Wembanyama lives up to generational billing in show-stopping win over Raptors

San Antonio Spurs' Victor Wembanyama drives at the Toronto Raptors defence during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Monday, February 12, 2024. (Chris Young/CP Photo)

TORONTO – Some players just have it. No one needs to overthink it too much. The people have decided.

San Antonio Spurs rookie superstar Victor Wembanyama very much has it. He’s the rare visiting player that fans want to see do amazing things, even if it puts the home team at risk of a loss or even embarrassment. There will be other games, but you only get to be in the building for ‘did you see that’ moments every so often.

LeBron James at his peak was like this. Kevin Durant at his best too. Steph Curry even to this day. Fans come early and watch their every move in warm-ups. A perfect night is them doing something legendary, and the Toronto Raptors somehow still winning, but if the Raptors are going to lose, bring on the memories.

Wembanyama provided plenty in what was a dominant 122-99 San Antonio win over a newly constructed Raptors team that seemingly has no idea how to play with each other, which makes sense given the extreme roster makeover over the past six weeks.

Toronto was never in this one. They were down 10-0 early, down by 17 at half and then 28 after three quarters.

Wembanyama finished off his rare points (27) rebounds (14) and blocks (10) triple-double with an emphatic spike of a lay-up attempt by Gradey Dick in the third quarter. It was an impressive 29 minutes of work.

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It’s hard to capture how thoroughly he dismantled everything the Raptors tried to do. He blocked Raptors seven-foot centre Jakob Poeltl four times at the rim and one of his two steals came against point guard Immanuel Quickley after being switched out on him beyond the three-point line. He scored on threes, made no-look assists and finished impossible alley-oops.

But most tellingly, he seemed to sap the Raptors’ minds and spirit.

“His early blocked shots just changed our attacking the paint,” said Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic. “We were hesitant to attack. We did not shoot the ball particularly well tonight either (39.8 percent), and one thing trickled into the next thing.”

The Spurs rookie is starting to figure out just how devastating a force he can be. Not only was he blocking shots, but he was also affecting decisions.

“Yeah. It’s a fact, you know,” he said when he was asked if he could sense the intimidation factor he’s developing. “It’s getting harder to block shots as well. I had to make an extra effort tonight because less and less people go at me. Yeah, intimidation, I can see it.” 

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Scottie Barnes looked especially out-of-sorts. He was blocked three times by Wembanyama in the third quarter and was generally ineffective all game as he finished with just seven points on 3-of-15 shooting.

Most notably, he left the Raptors bench with 10 seconds left on the game clock and was shown on the broadcast walking up to the Raptors dressing room while his teammates were still on the floor. A similar action by Pascal Siakam early during the 2020-21 season earned the former Raptor – now with the Indiana Pacers – a one-game suspension by the team.

“This is not the performance that we want to have, the competitive spirit that we want to have,” said Rajakovic, while declining to call out Barnes specifically. “So everybody is going to look in the mirror and figure out what we need to do.

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The Raptors’ only bright spot was the continued promising play of Raptors rookie Dick, who came into Monday night averaging 19.9 minutes a game in his previous 11 outings and connecting on 41.5 per cent of his threes while showing at minimum the willingness to stick his nose in defensively. It’s a long way from where he was before Christmas when he was struggling to fit in at the G League level.

Dick finished with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting, including 4-of-5 from three.

Everything that we expected from him, he’s able to produce it now,” said Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic. “I think that he went through all the phases that a rookie needs to go through, from being overwhelmed to really putting a lot of work in, to be able to play with 905 and he had extended minutes, find the rhythm there, but also stepping on the court for us and being able to see that all the work that he put in is actually paying off.”

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For everyone else? A bit embarrassing really. The Spurs had lost seven straight before arriving in Toronto and the Raptors can now claim the very dubious distinction of having lost to four of the five worst teams in the NBA before the all-star break, having dropped games to Portland, Detroit and Charlotte already.

There is some encouragement that with the Spurs (11-43) winning and the Raptors (19-35) losing, Toronto improved their chances of holding on to their own pick in the June 2024 draft. If it falls outside of the top six after the lottery balls settle, it is owed to San Antonio.

Otherwise? Just appreciate Wembanyama, the grand prize for the Spurs’ determined tanking effort last season. It all paid off when San Antonio came up with the first pick and used it wisely.

The French phenom had everyone’s attention from the moment he took the floor for his pre-game warm-up at Scotiabank Arena. There was a buzz in the air normally absent from a Monday night matchup of two teams with 12 wins combined so far in 2024. Those in the building early enough crowded the floor to watch him go through his pre-game routine, which was kind of akin to watching a talented six-foot point guard who had been stretched out to seven-foot-five. He is built like a muscular pipe cleaner but moves like water flowing around rocks in a stream. You just don’t see this kind of thing very often.

“He’s a unicorn, for sure, “ Dick said.

Wembanyama didn’t disappoint once the game started. On the Raptors’ first possession, Poeltl drove to the rim and the NBA’s leader in blocked shots swatted him away without jumping, it seemed, leaving the crowd murmuring. Coming back the other way, Wembanyama gathered himself smoothly and stepped into a deep three that was never in doubt from the moment he left his hand.

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The San Antonio Spurs have been fastidious about managing the just-turned-20-year-old’s playing time as he grows into his body and adjusts to the rigours of an NBA schedule. As a result, Wembanyama leads San Antonio in scoring (20.3), rebounding (10.0), steals (1.1), and blocked shots (an NBA-best 3.0) but is just fourth in minutes per game at 28.4.

But Wembanyama knows how to make the most of his time on the floor. By the time he sat down after his first roughly seven-minute stint, he’d contributed nine points, four rebounds, three blocked shots, two assists and a steal. San Antonio was up by six. He was just getting loose as he finished the first half with 19 points, six rebounds and five assists on 8-of-9 shooting.

“For some reason, we felt great today, we were in a great rhythm to start the game. I don’t know, I guess it’s the NBA,” Wembanyama said. “We got ups and downs, and today was an up day.” 

The numbers don’t do it justice, of course. On one possession Wembanyama ran a pick-and-roll with Spurs guard Tre Jones, which is not unusual except it was the seven-foot-five guy acting as the ball handler and slipping a slick pocket pass to Jones, a six-foot-something point guard.

Later, Wembanyama squared up his man on the right wing, gave a little fake, drove left-handed into the lane and finished with a smooth left-handed lay-up off the glass. A few possessions later from nearly the same spot he drove into the middle of the lane with his left hand, except this time reached across Poeltl and dunked it on him from outside the restricted area. Absurd.

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The mere idea of Wembanyama seemed to neutralize the Raptors’ offence as he swallowed up the paint and allowed the Spurs to challenge Raptors shooters on the perimeter. No one seemed more spooked than Raptors’ soon-to-be all-star Barnes, who gamely tried to challenge Wembanyama in the post and got his shot swatted away twice on the same possession in the third quarter. Barnes also got fooled badly in the second quarter as he tried to body up the slender Wembanyama on defence only to have the towering French star spin baseline and leave Barnes grasping at air. Poeltl came to help and fouled Wembanyama but that did little good as the rookie finished 5-of-6 from the line too.

The Spurs were leading 103-75 after the third quarter and while yes, we’re obligated to point out that the Raptors were trailing by 22 points in the second half when they roared back to win in overtime against San Antonio back in November, that just wasn’t in the cards Monday night.

Wembanyama being the NBA’s next generational star is very much in the cards, the kind of player who can wow a home crowd even as he’s shutting them down with his talent.

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