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Victor Wembanyama and the Spurs Could Make the Perfect Match

The Spurs have thrived with international players under Gregg Popovich. Even if Pop isn’t back next year, that trend can continue with Victor Wembanyama.

The San Antonio Spurs have won five NBA championships and over 2,000 total games since Gregg Popovich took over as head coach in 1996, so it’s a little weird to see the team tanking in 2022-23.

But it’s not every year that someone like Victor Wembanyama is going to be available in the NBA Draft.

This offseason, San Antonio traded their lone star Dejounte Murray to the Hawks in exchange for Danilo Gallinari (waived) and three first-round picks. They have the fifth-youngest team in the NBA (23.8 years old) with the second-lowest payroll in the NBA ($78.6 million).

In other words, there’s little doubt about what they’re doing.

The Spurs will have their chance at the 7’4 French cyborg Wembanyama. If he comes to San Antonio, then Popovich can get the Spurs back on track via international stars, the same way he did in 1997.

There’s no telling what Pop’s motives are; he works in mysterious ways. But we do know he’s the oldest NBA coach in league history. The 73-year-old might be setting things up for his coaching successor — his current contract with San Antonio will expire after the season.

So, the first step is to bottom out and max out their odds of landing the No.1 overall pick. The worst three teams in the league will each have a 14% chance of getting the top pick, so that’s where the Spurs are shooting. The next step is to actually get lucky and land the first overall pick, because nobody is passing on Wemby.

It’s the perfect fit for several reasons. Look no further than Pop’s history in San Antonio, where he’s won five rings — four of which came behind the lead of international star duo Tony Parker (France) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina).

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International Scouting

The Spurs have always been the gold standard of international scouting. Yes, that dates back to Parker and Ginobili, but it certainly isn’t limited to them. 

They’ve had other good international players — Boris Diaw (France), Fabricio Oberto (Argentina), Pau Gasol (Spain), Boban Marjanovic (Serbia), Rasho Nesterovic (Slovenia), Cory Joseph (Canada), Tiago Splitter (Brazil), Patty Mills (Australia), and currently Jakob Poeltl (Austria).

In a 2013 ESPN feature, Pop said that foreign players are “fundamentally harder working than most American kids” — a big reason why he places a huge emphasis on international scouting. 

In the same piece, Seth Wickersham wrote: “When Pop looks at American talent he sees many players who have been coddled since eighth, ninth, 10th grade by various factions or groups of people. But the foreign kids don’t live with that. So they don’t feel entitled.”

As far as Wembanyama is concerned, he’s been on the Spurs’ radar for years now. After all, he played for the French team that Parker owns (LDLC ASVEL) when he was 16 years old.

Wembanyama later called the Spurs legend a “mentor” during his time there.

Gregg Popovich talks with Tony Parker (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

San Antonio’s Appeal

The interest between the Spurs and international players is mutual. Popovich’s team-oriented, off-ball and unselfish offensive strategy helps international players. Many are accustomed to playing the game in a team manner. American basketball players, on the other hand, grew up on the AAU circuit and tend to find gratification in isolation-heavy basketball.

“Pop and [Spurs CEO] R.C. [Buford] deserve a lot of credit for having the foresight to invest the time [in international scouting],” Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti told The Washington Post in 2013. “Certainly, they not only did an excellent job in identifying players, but also in creating an environment and a system where those players would want to play and would be capable of thriving.” 

Ironically enough, a decade later, Presti and Pop are fighting for the same prize. But Pop has an advantage unlike many others.

Popovich can relate to young international players more than most coaches around the league. He majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy, speaks Russian and Serbian, and traveled Eastern Europe in the 1970s while playing ball for military basketball teams.

He understands them.

Now, it’s a matter of whether the Spurs tank hard enough, get lucky, and land that golden ticket. And whether Pop is along for the ride.

His contract expires after this season and there’s been no indication of a new deal. But if he lands the 7’4 phenom from France, the Spurs will be in good shape. No matter who’s at the helm.

And Pop will always be the mastermind behind it all.

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About The Author
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio is a former Staff Writer at Boardroom. Puccio has 10 years of experience in journalism and content creation, previously working for SB Nation, The Associated Press, New York Daily News, SNY, and Front Office Sports. In 2016, he received New York University's CCTOP scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree in Communications from St. John's University. He can be spotted a mile away thanks to his plaid suits and thick New York accent. Don't believe us? Check his Twitter @APooch.