As Tyronn Lue finished his postgame news conference on Sunday night, he voiced a concern that was also likely on the minds of other NBA coaches.
“Let’s win now,” Lue said, “before three or four years down the road.”
Lue and his team saw the future of the NBA. His name was Victor Wembanyama.
The Freak Show came to town, and the 19-year-old Frenchman looked more like a P.T. Barnum attraction than the next LeBron James in the Clippers’ 123-83 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. Nonetheless, Wembanyama’s talents were so obvious, so undeniable, that even Lue had to acknowledge the Clippers’ championship aspirations could have an expiration date.
The Lakers should also take notice.
Physically, Wembanyama was everything he was made out to be, maybe even more. The Spurs rookie was listed at 7-foot-4, but he looked taller.
Everything about him was long — his neck, his torso, his forearms, his shins, his fingers, even his fingernails.
“His wingspan is crazy,” Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard remarked.
When Wembanyama warmed up on the Crypto.com Arena court before the game, he looked as if he was playing Pop-A-Shot at Dave & Buster’s. That’s how small the ball was relative to the hands of the No. 1 overall draft pick.
Lue recalled meeting Wembanyama while vacationing in Paris last summer. With Clippers forward Nicolas Batum, Lue attended a game between a Sierra Canyon High team that featured Bronny James and a team of French prospects. Wembanyama was there and sat with Lue and Batum.
“Took a picture with him and it was, like …” Lue said, raising his hand over his head to illustrate the height discrepancy.
Lue shared the photograph with Times beat writer Andrew Greif. Lue, who is 6 feet, barely came up to Wembanyama’s chest.
Clippers players marveled at how a player the height of Wembanyama could move as swiftly as he does. Moses Brown, who played for the Clippers last year, was 7-foot-2 but he couldn’t handle or shoot the ball the way Wembanyama can. Bojan Marjanovic, another former Clippers player, was 7-foot-3 but he couldn’t move the way Wembanyama does.
“He will be a great player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovic said.
Wembanyama was playing in Los Angeles for the first time, and his pregame work attracted an enthusiastic group of onlookers to the side of the court on which the Spurs warmed up.
Spectators lined up behind the baseline, two or three deep in some places. Every nearby courtside seat was occupied. People pointed at Wembanyama. They snapped pictures of him. They recorded videos.
Once the game started, Wembanyama performed an act worthy of the entertainment capital of the world.
He disappeared in plain sight.
More precisely, the Clippers made him vanish, limiting him to 11 points and five rebounds in 26 minutes. Wembanyama averaged 18 points and 8.5 rebounds in his previous two games.
“I know I had a disadvantage,” said Robert Covington, who was the primary defender on Wembanyama. “Him being 7-4, I know I had to use my skill set. I’ve been watching him and everything, and I’ve kind of picked up the way they played him. I just picked up that you gotta be aggressive with him, you have to be physical, you gotta do the little things.”
Wembanyama failed to produce any highlight-show content, but did enough to convince the Clippers of his potential.
Paul George recalled a first-quarter play in which Russell Westbrook drove into the lane and tried to kick the ball out to Covington, who was camped outside the three-point line. Wembanyama deflected the pass.
“He got a deflection on Russ not even guarding Russ but just back tip,” George said. “There’s just certain plays that stand out, where you’re like, ‘Wow, [there are] only two guys, maybe, in the league that can do that.”
Wembanyama, for whom English is a second language, described the lopsided defeat as a “learning experience.”
“We got a famous saying in San Antonio,” Wembanyama said. “It’s ‘Pound the rock.’ It has a deep meaning. How I see it, and how I see life, [there’s] always adversity and struggles sometimes. But it’s not about how bad the struggles are going to be, but how persistent we’re going to be. It’s just the beginning of the season. It’s just one loss. We’re young, got a long way to go, but we’re going to keep pounding the rock.”
Wembanyama offered an interesting response when asked about his interactions with players such as Leonard and George, and Kevin Durant of the Phoenix Suns, whom he was scheduled to face on Tuesday.
“They’re my idols, but they’re still my opponents, so I wouldn’t really allow myself to just entertain a relationship with some guys that I’m going to have to play against, to fight against, someday,” he said.
He’s not the only one looking ahead. The Clippers are too. They know they’ll have their way with him for only so long.
“He’s going to be very special,” Covington said. “As he gets going and as he keeps getting years under his belt, he’s going to be scary.”
Wembanyama might be the most-hyped prospect since James, but he isn’t James. He’s not as refined a player as James was as a rookie. He’s not as physically mature. But if he remains healthy, and develops as projected, he could dominate the league as James did when he was at the height of his powers.
The Clippers are led by George, 33, and Leonard, 32; the Lakers by James, 38, and Anthony Davis, 30. But the question to ask about the Clippers and Lakers might not be about when their respective championship windows will close. The better question might be about when Wembanyama will close their windows for them.
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