Victor Wembanyama has had a good rookie year thus far, but it hasn’t been quite the transcendent performance that many were expecting.
That could change after a starting lineup tweak.
The Spurs were playing Zach Collins at center for the first 20 games of the year, protecting Wembanyama from having to guard some of the bigger and stronger guys in the league. But with the team struggling, Collins has been replaced by Malaki Branham. That has left Wemby to take over full-time center duties.
Wembanyama had previously been closing games at center sporadically and was extremely effective there. Unsurprisingly, he’s been great in that role as a starter, too. He’s been averaging an incredible 22.0 points, 17.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 5.0 blocks per game since the shift.
Here’s how the position change has unlocked Wembanyama’s skill set.
Why Victor Wembanyama’s move to center can unlock even more of Spurs rookie’s potential
Opposing centers can’t keep up with Wembanyama
Wembanyama poses an extremely tough matchup against slower centers. If they duck under screens against him, he can dribble right into a 3. If they close out hard, he can break out a pump fake and step back to shake them.
If he did this to Anthony Davis in crunch time, imagine how badly he will cook less mobile bigs:
Defenses try to keep their centers close to the rim. You can’t do that against Wembanyama, as the Lakers learned on Tuesday. He drilled an open corner 3 when Davis tried to cheat off him and guard the paint.
Wembanyama’s ball skills are also extremely tough for centers to guard. He’s not quite strong enough yet to back bigger players down in the post, but the Spurs have been running actions to get him dribbling downhill or getting him the ball with a cushion to drive past slower players.
Davis is one of the best shot-blocking bigs of his generation, and he had zero chance against this 8-foot wingspan:
The Spurs have had point guard issues all year, trying to fit Jeremy Sochan into that role. With that not working out, they’re going more to a guard-by-committee approach. The addition of Branham into the starting lineup should help everyone get slightly better looks.
If Wembanyama ever gets a more dynamic guard, pick-and-rolls with him are going to be a nightmare. When teams try to put two on the ball, pulling their center away from the rim, there is no one big enough behind the play to stop him when he rolls to the basket. That’s the future issue that teams will be facing.
As much as a problem that Wembanyama poses as a center in the halfcourt, he is an even bigger threat in transition. He’s a great rim-runner with his young legs, long strides and crazy catch radius. Off of made baskets, he was simply beating Davis down the floor for easy layups or fouls. And in the open floor, there is no stopping him on lob plays.
The Spurs defense with Wembanyama at the 5 is actually good
San Antonio’s defense has been awful this season, ranking 24th overall. But when Wembanyama has started at the five, the Spurs have been elite.
|Wemby at 5
|Wemby at 4
Wembanyama is already an incredible rim protector — his 3.0 blocks per game are tied with Brook Lopez for the most in the NBA. He’s had four, five and six blocks in his last three games as a starting center. By the time the fourth quarter has rolled around, opposing players have been scared to take a shot anywhere near the rim when he’s been back there.
Feel like you hear this a lot about Wemby’s defense, but his performance last night against the Lakers was crazy.
Made a short video on it, 🔊 on: pic.twitter.com/eBl5dMRuyX
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) December 14, 2023
There was some concern about how Wembanyama would fare in one-on-one matchups against huge centers given his thin frame. There have been some blemishes — he fouled out against the Lakers, falling for some rip-through moves and getting posterized by Davis on one ferocious dunk.
Despite those occasional miscues, he’s mostly held up well. Against Nikola Vucevic, Wembanyama got beat early but adjusted throughout the game, holding the former All-Star to 3-of-9 shooting and blocking him three times. Most Improved Player candidate Alperen Sengun had a miserable time a few nights later, turning it over four times with Wembanyama on him.
The biggest impact of playing Wembanyama defensively at the five is that the Spurs have been able to keep him on the floor for longer periods of time. He’s still played at times with Collins, but allowing him to play two positions has upped his minutes slightly.
He’s been by far the Spurs’ most valuable player, particularly on the defensive end where they’re guarding 8.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor versus off it.
The Spurs used the beginning portion of this season to experiment and see what they had in their players. They look like they’re ready to get more serious about creating better conditions for Wembanyama to thrive. Moving him to center is the first step in that process, and it should allow him to show even more than what he has thus far.
Source : ESPN.com