LAS VEGAS — The stands were packed, phones were out and some two hours before Victor Wembanyama’s Summer League debut, scalpers were braving 100-plus-degree weather trying to find some poor chaps willing to pony up.
The stands inside the Thomas & Mack Center were already pretty full, even before the No. 1 pick strolled into the back of the arena — one full hour before his debut.
Even an anxious crowd seemed to grow more by the second in the previous game between Portland and Houston, which seemed to drag in the last minute. Once Jabari Smith Jr. hit a triple at the buzzer off an inbounds pass with 0.6 seconds left to complete the improbable comeback, the euphoria was less about the thrilling finish and more about what was to come.
You could hardly tell it was a battle between the first pick and second pick, Charlotte’s Brandon Miller. Even North Carolina’s own J. Cole, who sat across from the Hornets’ bench, was there for the spectacle as much as the individual matchup.
Everyone was there for Wembanyama, the 19-year-old Frenchman playing a game of this magnitude on American soil for the first time in his career — which seemed to get lost in all the hoopla surrounding the game.
The front rows were packed with NBA luminaries who wanted their first glimpse of the most-hyped prospect since LeBron James, and every time he touched the ball in the opening warmups, it was noted by the crowd.
Across the way from the Spurs’ bench, there was Wembanyama’s father, taking pictures and videos on his phone like a normal dad — even in this abnormal setting.
Wembanyama didn’t have some banner debut, missing nine of his first 10 shots, dribbling into traffic a little too much and even shooting a couple airballs. But he seemed to grow more comfortable with the speed and handsiness of the opponents later, hitting a wing triple while being fouled late in the fourth, completing his evening.
He finished with nine points, eight rebounds, five blocked shots, three assists and three turnovers in 27 minutes in the Spurs’ 76-68 win over the Hornets on Friday night. He hit the floor a few times during play, as is to be expected given Wembanyama’s frame and the rough style of Summer League, but he ended upright and without a limp — both Portland’s Scoot Henderson and Houston’s Amen Thompson left the previous game with injuries.
So in one sense, Wembanyama passed an early test.
“Honestly, I didn’t really know what I was doing on the court tonight,” Wembanyama said. “The biggest improvement I got to do is be ready and react to the plays from the point guard and stay connected.”
He admitted he couldn’t get all the calls from the coaching staff in real time, likely a function of lack of experience and acclimation compared to his teammates who already had a couple of games under their belts in the California Classic Summer League before heading to Vegas.
Wembanyama seemed to take it in, if only in moments, the spectacle of it all. He wanted to please the crowd, to meet the moment. The crowd not only cheered whenever he touched the ball, but inhaled in anticipation of something special happening — witnessing history meant there was an appetite to chronicle it as well, and Wembanyama felt it palpably.
“I was working out by myself a couple days before this,” he said afterward. “I think there’s a lot of conditioning to do, especially in an 82-game season. When you run a lot, it was really exhausting. When I subbed out, I was tired and exhausted, so there’s a lot of conditioning to do.”
The 18,000 in attendance exhaled in disappointment when one of his shots went awry, or even when he routinely passed the ball around the perimeter to keep the offense moving, but showed its approval when he hit a cutting Dominick Barlow for a layup off a double-team.
There wasn’t a seat to be found in the lower bowl, and usually that’s not the case at Summer League. It’s the second time the first day of Summer League has been sold out in advance of gameday, and even the likes of Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hung around to take in the evening.
“I’ve seen big crowds before. It wasn’t a home game or an away game,” Wembanyama said. “It’s not like the crowd is only here to cheer my team or to destroy us. But I’m glad a lot of people can get to see us play.”
While he didn’t shine tangibly, you could see the gifts even through the struggles. The crowd oohed and aahed whenever he sent a block backward, and was ready for a dunk when he spun off a defender, only to find himself too far underneath the rim to gather himself properly.
He had a “Welcome, Rookie” moment, when Kai Jones caught an alley-oop over his head and forcefully slammed it while being fouled. It was similar to the play Giannis Antetokounmpo defended masterfully in the 2021 NBA Finals — the signature play of that series, in Game 4, when he stayed with Devin Booker and then blocked Deandre Ayton at the rim.
It’s a play Wembanyama will likely be able to make in time, perhaps sooner rather than later. But expecting too much seemed to be a bit unfair considering the time he took off after his French team ended its season shortly before the draft, leaving his timing and conditioning way off — let alone the adjustment to this level of NBA basketball.
He didn’t seem too concerned about the play itself, pausing before all of his answers while keeping perspective on the timing and even the minutiae of being the low man on a pick-and-roll — a new role he’ll likely play once the real games begin.
“We’re gonna get scored on sometimes, but we’re here to learn,” Wembanyama said.
It’s a first day of many, and not many will remember Wembanyama’s stat line — but will boast to say they witnessed the next big thing.