Projections, comparisons and other thieves of joy to ignore along the way
It’s only May, which means if you haven’t yet been exposed to much hyperbole projected onto presumptive future Spur and prize of the 2023 draft Victor Wembanyama, give it time.
The same gesture won’t be reciprocated for the Spurs or Wembanyama. The teenager will arrive in San Antonio under an unprecedented lens, flanked by elevated expectations for a team that won 22 games last season. Whether or not (and in what way) the front office should fast-track its team-building in order to maximize its 7-foot-something window is a fair and divisive topic as the rebuild moves from Year Zero to Year One. Doctors and non-doctors will have differing opinions on how to safeguard him from injury. Everything changed with the results of the lottery, and everything will continue to change, if only not at the speed of today’s juiced-up discourse.
And that’s largely good and exciting. San Antonio will have a possible superstar on its hands, as well as a clear organizational direction and timeline to work around again. Stakes are what sports are all about, and fans will pack the AT&T Center (and the Moody Center) with higher hopes and more to cheer for than they’ve had in a while, with a truly unique figure at the center of it all.
The uniqueness is a big part of the fun. Nobody knows how Wembanyama’s mind-bending offensive flashes in France will translate to or develop in the NBA — our eyes haven’t even adjusted to how he’ll eat up space on an NBA floor — and the Spurs have carte blanche on how to construct a roster around him. While early reactions to the lottery were around the similarities between 2023, 1997 and 1987, Wembanyama’s contrasts are equally stark between his age (he’ll turn 20 this season, versus Duncan’s 22 and Robinson’s 24) and the age we live in. Duncan arrived with ample hype and fanfare after 4 years in college, but he did so in an analog era and joined a veteran team ready to contend; a known commodity placed among other known commodities. Wembanyama will arrive as more of an abstraction, all limbs and upside, the most anticipated number one pick in the Twitter era. He also won’t benefit from the same bar Kawhi Leonard continued to clear on his rise to superstardom, with every new move, career high or uptick in usage a blissful and unexpected surprise — that’s already baked into the hype.
If that hype doesn’t curdle, then the ensuing analysis at least starts to flatten a player, trying to contextualize their output into tiers and rankings and benchmark their purported path to GOAT status. Early struggles prompt sweeping questions, injuries big and small can lead to obvious and facile comparisons, and talking heads will do exactly what they’re paid to do, which is scream at you in pithy generalizations. Look no further than this season’s MVP race, which framed two incredible centers at the peak of their powers in one of the most noxious conversations you’ll find. Sports are meant to be fun, even if sports discourse rarely reflects that.
I say this not as a downer but to highlight the distinct luxury Spurs fans have through their proximity to the subject matter. That emotional investment (seasoned with enough torment and expectation as is) is a feature, not a bug, and fans will be well-served leaning into their fandom, unmoored from the all-world expectations pushed on a much-hyped teenager and the team that’s lucked into him. If things do happen to come together as hoped in San Antonio, then those wins — every baby step taken in those size 20 shoes towards his final form, every peek into the incoming personality, every collective stride back towards competition and, hopefully, contention — can be enjoyed as the non-inevitabilities that they were. The journey to the top will feel that much sweeter.