For Victor Wembanyama and Spurs, this season has been challenging: ‘But it is going to work’



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For players whose teams have been eliminated from NBA postseason play, motivation becomes a matter of personal pride and professionalism.

When the already-eliminated San Antonio Spurs (15-54) played the already-eliminated Memphis Grizzlies (24-47) on Friday night at Frost Bank Center, there was another catalyst for the Spurs: avoiding the infamy of having the worst record in franchise history. That dubious distinction is held by the injury-plagued 1996-97 team that finished 20-62.

Not even that dire prospect was motivation enough to prevent yet another Spurs loss, this time to this season’s most injury-riddled club. Grizzlies standouts Ja Morant, Marcus Smart and Derrick Rose have played a combined total of only 53 games and coach Taylor Jenkins has used 29 players this season.

Somehow, the Grizzlies departed San Antonio with a 99-97 win after surviving 31 points and 16 rebounds from Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama and recovering from a 17-point deficit in the second quarter.

Fittingly, it was Jaren Jackson Jr. who scored the winning basket for Memphis, a well-contested jumper from the middle of the lane that swished with 1.2 seconds remaining.

Watching from a front-row seat was his father, Jaren Jackson Sr., a member of Gregg Popovich’s regular playing rotation when the Spurs won their first NBA title in 1999. The elder Jackson is an assistant coach at the University of the Incarnate Word, less than a dozen miles from Frost Bank Center. The Spurs telecast caught his broad smile as both teams went to their benches during Popovich’s timeout after Jackson Jr.’s make.

Spurs guard Tre Jones, whose professionalism and positivity have made him a team leader, tied the game at 97. His 3-pointer with 18.8 seconds left set the stage for Jackson’s heroics.

After the Spurs’ final timeout, Wembanyama air-balled a desperation 30-foot attempt released at the final horn.

The Grizzlies celebrated and the Spurs lamented another what-could-have-been game.

“We know we should win that game,” Jones said. “Every loss is definitely tough, especially when it comes down to the last possession. It’s always a tough feeling, but when a team comes in like that, as injured as they were, and we just let them outwork us, it’s definitely a tough one.”

Friday’s game was one of only four left on San Antonio’s schedule against teams with losing records. Now that number is down to three — one more against the Grizzlies, one at Utah and the season finale at home versus the Detroit Pistons.

Five more wins had seemed improbable, but gettable, before Friday’s tough loss. Now, it appears that those 1996-97 Spurs, including team icons David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson, will shed their distinction as the losingest team in club history at some point in the first week of April.

Wembanyama understood the relative importance of Friday’s game.

“It’s very important in that the whole focus is on winning these games,” the 7-foot-4 center said after Thursday’s practice session. “I think we’ve had our ups and downs in the season, but we know each other way better today. So, it all comes down to all of our efforts to make this work. But it is going to work.”

Nearly everything worked well enough Friday for Wembanyama, though he blamed himself for not reacting properly after the Spurs built their 17-point lead.

“When we were up by a lot, I didn’t put the nail in the coffin,” he said.

Friday’s outcome had additional import for the Spurs in regards to the 2023 trade that sent center Jakob Poeltl to Toronto. What they got from the Raptors in that deal was center Khem Birch, who never played a game and was waived Oct. 23, a 2023 second-round pick that became Sidy Cissoko and a first-round pick that is protected through the top six picks of each of the next three drafts.

For now, Toronto and Memphis remain in a tight “race” for the NBA’s seventh-worst record. The Grizzlies jumped over the Raptors (23-47), which fell in Oklahoma City on Friday.

If the Spurs should prefer two picks in lottery territory in the 2024 draft, rather than in 2025 or ’26 (more on that) then they have a vested interest in every additional Grizzlies loss and every Raptors win, which makes Friday’s result even more difficult for the Spurs to swallow.

Toronto has three remaining games against teams with losing records: two with the Washington Wizards (12-58) and one with the Brooklyn Nets (26-44). Memphis’ only remaining game against a non-losing team is another matchup with the Spurs on April 9 at FedEx Forum.

Does securing an additional 2024 first-rounder play into the thinking of the Spurs with the 12 games remaining?

“My job is to make baskets,” Wembanyama said, “so I want to win every game, but I’m sure we think about it.”

From the moment he was drafted, Wembanyama became the Spurs’ most important player, whom a title contender can be built around. He is a resource to be consulted.

Being involved in all decisions to reshape the roster around him is meaningful to the 20-year-old star.

“I mean, as much as my role as a leader and as a player for the future is important,” he said. “So, I stay on my side, but I’m sure about the draft they’re going to ask me questions about the French prospects we got right now coming up. So, I’m ready to be involved and to collaborate and give help in any way I can.”

Will it even be preferable to have two picks in the first round of the 2024 draft? Or might the Spurs be better served by Toronto keeping its pick this season, the anticipation being the Raptors will have a better season in 2024-25 and, thus, be forced to convey their first-rounder to the Spurs next spring?

NBA draft guru, Sam Vecenie, in a conversation with Raptors beat writer, Eric Koreen, recently called this year’s draft crop “exceedingly questionable in terms of upside at the top,” adding that the 2025 NBA Draft “figures to be much stronger.”

Vecenie did mention that good players will be available in June’s draft, but likely fewer than usual, and none who appear to be impactful as some who likely will be selected in 2025.

And, let the record show that more than a few truly outstanding players are overlooked every year by the league’s draft experts. Two-time MVP and future Hall of Famer Nikola Jokić was the 41st pick in the 2014 draft and was selected during a Taco Bell commercial. The greatest second-round pick in Spurs history, Hall of Famer Manu Ginóbili, was the 57th pick in the 1999 draft.

Hoping to find not one, but two possible gems in the first round in June suddenly seems like less of a prospect for a Spurs team that let Friday’s game slip away and scuttled that 2024 first-rounder from Toronto.

(Photo: Michael Gonzales / NBAE via Getty Images)





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