Popovich is a lot of things: erudite, blunt, caustic, demanding. But mainly he is secure enough in himself to be thoughtful with his players, and that will matter most in the development of Wembanyama, who at almost 7-foot-5 is built thinner than a shirt on a clothes hanger and has a lot of pieces to organize. The NBA doesn’t lend itself to child rearing — so many coaches can’t afford thoughtfulness with young players, between the daily urgencies of the 82-game season and a heightened sense of job peril in a league in which three of the past five title winners were since fired by impatient overlords. How easily Wembanyama could have fallen to a team such as Charlotte, that washing machine ever on spin cycle. What might he have looked like in six or eight years, having played under three different coaches?
The most important facet Popovich offers to Wembanyama is not stability in San Antonio, a history of winning rings with big men or an affinity for foreign talents, though those will matter. It’s his unembarrassed sensitivity for and rapport with his players, to whom he listens intently. Wembanyama has landed with a coach who, as his former player Steve Kerr once observed, is the closest thing to a benevolent parent that the NBA has, with his curious combination of authoritativeness yet a nurturing streak, down to his insistence on hosting family dinners. “Sometimes he’d come into the huddle in a timeout, and he’d say, ‘What do you guys see out there?’ ” Kerr told me.
Here was Popovich just after the draft, when asked how he would handle his new protégé. “We don’t have a personal relationship yet,” he said, tellingly. Every remark he made suggested a light hand and open ear, and indeed, he sounded almost fatherly as he talked about how to introduce Wembanyama into the rest of a prospect-laden team, with a core of players under the age of 24, that he takes obvious relish in coaching. “We’ll observe; we’ll be there to counsel, to suggest, to answer questions,” Popovich said. “To be available as they matriculate into a team, into a city, into a home. Where are they going to eat their meals? Who is going to make their meals?”
Matriculate? A home and meals? How many NBA coaches have the luxury to think like that? Popovich’s team dinners have become near legendary rituals in which he shares his love of fine food and wines with a collector’s passion that has made him familiar in Michelin-starred restaurants. Somewhere along the line, Popovich decided it was part of his responsibility to nourish players during the grind of the season. He’s known for his insistence that they eat a good meal, win or lose. Meals are an indulgence when they win and a comfort when they lose, and in either case you sense that Popovich finds it a pleasure to see the wonder on a young man’s face when the scrape of a fork on a plate gives him a new experience, a taste that lands on his palate for the first time.
If Wembanyama gets nothing else from Popovich, he will get care. Individual care. Wembanyama has said he wants to become “something that’s never been seen before and never will be seen again,” and there’s no question he can become that, with his multiplicity of skills — lithe ballhandler, rippling-soft shooter yet a thunderbolt for the rim. In his introductory news conference, Wembanyama remarked: “As a basketball player I’m trying to be myself, at the same time, trying to learn and be as objective as I can to be become the best. But I’m also trying to be myself and not let anyone change the way I want to be and change the way I want to play.” He wants to be out of category, distinctive, which is something else that Popovich has experience and touch with, having coached Manu Ginóbili.
“I learned so much from Manu about that very thing,” Popovich said on draft night. “You can’t make players into what you think they should be. You really have to understand what they have and how to capitalize on that. Because no player is perfect. And learning how to zip it once in a while will serve me well as I watch Victor.”
It’s worth revisiting how Popovich dealt with Ginóbili in their early years together for a hint of how he will treat Wembanyama. At times Popovich got frustrated with Ginóbili’s love for creative, high-risk passes, which could tilt into turnovers. When Popovich tried to suppress him, Ginóbili protested unhappily: “I am Manu. This is what I do.” After a while, Popovich decided it was better to let him flourish unpruned. As Popovich relayed his philosophy during a press gaggle back in 2017, “I said, ‘Okay, you go ahead and try to save one or two of those passes per game, and I’m going to shut up one or two times when they happen during the game.’ We came to this compromise, and it’s been lovey-dovey ever since.”
Hear how patient and player-centered Popovich sounded about his team’s 22-60 learning-curve season in 2022-23, which included a franchise-worst losing streak. “In a sense — and this will sound strange — it was one of the more enjoyable years,” Popovich remarked. “It was fun in a way not being on TV much. And you just go to work, and you don’t worry about results other than players developing and a team understanding going forward.”
Who knows whether Wembanyama will become the phenom who makes Kevin Durant look pedestrian or whether Popovich can mount one more dynastic run. What’s sure is that the league and its audience will be spared the dispiriting spectacle of a young man ground down into confused pieces by unsteady franchise leadership or exigent coaching under undue pressure. All of us got lucky on that score.