Since the NBA season tipped off 10 days ago, basketball fans in Europe and the Middle East have been relying on next-day replays and highlight reels to catch up on the action the morning after it happened, given the time difference to the United States.
The world had been eagerly anticipating the debut of the San Antonio Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama, the most exciting NBA rookie since LeBron James, and on Sunday, the French teen phenom will showcase his talent in Europe’s prime time slot at 9:30pm CET (12:30am UAE time) against the Toronto Raptors.
The Spurs enter the game with a 3-2 record for the season and are coming off an impressive two-game sweep of the Phoenix Suns.
The 19-year-old 2.24-metre Wembanyama exploded with a career-high 38 points in the Spurs’ win over Phoenix on Friday, which ties him at third-most by a rookie in Spurs history.
Just five games into this new campaign, Wembanyama is already shaping up to be a stellar four-quarter player, having combined for 39 points in the final frame of his first five games, shooting 15-for-19.
“It’s a requirement, if we’re being ambitious,” Wembanyama said on Friday of his fourth-quarter heroics early in the season.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has worked with a host of top talent since he took over the reins in San Antonio in 1996 and believes Wembanyama has what it takes to become the superstar everyone expects him to be.
“The first thing I would say is that his parents did a very good job. He's one of the most mature 19-year-olds I've ever been around. His character is incredible,” Popovich told reporters ahead of Sunday’s game, which is part of the NBA Sundays Primetime initiative.
“His view of the world is mature. He understands who he is. He feels comfortable in his own skin. He knows that all the hype that has been pretty thick everywhere is something to be ignored. He realises he's got work to do.
“Talent is talent. But he's going to channel that, figure out exactly what his game should be. Discipline will be a big part of that, in understanding exactly what wins and loses. And that's a process, it's a journey. Fortunately for us, he doesn't have to be convinced of those things.
“He understands that that's how it works. So he's a very special young man. In addition to his talents, he understands relationships, respects teammates, very coachable, fun to be around. So he's got it all to become a superstar in time.”
Wembanyama is the first player to have 85+ points, 35+ rebounds and 10+ blocks in his first five career games since Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 – one of the many standout stats from his opening rookie performances.
“It just makes me want to go even higher to beat all these records,” said a confident Wembanyama on Friday.
The French teenager’s versatility is remarkable; and while he has impressed in the paint so far, he is also effective from beyond the arc and can handle the ball with staggering ease for someone his height.
Popovich admits he is still learning more about his charge’s abilities and hasn’t decided yet where on the court he thinks Wembanyama will be best utilised.
“At this point, we're in observation mode,” said Popovich.
“We don't really know what his game is going to be. Obviously his height and with his natural abilities, I think it's wiser for me to watch him play more – four games is a small sample to see where he feels comfortable. What are his innate abilities on the court as far as where he can be the most effective, is it down to the post? Is it in the wing? Is it in transition? Should he bring the ball up? Should he be a post player? Should he be a perimeter player, maybe all of the above?
“I think watching him for a while gives us a really good indication of where he fits and what his most significant contributions can be for the team. So we've pretty much given him freedom to shoot those threes and learn time and score. What's an appropriate time for a three and not? What's a contestant three and not?
“But defence is mandatory and we've spent most of our time disciplining him in that sense, so that he knows what's required and what's needed to be a defender in the NBA. Whether he's guarding a big man or a perimeter player because he will guard both. So that's really been the emphasis as we watch him offensively.”