April 19, 2024

Their meeting was almost poetic, a confluence of basketball eras, a rhapsody in sneakers.

San Antonio rookie Victor Wembanyama, just past his 20th birthday and playing his first NBA season, stunned and entertained a crowd that’s accustomed to seeing superstars stroll by on the court and along the sidelines at Crypto.com Arena. In piling up 27 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, five steals and five blocked shots in the Lakers’ 123-118 victory over the Spurs on Friday, the 7-foot-4 Frenchman pulled off a rare 5 by 5: at least five points, five rebounds, five assists, five steals and five blocks in a single game.

He’s the youngest NBA player ever to do that and is believed to be the 22nd to do it in league history, though older records aren’t complete. And he did it in the second game on back-to-back nights after he had 19 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks and five steals on Thursday.

Leaping high on impossibly long legs, he used his spidery arms to swat away shots that seemed destined to swish through the net Friday. He doesn’t so much rise as unfold. He doesn’t run so much as he devours real estate in huge chunks.

“He’s so tall,” said Lakers guard Austin Reaves, who stands a respectable 6-5 and found himself looking up at Wembanyama like a sore-necked tourist trying to see the cloud-covered top of a skyscraper.

“What am I supposed to do? He’s 7-foot-12. I don’t know how many times he blocked my shot tonight. I stopped counting.”

LeBron James, not far removed from his 39th birthday, made his return from the All-Star break and an ankle injury to lead all scorers with 30 points, including 20 in the second half. The Lakers (31-27) needed the victory, and they needed James to help them bounce back from a loss at Golden State on Thursday in their return from the All-Star break.

“I felt pretty good. I was more surprised by how well my wind was, to be honest,” he said. “But ankle did OK. Did so-so. I was happy to get out there and help my team win. That was most important.”

Yet on a night that carried far more buzz than a typical Friday in February, James made it clear he was impressed by Wembanyama’s potential.

“He doesn’t have a ceiling. So, he can do whatever he wants to do with his career,” James said. “It seems like he enjoys the game. It seems like he puts in the work. Just from the outside looking in, I’m not with him on a day-to-day basis, but I said a long time ago how special he was and it’s literally that simple.”

Asked how much havoc Wembanyama might be capable of creating defensively, James listed the rookie among the “guys in our league that you have to account for anytime you get around the rim or around the perimeter in our league history and he sits right at the top of it, [if not] around the top with all the greats.” He complimented Wembanyama’s exceptional debut, but noted other players have made similar splashes.

“But, it’s, can you sustain it?” James said. In his 21st season, with the NBA career scoring record in his pocket, he knows about longevity.

After the game, James punctuated his praise by tweeting, “That kid is SPECIAL!!” and adding an emoji of an alien. On Instagram, James posted a photo of them side by side, and again added the alien emoji.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham is another member of Wembanyama’s growing fan club.

“I just told [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] after the game, the kid, the thing that impresses me most about him, he’s uber talented, multi-faceted, highly skilled, but he’s, I think his biggest trait and quality that you can’t teach or coach, is his competitive nature. He’s a competitive kid and he makes winning plays all the time,” Ham said.

“You see how he plays with his teammates. He’s trying to make the right play, whether it’s for himself or for the others that are out there with him. And defensively, chasing down shots, changing shots, blocking shots, coming up with strong rebounds. But again, those two intangibles, the ability to stay that competitive, possession by possession., and also make winning plays, I think for me, personally, it’s the most [impressive] thing about him.”

The unforgiving nature of the NBA season gave the Lakers little time to enjoy their glimpse of Wembanyama and their victory over the Spurs (11-46). The Lakers next play Sunday afternoon at Phoenix.

“It should be a great game. They’ve been playing really good basketball for obvious reasons,” Reaves said. “They have a super-talented team that, offensively, when they’re making shots, they’re probably second to none. So, should be a dogfight. That’s what we should go in thinking it’s gonna be. Go compete every possession and leave it all out on the line.”

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