final season was with Metropolitans 92, under Collet, where he cemented himself as the top pick in the NBA Draft by averaging 21.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks as a teenager.

Perhaps not even the Spurs could have imagined he would come to the U.S. and post nearly identical numbers in the best pro league on Earth, but that’s what happened.

“With him, we tried to use his great skills and potential and help him find his own path,” Collet told The Athletic in an interview in Paris in January. “This is not so easy, because sometimes you do it wrong because he has such huge potential.”

Collet stayed up into the wee hours of many French mornings watching Wembanyama’s games with the Spurs, in which he played under five-time NBA champion Gregg Popovich. Pop tried to take a patient approach with his newest superstar, insofar as deciding what his role would be in his first season in San Antonio — which was his first time living in a new country and playing an 82-game schedule across four different time zones.

Popovich soon realized Wembanyama was ready for more than either he, or his teammates, had given him, and the Spurs began to improve later in the season when the other players began to take advantage of all the rookie’s talents.

“I mean, as an athlete, (the U.S.) is no contest the best country in the world,” Wembanyama said. “For foreign athletes, the culture, infrastructure, everything is just made for us to thrive. I’m really in a bubble. I know I’m living a really privileged life as an NBA player, and there is a lot of people taking care of me every day, even when I don’t notice it. So this award is also for them.”

Wembanyama became the youngest player in league history to reach many milestones — before he even turned 20 — such as scoring 20 points with 20 rebounds in a single game or registering at least 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and five blocks in a game.

Six days after he turned 20, he recorded his first triple-double, and by season’s end, Wembanyama’s rookie campaign was one of the greatest in history. But those individual accomplishments did not lead to much winning in San Antonio. The Spurs, one of the league’s youngest teams, finished 22-60 for the fifth-worst record.

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Wembanyama joined Spurs legend David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal as the only rookies ever to reach at least 1,500 points, 150 blocks and 150 assists in 50 games. He’s the only rookie to tally 250 blocks and 250 assists in a single season; only four other players, regardless of years of service, had ever done that.

Wembanyama is the only player (again, rookie or not) to record that many blocks and assists and make more than 100 3s in a season. His 26 games with at least 20 points, one block, one steal and one assist are more than double the amount posted by any other rookie — LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony each did it 12 times their rookie seasons.

Should he win defensive honors on Tuesday, Wembanyama would be the first rookie in league history to do so. His 254 blocks and 88 steals are the most by any player in at least 15 years and nearly 100 more than the Memphis Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson Jr. posted when he won the award last year. Wembanyama also blocked at least seven shots in eight games — the most by a rookie since Robinson in 1990.

Wembanyama, who led the entire NBA with 20 games where he had multiple blocks and steals, has a chance to become the first rookie ever to be named to the NBA’s All-Defense first team and the first rookie to make any All-Defensive team since Tim Duncan, another Spurs legend.

“With Victor, his domination starts on defense,” Collet said. “He makes four or five blocks in a game, playing 25 minutes, and I see him make the opponent change their shot another two or three times; that’s seven or eight shots you don’t give your opponent, that’s a huge difference. And you could see it in him from the beginning.”

Holmgren, the No. 2 pick of the 2022 draft who missed all of last season with a foot injury, averaged 16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds while playing all 82 games for the Thunder, which finished first in the Western Conference this season.

Miller, the No. 3 pick in 2023, averaged 17.3 points in 74 games for the Hornets, which like the Spurs did not make the postseason. They were tied for the fourth-worst record in the league at 21-61.


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(Photo of Victor Wembanyama: David Berding / Getty Images)





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