SAN ANTONIO — It felt like everything for the show, and the show was big.
A billboard hung right off the freeway headed into San Antonio’s Frost Bank Center, with Victor Wembanyama having his arms stretched out wide.
No word if it was actually life-sized.
Everything was primped and prepared for Wembanyama to step into his destiny, to announce to the world how easy this transition would be to regular-season basketball.
You saw it … in glimpses. It had starts and fits and nearly finished with a flurry before things went slightly awry.
Some of it was Wembanyama himself, sticking his hands in the cookie jar one too many times, putting himself on the bench for most of the second half. Some of it was the Dallas Mavericks, or most notably Luka Dončić being unwilling to accommodate his Texas neighbors, and a little bit of it was the Spurs players being unable to locate Wembanyama in the final three minutes after it was clear he had it going.
“Even in transition, we missed him. It’s an adjustment. It’s not every day you have a 7-foot-4 guy running down the lane and being able to post up,” Spurs guard Devin Vassell said. “We gotta see it. We’re all figuring each other out. We gotta make sure the game is easy for him.”
It’s only Game 1 of 82, and while so much was riding on Wembanyama’s debut, there are still so many steps to take, places to go. Wembanyama shook off an uneven start to unleash in the fourth quarter, scoring nine of his 15 points and adding five rebounds, two steals and a block in 23 minutes.
The San Antonio Spurs couldn’t hold off Dončić and Wembanyama draft mate Dereck Lively II, falling 126-119 Wednesday night. Dončić had his usual brilliant stat line, with 33 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists while Lively lived up to his last name, springy and energetic on the way to 16 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.
It felt like the NBA world hadn’t thought about San Antonio after 2018, when the Kawhi Leonard divorce became final and the Spurs were vanquished as real contenders. It felt as if the building had five years of emotion stored up, ready to unleash in the form of a long-armed dunk or devastating block.
The fans were lined up leaning over the tunnel, TV cameras and camera phones alike were on guard for the moment Wembanyama would emerge from the locker room and go through his pregame routine.
When other Spurs came out, it was a polite smattering of applause, welcoming the players onto the floor. When Wembanyama’s head began to peek out like a shadow on Groundhog Day, the fans roared with approval and soon began tracking his every move.
“It’s surreal, for a moment. I just feel very lucky to be [here],” Wembanyama said.
He blocked a shot in the first minute, then hit two 3-pointers. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, a storybook debut following in the footsteps of David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
But he soon found himself on the bench at every stop, picking up two fouls before the first quarter ended, his third before halftime, his fourth in the third quarter and fifth at the start of the final period. Per usual for even the most veteran players, coaches pull their guys and have them sit to prevent further damage.
Gregg Popovich, who tried his best to hide his own personal excitement through the preseason and on this night in particular, didn’t overreact and neither did the rookie. It was just a reminder that for all his professional experience, maturity and wisdom for his age, his age is his age.
And he’s 19.
“It might be frustrating, but I’m always keeping the head up,” Wembanyama said. “I wasn’t frustrated because of that. We’re learning. It’s only our first regular-season game. We noticed it on the film, the coaches and players, we’ll make whatever it takes to work.”
It was almost like Wembanyama was too hyped for the game, too ready to prove himself as if he didn’t validate so much with the glimpses already provided. He set hard screens, planted himself on the block with his strong hand out and opposite hand keeping the defender away.
Except that defender was the savvy Grant Williams, who managed to duck his head underneath Wembanyama’s arms, catching some contact — and the eye of the officials.
That hard screen Wembanyama set was a little too physical, and he wasn’t set.
Offensive fouls on both.
“I was focused on the best I could be,” Wembanyama said. “It was easy, how I try to play every time. When I got back for like 30 seconds, I got subbed because of my fouls. I couldn’t really get comfortable.”
But when Popovich called his name at the 7:12 mark, it was like a light came on and a show was starting. It felt similar to the last big thing a few years ago — ironically, the Spurs were in the building for that night, too, when Zion Williamson made his long-awaited debut in January 2020 after three months on the bench.
It was underwhelming and then in a flash, Williamson started hitting 3s and the home crowd came to life. Wembanyama caught an alley-oop, then hit his third 3-pointer. A dunk in transition came next, and then the biggest display of his basketball aptitude followed.
He came across the lane and had Williams on him again, but instead of trying to post up, he faced up in the mid-post and hit a jumper — in the same general area Duncan did his work for two decades, along with Robinson.
“Since I wasn’t very aggressive, I couldn’t be in the first half,” Wembanyama said. “I could get a couple buckets by surprising the opponent, they were more focused in the moment on my teammates who were hot. This is how the team works.”
He seems aware of a team’s hierarchy, and how it’ll take time before everyone can acknowledge what’s obvious to everyone else. There are more than a few players who’ve been Spurs before Wembanyama arrived, and naturally want their moment in the spotlight, too — after all, they’ve been in relative obscurity for the last few years.
Even Dončić acknowledged the atmosphere was a lot, stopping short of calling it playoff-like. And he, like everyone else, was curious to see how Wembanyama would transition — having gone through it himself a few short years ago.
“It was fun. We knew the world was watching,” Dončić said. “It was fun.”
They had no problem playing spoiler but even they know he’ll be back, and he’ll be better. And so will the Spurs — circus or not.