'It was tough': How Round 3 with Pelicans is a chance to flex the Spurs' learning

Two previous matchups with the New Orleans Pelicans ended in the same ugly way for the San Antonio Spurs, but with a stretch of consistency and positive momentum to build on, a win might be imminent for the NBA's youngest squad in Round 3.
Dec 1, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich looks on
Dec 1, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich looks on / Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

DEC. 17 – A group of around ten media members watched from the back tunnels of Frost Bank Center as San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made his way into the main interview room.

The veteran coach gave a speech lasting no longer than 30 seconds and saw himself out in an obviously-frustrated fashion, leaving the room silent for the next few minutes. He had effectively conveyed his message.

In fact, effectively might have been an understatement.

"That's what you call an a** whooping," Popovich stated bluntly upon sitting down. "Pure and simple. Drop the mic. Period. Full stop. All that kind of stuff."

"They had a great night shooting," he added. "We couldn't throw it in the ocean. But on top of shooting well, they played very well. We weren't as sharp as we needed to be and got whipped real good.”

For Popovich and company, losing in blowout fashion is a reality too-often faced. They knew that would likely be the case entering the season, especially with an inconceivable amount of youth compared to some of the stronger teams across the league.

But that didn't mean it would sting any less.

"Nobody likes to lose," Popovich explained during the Spurs' historic 18-game skid. "But they're getting smarter with every game. ... The effort is there, and I can see the wheels turning."

The wheels were certainly turning when San Antonio faced Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets for the first time, just as they were when LeBron James came to town for a two-game mini-series.

Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers fit that bill as well, and while only one of those visits ended up as a win, the Spurs learned from all of them.

That's been the song of the season for San Antonio. Learning, improving and adapting sit atop the young squad's priority list, and New Orleans presents another opportunity to do those things.

But while the Pelicans are similar to other teams the Spurs have faced in some assets — that is, strong shooting ability and a mix between veteran and youthful talent — they do have something, or rather, someone, who sets them apart.

Zion Williamson — a 6-foot-6 veteran power forward — presents a unique challenge for San Antonio on the court, but also a sense of familiarity for the Spurs' 7-foot-4 rookie, Victor Wembanyama.

In other words, Williamson can relate to the generational prospect.

He's been there before.

“I actually spoke to his Pops two summers straight when I was in Paris," Williamson said, answering a question about Wembanyama's level of media attention compared to his own. "He's got a great corner. He has great people around him.

"My advice to him would be to just keep focusing on [his] craft. I mean, [he] didn't get that hype for no reason. ... Keep your head on straight, and you'll be fine.”

Zion Williamson
New Orleans Pelicans v San Antonio Spurs / Ronald Cortes/GettyImages

Facing off against another player who knows what it's like to be swarmed with cameras and burdened with all of the pressure in the world is something Wembanyama seldom experiences. That's what makes facing the Pelicans unique. But the Spurs already know that.

In its last two outings against New Orleans, San Antonio lost by a combined 51 points. The latter loss, which placed a damper on Tony Parker's Hall-of-Fame celebration, was telling. Wembanyama did his thing, notching a team-leading 17 points and 13 rebounds, but it wasn't enough. Williamson and company simply out-played them.

“It was tough," Cedi Osman said of the loss. "It was tough. The first five minutes, we were playing great. Then we kind of lost our energy. I think that it was just their day, I would say. I don’t know how many threes – like 23, 24 threes with a high percentage, and we couldn’t respond offensively. That hurts.

With that loss behind them and another pass at the Pelicans at home in front of them, the Spurs are focused on one thing, and one thing only.

They're looking for a win.

“It definitely started with a run on their side," Wembanyama told reporters after the a**-whooping loss as to why the Pelicans pulled away in the second half. "They’ve been shooting very well, and we haven’t. We haven’t been shooting very well tonight, so we need to make that extra effort on defense.

"If it was indeed a lack of energy ... that’s easy to correct, and we need to do it right away."

Since Wembanyama has found his footing and his rhythm, the Spurs have looked stronger. That's simple and expected. He is the best player on their roster, so when he does well, so does the team.

The disconnect, however, has been that even "doing well" hasn't been enough for San Antonio to record wins. It's simply too young. Too in-experienced. Not good enough.

But that's changed recently. Wins are starting to feel more attainable, and Wembanyama knows it.

“Of course," the rookie stated when asked if his role is improving within the Spurs' offense. "I don’t even have to look at numbers to know it and to notice it. I feel it. Since it’s happened, I feel like it’s opened up way more stuff for my teammates. So, it’s good.” 

Jan 29, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA;  San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) smiles at San
Jan 29, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) smiles at San / Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Wembanyama has a chance to prove his impact against New Orleans — a team he's lost to twice now — as do his teammates, who, without Keldon Johnson, will look to slow down Williamson and the Pelicans.

A win is far from guaranteed, but as the story has gone lately, it's attainable. Doable. Feasible.

Knocking off New Orleans will start on the defensive end and finish with consistent offense. Whether that's from Tre Jones, Jeremy Sochan — who's found a different level of production lately — or even Osman, who had a strong showing against the Pelicans in the last outing, it's necessary.

And Wembanyama will likely headline that effort, which Williamson duly noted.

“He's a threat all over the court," the Pelicans star said of the Spurs rookie. "He's going to be a matchup nightmare because he can get his shot off whenever he wants. ... His presence alone can alter a lot of shots."

That much is certainly true. Wembanyama has proven himself as a game-impactor on both ends of the floor numerous times. And as if he didn't need any more motivation to perform well, he has a little something extra to prove Friday evening.

It is the first game since All-Star reserves were annouced, after all.

“I feel like he’s going to prove a point," Jones said of his teammate's All-Star 'snub.' "I don’t know what them numbers are going to look like after that.”

Wembanyama has long-preached earning what he deserves. He isn't caught up in awards or accolades, insinuating their appearance as the Spurs begin to figure things out and mature, but he does take notice.

So, it shouldn't be any kind of surprise if he has himself a night against New Orleans. In fact, Frost Bank Center might be in for a show. Just maybe.

Tipoff from San Antonio is scheduled for 7 p.m. CST.