The walls around Victor Vembanyama were plastered with pictures of past winners of the Las Vegas Summer League tournament as he sat for a news conference at the Thomas and Mack Center on Friday night. NBA stars who played there in the early days of their careers and a 2018 photo of LeBron James, who wore gold shorts with “Lakers” emblazoned across the front in his first public appearance after signing with the team.
The summer league debut was the year after James’ rookie season, so its first marquee rookie in 2004, Dwight Howard, was the best choice. As Vembanyama spoke to reporters, a picture of a smiling Howard was seen on a wall to his right.
“Music group?” A team executive joked that night when asked what he compared to the frenzy surrounding Vembanayama last month when the San Antonio Spurs were selected first overall. The closest real comparison is when James entered the league in 2003.
Wembaniyama finished his first game in a Spurs jersey when he scored 9 points with 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 5 blocks. He made 2 of 13 shots and looked tired at times.
None of this matters to his long-term future, nor predicts what his career will hold. But Vembanyama’s first few days in Las Vegas didn’t just introduce him to the drama of the NBA, it also introduced him to the absurdity of the glare of fame. He came out of the experience somewhat subdued, but still smiling and poised as his journey continued.
Vembanyama ended his French season three weeks ago, one week before the NBA draft. It was a foregone conclusion that he would be picked first overall, but he was still in tears when it happened.
Spurs immediately began drafting him. The next day he went to dinner with some of the organization’s greats, including Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Manu Ginobili.
They knew his body needed rest, so they skipped their games in Sacramento last week to save his debut for Las Vegas. He will skip this year’s World Cup, where he would have strengthened the French national team.
When Vembanyama started playing and training with the Spurs’ summer league team, they turned their attention back to their studies.
“There’s a very clear passion as a coach,” said Matt Nielsen, who coaches the Spurs’ summer league team. “He wants to do the right thing.”
Friday night’s game featured Wembanyama and the Spurs against the Charlotte Hornets and Brandon Miller, the second overall pick in June’s draft.
The Thomas and Mack Center is a worn-out arena on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that once a year adorns itself as the center of the NBA world.
All 30 NBA teams show up two weeks after the NBA Draft for summer league with rosters that include their latest draft picks, praying they don’t get injured during exhibition games. Scouts, team owners and executives punt on lower bowls and every so often the league’s biggest stars take a break from casinos, clubs and sponsorship appearances to sit courtside for a game.
A typical summer league crowd might fill half of the lower bowl, and a good crowd might clog it and spill over the upper decks. On Friday night, the entire stadium was packed with approximately 18,000 spectators.
Vembanyama had some bright moments, but didn’t produce the moments the crowd was waiting for with bated breath. He missed a layup and a dunk on all 11 shots he took. He wasn’t the focal point of the Spurs offense for most of the game. Defensively, his natural size and 8-foot wingspan can block jump-shots even when he’s late to the shot.
At least once, Miller scored 16 points on 5-for-15 shooting with 11 rebounds.
Vembanyama spoke after the game about wanting to improve his conditioning and said he was “exhausted” every time he came out of the game. He needs to understand the plays called by the point guards and the team’s defensive structure, he said.
“I don’t know what I’m doing on the court tonight, but I’ll try to learn for the next games,” Wembaniama said. “The important thing is to be ready for the season.”
This is a balanced response from Vembanyama.
That hasn’t stopped viewers from drawing conclusions about her future, or fans of pop star Britney Spears from mocking her performance.
Yes, Britney Spears.
On Wednesday night she tried to approach Wembaniyama from behind and was swung her left arm in her direction by a Spurs defender. Las Vegas police said the bodyguard’s actions led to Spears striking himself in the face, but Spears apologized, saying the response was excessive.
Vembanyama said he never saw his face during the encounter, though his fans were furious. Police said no chargesheet will be filed.
That little controversy marked the start of Wembanayama’s time in Las Vegas, and exemplified the absurdity that can come with fame. As Vembanyama’s career progressed, the memory of an ordinary beginning passed away.