The walls around Victor Wimpanyama, as he sat at a press conference Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, were plastered with photos of past Las Vegas Summer Tournament winners. There were the NBA stars who played there in the early days of their careers and a photo of LeBron James from 2018, when he showed up wearing gold shorts with “Lakers” written on the front in his first public appearance after signing with the team.
The summer league debuted the year after James’ rookie season, so the starting rookie was Dwight Howard, the top draft pick in 2004. As Wimpanyama spoke with reporters, a picture of Howard smiling could be seen on a wall to his right.
“the Beatles?” One team executive joked earlier that night when asked what he would compare it to the hysteria surrounding Mbanyama, who was picked by the San Antonio Spurs first-time pick last month. The closest real comparison is James entering the league in 2003.
Wimpanyama had just finished his debut in a Spurs jersey, when he scored 9 points along with 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 5 blocks. He shoots 2 of 13 shots and looks tired at times.
None of this will affect his future in the long run, nor does he predict what his career will be like. But Wembanyama’s first few days in Las Vegas not only introduced him to the game of the NBA, but also to the absurdity and glare of fame. He came away from that experience a little dispirited, but still smiling and poised as his journey continued.
Wimpanyama finished his French season just three weeks early, a week before the NBA draft. Choosing him first was generally a foregone conclusion, but she still cried when it happened.
Spurs immediately set about shaping it up. He went to dinner the next day with some of the organization’s legends—Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Sean Elliott, and Manu Ginobili—to start learning from them.
They knew his body needed a break, so they made him skip their games in Sacramento last week to salvage his Las Vegas debut. He will also skip the World Cup this year, where he was going to strengthen the French national team.
And when Wimpanyama started playing and training with the Tottenham summer league team, together they focused on learning again.
“There’s a very palpable enthusiasm as a coach,” said Matt Nielsen, who coaches the Spurs summer league side. “He wants to do the right thing.”
Friday’s game pitted Wimpanyama and the Spurs against the Charlotte Hornets and Brandon Miller, the second overall pick in the June draft.
The Thomas and Mack Center is a run-down arena on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that dresses itself once a year as the center of the NBA world.
All 30 NBA teams appear two weeks after the NBA Summer League Draft with rosters that include their most recent draft picks, who will not be injured during exhibition games. Scouts, team owners, and executives abound in the lower bowls, and every so often the league’s biggest stars take a break from casinos, clubs, and sponsorship appearances to stop and sit on the court to play a game.
A typical summer league crowd might fill the lower half of the bowl, a good crowd would pack it in and perhaps spill onto the upper decks. On Friday night, the entire arena filled to the top with about 18,000 spectators hoping to see something amazing.
Wimpanyama had some shining moments, but it didn’t produce the ones that audiences were eagerly awaiting. He missed layups and dunks, on all eleven of the shots he took. He was not the focal point of Tottenham’s attack for most of the game. Defensively, his natural size and 8-foot wingspan meant he could block jump shots even when he was running late to the shot.
At least once, his victim was Miller, who scored 16 points on 5-of-15 shooting with 11 rebounds.
After the match, Wembanyama spoke of his desire to improve his conditioning, and said he was “exhausted” every time he got out of the game. He said he needed to better understand the plays called for by the base and the team’s defensive system.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing on the field tonight, but I’m trying to learn for the next matches,” Wimpanyama said. “The important thing is to be ready for the season.”
It was a balanced response from Wimpanyama, who sounded less effervescent but still straight-forward.
That didn’t stop observers from drawing conclusions about his future or fans of pop star Britney Spears from mocking his performance.
Yes, Britney Spears.
She had tried to approach Wimpanyama from behind on Wednesday night and was stopped by a Tottenham security guard who swung his left arm in her direction. Las Vegas police said the security guard’s actions caused Spears to hit herself in the face, but Spears said the response was excessive and demanded an apology.
Wimpanyama said he never saw her face during the encounter, but her fans remained angry. Police said no charges would be filed.
This minor controversy marked the beginning of Wembanyama’s time in Las Vegas, and highlighted the absurdity that can come with fame. He passed, though, just as the memory of a simple start can too, as Wimpanyama’s career progressed.