SAN ANTONIO — The Victor Wembanyama era has officially begun, as the Spurs made him the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft.
Wembanyama, a 7-foot-5 French phenom with an 8-foot wingspan, walked across the stage at the Barclays Center in New York to shake NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand and formally mark the start of his new career.
“I can’t really describe it,” the 19-year-old told reporters following the pick. “One of the best feelings of my life. Probably the best night of my life. I’ve been dreaming about this for so long. It’s a dream come true. It’s incredible.”
The Spurs used up all five minutes they had on the clock before making the pick official. Wembanyama called it the “longest five minutes” of his life.
“This is when I started getting the butterflies, and it’s where I started seeing my family get silent,” Wembanyama said. “Everyone watching their watch. Then I got called, and I went to the back. I was congratulated by a lot of people there. I saw Adam Silver, shook his hand again, gave him a hug.”
Wembanyama is considered by many to be a generational talent — a player who can defend and play above the rim but move with such fluidity that he can also hit step-back 3-pointers off one leg.
In San Antonio at the AT&T Center, fans erupted when Wembanyama’s name was announced as the draft was broadcast on the video boards.
“I need to see footage of this,” Wembanyama said. “My message to them is I’m going to give 100 percent, make all that’s in my power to make this franchise win, to have impact on the franchise and the fan base and the community.”
When the Spurs won the right to draft Wembanyama by winning the lottery May 16, Spurs managing partner Peter J. Holt leaped with joy from his seat on stage inside Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center.
On Thursday night, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich credited Wembanyama’s parents for how they’ve raised him to handle the immense amount of pressure that has been put on him so far.
“He’s got a great disposition, a good combination of intellectual ability and an emotional intelligence at the same time,” Popovich said. “He understands what hype is. He understands all the attention he’s getting, but he still welcomes it, deals with it. … So, I think he understands that there’s a way to handle that responsibility and still let people feel somewhat close to him. So he doesn’t need a lot of advice in that area.”
Popovich said Wembanyama will play for the Spurs in the summer league but that he didn’t know to what extent. San Antonio will play in the California Classic in Sacramento on July 3. That event starts four days before the Las Vegas league, which all NBA teams participate in.
“As I said before, I’ve only spoken with him on the phone a couple of times, so I got to get a better feel for where his head is at,” Popovich said. “Talked to his people who’ve trained him his whole life. They’ve been with our people, and we’ve got to make those decisions once we’re all together. But he’ll be there at some point.”
In October, Wembanyama announced his presence on the national stage during two exhibition games in Las Vegas with his Metropolitans 92 squad taking on the G League Ignite to showcase both Wembanyama and Ignite guard Scoot Henderson. Wembanyama had 37 points, 4 rebounds and 5 blocks in the first game and followed that up with 36 points and 11 rebounds in the second.
During the French LNB Pro A League regular season, Wembanyama averaged 20.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game, leading the league in all three categories. Wembanyama was named the league’s MVP and led Metropolitans 92 to the French league finals.
Spurs general manager Brian Wright said after the draft that Wembanyama first popped up on their international scouts’ radar when he was a 15-year-old and the team, like many in the NBA, have followed his growth since then.
“You start hearing of this young player with tremendous talent, tremendous size and so we started to see him, some of us maybe when he was 16, 17,” Wright said. “He always played up and so the rumors of him had spread and obviously as we all go see him, we saw the unique talent that he was.
“But you look over the course of that time period, just how he’s grown and developed as a player to now leading his team to the championship of the French league and that’s no easy task. That’s one of the best leagues in the world, and he did that carrying that team on his shoulder. So, his evolution has been fun to watch.”
This is the third time the Spurs have won the NBA lottery and earned the right to pick No. 1. They hit big on the other two picks — David Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997, both of whom played their entire careers with the Spurs and are considered among the best big men of all time.
Now, Wembanyama begins his career with the coach Robinson finished with and Duncan played his entire NBA career under: Popovich, the winningest coach in NBA history.
Popovich said Thursday that Wembanyama will have a target on his back and has to be himself and not anyone else — not LeBron James, not Kobe Bryant and not Duncan.
“He’s Victor, and that’s who we want him to be,” Popovich said.
On lottery night, Wembanyama told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that he was “trying to win a ring ASAP.” After the draft, he tempered what his expectations are.
“Some players have tried to win the championship, win a ring for years and haven’t made it. I don’t want to be one of those,” Wembanyama said. “My goal is going to be to get closer and closer every time to the ring and to learn how to make it.”
Under Popovich, the Spurs made 22 consecutive trips to the playoffs from 1998 to 2019, which is tied for the longest such streak in NBA history (matching the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers streak from 1950 to 1971).
The past four seasons, however, the team hasn’t managed to finish over .500, going 32-39, 33-39, 34-48 and then 22-60 last season. Bottoming out during the 2022-23 season, however, gave the Spurs a 14.0% chance of hitting the No. 1 pick.
Wembanyama joins a Spurs team that was heavily reliant on young players a season ago. The Spurs’ top five scorers in total points were all 25 years old or younger, and that didn’t include last year’s No. 9 overall pick, Jeremy Sochan, who averaged 11.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 56 games played.
Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Malaki Branham and Sochan help form the core of what San Antonio has moving forward. The Spurs also have 28 draft picks, including 11 first-rounders, over the next six seasons.