Gregg Popovich, head coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, was elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last year, after winning five league championships, three Coach of the Year awards and the most games of all time. But even when you’re that good at your job, you don’t get to keep a gig like that for as long as he’s had it without catching some flack from fans and sports columnists. This season, most of the vitriol directed toward Pop has centered around his use of number-one draft pick and 7-foot-3 “alien” Victor Wembanyama.
Many have criticized Popovich for instituting game plans that have limited Wemby’s touches. A month ago, after a blowout win against the Charlotte Hornets, Wemby addressed the chatter, saying, “Of course, I heard of [the criticism], but…it’s nothing to worry about. I’m not a conventional player. I needed time to figure out how I want to play and how I need to play for the team. I guess everyone needed time to figure out how to play with me.” Popovich himself said something similar about his team that same night: “They look like they’re beginning to understand how to play with each other.” This all makes sense given that it’s Wemby’s rookie year and the Spurs, with the third-fewest wins in the NBA, are still in rebuilding mode.
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If it wasn’t Wemby’s touches getting fans riled up, it was his minutes logged. But that gripe, again, was much ado about nothing. The big man’s minutes have been limited this season in large part because of a balky ankle.
Last night, Wemby didn’t need a whole lot of offensive touches or minutes played to provide a glimpse at his emerging greatness. In a road tilt against the Toronto Raptors, he achieved the second triple-double of his young career, but this one had a unique twist. Among the “doubles” in his stats were blocked shots, the line finishing at 27 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks. He added five assists and two steals for good measure, with the Spurs winning 122-99.
“The San Antonio Spurs rookie is the fifth player in NBA history with 25 points, 10 rebounds, 10 blocks and 5 assists in a game since blocks became an official statistic in 1973-74, joining Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson — all members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame,” wrote ESPN. “Wembanyama is the fourth player in Spurs franchise history to have 10 blocks in a game and is now the first rookie since Tim Duncan (1998-99) to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks in a single game.”
To boot, Wemby did all this with 28 minutes and 59 seconds of time spent on the floor, making him the first NBA player to total 10 blocks and five assists while playing under 30 minutes in a game since the blocked-shots stat was introduced 50 years ago. Among other eye-opening stats highlighted by ESPN? Wemby is also the first player to have a triple-double that included both blocks and multiple made three-pointers, and he is the first rookie to have a triple-double with 10-plus blocks and another with 10-plus assists. He’s the first rookie in 20 years to accumulate 10 blocked shots in any game as well — the last was Josh Smith in 2004, which was the year Wemby was born, by the way.
He’ll figure out how to be great eventually. Who knows what stat lines an experienced Wembanyama will provide us. Having a guy like Popovich show him the ropes probably won’t hurt.