The San Antonio Spurs reacted as if they had just won the NBA championship instead of securing the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
“I might faint,” Spurs owner Peter Holt told ESPN as he stood at center stage at the NBA Draft lottery in Chicago. “I’m so excited.”
Just over 4,000 miles away, French prospect Victor Wembanyama hosted a party for close friends and family in Paris. They showed the kind of giddiness usually reserved for after players win their first NBA title.
“My heart is beating,” Wembanyama told ESPN. “I got everyone and love everyone around me. It’s a really special moment that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”
That’s because this marked the formal beginning of a match made in heaven. No need for either party to hide behind polite pleasantries. Instead, both the Spurs and Wembanyama acknowledged the quiet part out loud. On June 22, the Spurs will definitely select Wembanyama with the No. 1 pick of the 2024 NBA Draft. No need to wait for any pre-draft workouts or interviews. Not necessary to take any phone calls to weigh any blockbuster pre-draft trades.
Nothing in any pre-draft workout or trade negotiation will sway the Spurs away from selecting Wembanyama. After excelling professionally in with Nanterre 92 (2019-21), ASVEL (2021-2022) and Metropolitans 92 (2022-23), Wembanyama has shown he will be the NBA’s next generational star. He has the point-guard skills in a 7-foot-3 body. He possesses super-star talent with a team-oriented approach. He showcases charisma that will make him the NBA’s marketing dream, but he also exudes a humble and hungry demeanor that will please any NBA coach and veteran player.
Those qualities will make Wembanyama a perfect fit for NBA franchise, but not every team would make a perfect fit for Wembanyama. Some organizations lack structure. Some don’t have vision. Some have coaching and roster instability. The Spurs are the complete opposite.
They have become the model NBA franchise. They have the organization’s all-time winningest NBA coach (Gregg Popovich). They have a culture built on team work and player development. And, oh yeah, the Spurs also mastered how to make the most of another generational talent named Tim Duncan 26 years ago.
Then, the Spurs tanked after David Robinson’s devastating injury that sidelined him for all but six games in the 1996-97 season. That then led to the San Antonio winning five NBA titles and making the playoffs every season during Duncan’s 19-year NBA career (1997-2016). The Spurs did so again amid mixed progress with their young players. But unlike other franchises that stay in the NBA draft lottery for multiple years, the Spurs will ensure their future No. 1 pick (Wembanyama) also leads them to multiple title runs.
After already building an international pipeline for stars and role players, the Spurs will make Wembanyama comfortable with their interest about other cultures. Wembanyama can already lean on other French players, including Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, for their perspective on how they thrived with the Spurs. San Antonio will become a safe haven for Wembanyama wanting to escape the media glare and focus just on basketball. Popovich will become the perfect coach for Wembanyama, and won’t be afraid to empower him, motivate him and challenge him.
Make no mistake. Popovich remained aware of the driving force that ensured championship success and organizational synergy. Popovich often toasted his star players’ name before having team or private dinners. Popovich also shouted out Duncan by his full name anytime he was asked to explain the Spur’ long-term excellence. It wouldn’t be surprising if Popovich described Wembanyama the same way he talked about Duncan when I asked him five years ago about the organization’s consistency.
“I’m not being glib or anything like that. He was such a stalwart,” Popovich said. “He was such a foundation. He exuded such a leadership in a quiet way that everybody just responded to his example on and off the court. I’m not talking about he’s a perfect little cub scout, or that sort of stuff. He’s just a wonderful human being who understood about empathy, love and cared for his teammates. It just always showed. He was such a competitor on the court without wanting to be in front of the camera or anything like that. I think more than anything, that’s what the basis has been for our long-term success.”
Following Duncan’s retirement, the Spurs experienced some turbulence. Two years later, Manu Ginobili retired. That same year, Parker signed with Charlotte for his final NBA season. In 2019, the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to Toronto amid differences with how he and the organization handled his right quadricep injury that sidelined him for 73 games during his final season (2018-19). Amid mixed progress with their rebuilding stages, the Spurs have missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons.
Yet, Popovich stayed invigorated with coaching for reasons beyond wanting to oversee the U.S. Men’s Olympic team win gold in the 2021 Tokyo Games or to eventually surpass Don Nelson as the NBA’s all-time winningest coach. When I asked Popovich in 2021 what kept him motivated to keep coaching over enjoying retirement, the Spurs’ coach conveyed enthusiasm for the craft through his words, tone and body language.
“At the base of it, the competitiveness in game situations is thrilling,” Popovich said. “That’s always there. If that diminished or disappeared, then I wouldn’t be doing this. But beyond that, watching a new generation of players that are 19, 20, 21, 22 years old is both a challenge and it’s extremely satisfying to watch them develop, not just their basketball skills, but their awareness on the court, what’s going on in their world, what’s going on off the court, learning about the world they live in way beyond basketball. That still is a big satisfaction for me. I think I would miss that. I think those two factors, more than anything, keep me in it.”
Here's a safe guess that Wembanyama will keep Popovich coaching at least a bit longer. It’s obviously unrealistic for the 74-year-old Popovich to coach Wembanyama for his entire NBA career. But it’s not a stretch to think Popovich can develop the same bond with Wembanyama over their love for basketball, culture and food. It also seems incredibly realistic that they can start collecting jewelry together. More than a month before the Spurs will draft him, Wembanyama has already spoken the organization’s language on how he envisions himself.
“Team player,” Wembanyama told ESPN. “I’m going to do everything to win as many games as I can. I’m trying to win a ring asap. Be ready.”