The NBA’s oldest coach. The NBA’s newest superstar.
In an instant, the fortunes of the San Antonio Spurs changed in a big way. Victor Wembanyama is on his way to the NBA, and the coaching wins leader in Gregg Popovich will be waiting for him.
The right combination of ping-pong balls — 14, 5, 8 and 2 were the winning ones — gave the Spurs victory in the draft lottery Tuesday night, meaning they’ll have the No. 1 pick June 22. That means they’ve won the Wembanyama sweepstakes, and that four years of losing in a way that had never before happened under Popovich has actually paid off.
Pop and Wemby. A 74-year-old wine connoisseur who is one of the best basketball coaches in the world, and a 19-year-old supertalent who hails from the land where some of the best wines are made.
The NBA has a new dynamic duo.
“When you talk about generational talents, it’s often times beyond just your ability to make a shot or your ability to jump or your ability to put the ball on the floor,” Spurs general manager Brian Wright said. “It’s all of the little details that go into being great, becoming great. And as we’ve studied Victor, he is very in-depth with everything that he does, whether it’s on the court, whether it’s training, or things that he’s into off the court.”
If the 7-foot-3 Wembanyama brings his current warm-up routine to the NBA, it’ll be like none other. He’s barefoot on the court for probably a good 15 or 20 minutes, stretching and doing various other things to get his feet ready. There’s also some very specific ballhandling and passing things that he likes to do. It’s not just a few shots, few dunks, few 3-pointers and go play. There’s a plan and a reason for everything.
Popovich will love that. He knows Wembanyama has been taught the right way; the kid spent last year playing for Spurs icon Tony Parker’s franchise in France, and is spending this season getting coached by Vincent Collet. That’s someone Popovich coached against with the U.S. at the 2019 World Cup and the Tokyo Olympics. Popovich raves about Collet, not hiding his respect level for him at all.
They’ll talk before long about Wembanyama. That’s certain. Pop will immerse himself into knowing everything that makes the kid tick, just so he knows how he’ll react to every situation he’ll face with the Spurs next season and beyond.
“His ability to connect and spend time and bounce between the really detailed development of basketball players and the bigger picture of developing people is just so impressive,” Spurs managing partner Peter J. Holt said. “I think no matter what Pop does, he’s going to find a way to do that because that’s in his heart. And I’m excited to see whatever the next phase is in that journey.”
This is an embarrassment of lottery riches for the Spurs. Let’s be clear: They’re not giving this back. But winning the lottery in 1987 and landing David Robinson was big, then winning the lottery again in 1997 and landing Tim Duncan was bigger, and now comes Wembanyama.
It’s big. How big, well, that story will get told in the coming years.
“Now it becomes real,” former NBA player Ian Mahinmi — one of more than 40 international players that Popovich has had during his tenure in San Antonio — said during the telecast of Wembanyama’s French league game Tuesday. “Now everything becomes real.”
Popovich talked before the Spurs’ last game of the season about how, during his career, he has been the “beneficiary of serendipity to a max degree.”
He’s not wrong. And more good fortune has come to San Antonio. The Spurs haven’t won a playoff series since 2017 and went a combined 121-186 over the last four seasons. They basically lost more games in the last four years than they did in the previous eight years combined.
The losing ends now, if Wembanyama has anything to say about it. He’s coming to the NBA with eyes on becoming a superstar, an icon, a champion. And he’s about to become the star of the latest — and perhaps final — phase of Popovich’s career.
“Today was a good day,” Wembanyama tweeted after the lottery.
Popovich doesn’t tweet, but he and everyone else in San Antonio surely felt the same way. After 60 losses this season, they got the win they wanted most.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press