Wembanyama: The Best Defensive Player in the NBA Already?

NBA’s rising star, Victor Wembanyama, acclaimed as the best defensive player, impresses beyond Rudy Gobert with limited time and stellar stats. Discover value!

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 29: Victor Wembanyama #1 of the San Antonio Spurs blocks the shot of Isaiah Hartenstein #55 of the New York Knicks in the first half at Frost Bank Center on March 29, 2024 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO — As soon as Victor Wembanyama tapped the opening tip of Friday’s San Antonio Spurs–New York Knicks game to teammate Tre Jones, he began a late-season campaign to state his case as a legitimate candidate to become the first rookie in league history to be named NBA Defensive Player of the Year despite his team’s 18-56 record.

Wembanyama now has the 65 games the NBA deems necessary to be eligible for some of its postseason awards.

Watch out, Rudy Gobert.

San Antonio’s 130-126 overtime win over the Knicks before another sellout crowd at Frost Bank Center became an instant classic, thanks to Wembanyama and Knicks guard Jalen Brunson. The Spurs’ 20-year-old rookie became the youngest player in league history to produce a 40-point, 20-rebound game. Brunson produced a 61-point gem for the Knicks, the second-most in their long history.

Not even Gregg Popovich, nearing the end of his 28th season on the Spurs bench, could recall another combination of excellence quite like it.

“He had 60?” the Hall of Fame coach responded when asked if he’d ever seen both a 61-point game and a “40-20” in one game.

Assured Brunson had produced 61, Popovich chortled.

“I don’t think I’ve seen that … I mean, one of those nights,” he said.

Wembanyama didn’t need his 65th game to qualify for NBA Rookie of the Year, which is one award that is excluded from the league’s much-debated requirement.

He should have a spot on his mantle reserved for the Wilt Chamberlain ROY honor he will receive after the league begins presenting the postseason hardware. His historic 40-20 turned into one more piece of statistical evidence that has made what once was a close rookie race with Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren a runaway for Wemby.

With eight games remaining, Wemby leads all rookies in scoring (21.0 points per game), rebounds (10.5), steals (1.2), blocks (NBA-best 3.4) and player efficiency rating (22.9).

Holmgren leads all rookies in shooting percentage, both overall (53.5) and 3-point (37.7). He also plays for a team that remains in a race for first place in the Western Conference.

For the first couple of months of the season, which included an 18-game Spurs losing streak, that was enough to convince some in the media to declare Holmgren the likely winner of this season’s ROY award.

When the 2023 portion of the season gave way to 2024, Wemby’s minutes restriction diminished and his production increased. The Spurs’ 13-29 record since New Year’s Day is nothing to crow about. Nevertheless, it should be enough to prove to voters that they should ignore the wins differential that informed the way-too-early belief that the Thunder rookie was on his way to being the top rookie.

Might Wembanyama be a unanimous selection? There have been only five in the history of the award. Ralph Sampson (1983-84), David Robinson (1989-90), Blake Griffin (2010-11), Damian Lillard (2012-13) and Karl-Anthony Towns (2015-16).

Tim Duncan? Keith Van Horn received three first-place votes in 1998 when Duncan was ROY.

Wembanyama’s defensive prowess has been paramount in turning this season’s once-competitive race into a rout. His league-leading 223 blocks encompass 21 games with at least five rejections. In league history, only four rookies have had more games with five blocks: Manute Bol (43, 1985-86), Robinson (28, 1989-90), Alonzo Mourning (24, 1992-93) and Shaquille O’Neal (23, also 1992-93).

Wembanyama’s defensive package includes more than just being a shot blocker. He also ranks 20th in the league in steals per game, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else leading the league in a category that is nearly impossible to calculate: shots changed and discouraged.

Anyone who has watched a few Spurs games has seen what we now call the Wemby effect: Opponents dramatically altering their shots or deferring them, either by dribbling out of his reach or passing to a teammate.

Jones has seen it from his vantage point as the Spurs point guard. He believes Wembanyama’s defensive presence is unmatched by anyone. Not even Gobert, the three-time DPOY, is more of a rim protector than Wemby.

“If you just watch the game you see how (Wembanyama) affects the game defensively,” Jones said. “It’s tough because of our record, but I think most people know he’s already the best defender in the league. He’s already leading the league in blocks; leads in blocks and steals combined, more than previous NBA Defensive Player of the Year winners.

“It’s just a matter of time before that will be his award.”

Even Brunson, whose 61 points were the sixth most in a season that now has produced 16 games of 50 or more, felt Wemby’s presence in the paint.

“He’s going to be one of the greatest players this game has seen,” Brunson said. “It’s tough to get a shot up and in over him.”

Should the Wemby effect make him worthy of votes for DPOY?

“Why not?” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said before his team played the Spurs on March 19. “The things he does on the defensive end, why wouldn’t he be considered?”

In his pregame Friday chat with reporters, defensive-minded Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t know how to quantify what Wembanyama brings to the Spurs defense along with his blocks, but he understood its impact.

“Yeah, I think it’s one of the biggest things in the league, his rim protection,” Thibodeau said. “You have to have awareness of where he is at all times — the length, the timing, the ability to cover a lot of ground quickly. And, as time goes on, he’s just going to get stronger and stronger.

“You see the plays that he’s making. You can’t teach that. That’s instinct.”

Mature beyond his years, Wembanyama is a realist. He doesn’t believe he will win this season’s Hakeem Olajuwon Trophy Defensive Player of the Year Trophy because Gobert, his good friend and fellow French countryman, is averaging 2.1 blocks per game and anchors one of the league’s best defensive teams.

“I know that Rudy has a very good chance of winning it this year, and it would be well deserved,” Wembanyama said earlier this month. “Let him win it now because after that it’s no longer his turn.”

That’s serious bravado, but it is based on evidence. Indeed, Wembanyama’s combination of blocks (223) and steals (81), something stat geeks refer to as “stocks,” is 304. Last season’s DPOY, Grizzlies power forward Jaren Jackson Jr., had 254. Gobert never has had more than 263, (214 blocks and 49 steals) in 2016-17 when he won the first of his DPOY awards.

The Spurs’ defensive ranking with Wembanyama on the court is 117.2. When he is off the court it is 123.1. And, over the Spurs’ last 15 games, their defensive rating with Wemby on the court is 106.0, which would rank first in the NBA.

Wembanyama’s strong defensive work in Friday’s win was overshadowed by his becoming the youngest player in NBA history to record a 40-20 game. No rookie had produced such an accomplished since Shaquille O’Neal scored 46 and grabbed 21 rebounds for the Orlando Magic on Feb. 6, 1993, 18 days shy of his 21st birthday.

Wemby won’t be 21 until Jan. 4.

So just how many DPOY trophies will Wembanyama earn before his career ends? No player has won more than four, a distinction shared by Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace.

It seems like another goal the Spurs superstar rookie can achieve.

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