FEB. 2 — With hands on his face and a feeling he's known all too well, San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama stands at center court inside Frost Bank Center as a loser.
It's nothing new for the rookie. He'd been a loser — along with his teammates — more than 30 times in the first half of the season alone. The Spurs faced a tough reality of just not being ready enough to play 48-minute games against every other team in the NBA. They had the talent, just not the execution.
Or, as Gregg Popovich put it, the maturity.
"We're still searching for consistency," he said during the Spurs' 18-game losing streak. "We go in spurts and really haven't matured enough to understand that winning an NBA game is difficult. ... You can't be consistent on offense and execute on defense for [just] 20 minutes.
"You're not going to win that way."
Popovich was right. San Antonio had just lost to the New Orleans Pelicans after Zion Williamson laid in a shot with mere seconds on the clock to secure a road victory. It played an almost complete game, though that adverb was exactly the reason it fell short.
Despite the loss, however, the Spurs did accomplish the task that seemed to loom over that specific matchup: they proved their improvements.
"We're just growing," Spurs shooting guard Devin Vassell said. "Last time we played New Orleans ... we lost by like 30 or 40, so, the progress that we're making is huge."
After losing by more 36 points against the Pelicans on a night Popovich said they couldn't shoot the ball into the ocean, losing on a buzzer-beater was a clear step up, though it didn't make it any less heartbreaking.
"I don't know how he got the layup," Vassell said. "I jumped, Jeremy jumped, I think even Vic jumped too. Superstar. [Williamson is] a hell of a player."
Facing the Cleveland Cavaliers — another team San Antonio had lost to earlier in the season — was a chance to reset. It provided the same opportunity as playing the Pelicans did, plus the Spurs got to rally behind Victor Wembanyama in just his second back-to-back since going on a minutes restriction after his freak accident prior to squaring off against the Dallas Mavericks.
So, Wembanyama, Vassell and the rest of the Spurs hit the court once again.
Like before, they came away losers. They couldn't get the job done.
And this time, it wasn't so close.
“It’s always a competition when you hear about a guy that we all feel can be — probably will be — one of the faces of the league,” Cavaliers star Donovan Mitchell said of facing Wembanyama. “You want to send a message for sure.”
Safe to say, that's exactly what Cleveland did. It knocked off San Antonio by 16 points, Zach Collins was ejected and Mitchell scored 31 points to best Wembanyama's double-double. The Spurs fell to 40 losses on the season and were left with nothing but more questions.
But instead of dwelling on their losses, they turned their sights to a few days of rest and another bout with another team — this time the Miami Heat on the road.
"On the road" was something the young team was about to get real familiar with.
Making it in Miami
Practices are few and far between during the regular season, but morning shoot-arounds for San Antonio tend not to follow that rule.
Most game days, all 17 Spurs players, along with coaches, file into their brand-new practice facility to get shots up and prepare for the team waiting for them at Frost Bank Center later that evening.
But on the road? It's a different story.
Instead of a luxurious facility just a few minutes from home, the Spurs file into high-school gyms or the occasional unoccupied nearby university to accomplish the same task. Players still get warm, but the environment is vastly different — though that's not necessarily a bad thing.
“The road life, seeing so many cities — it’s a learning experience every time,” Wembanyama said of Miami. “We get to travel for our job. I’m just really lucky.”
Wembanyama and the Spurs got their chance to learn the city of Miami — another hub known for its culture — which started with shoot-around, but Wednesday looked even more different from other road games.
The high-school gym they inhabited for the morning was slightly more crowded.
Working out in Hebrew Academy High School's gym led Popovich to invite the school's basketball team to watch San Antonio work out. Players lined the sidelines, clapping as Jeremy Sochan got shots up and taking special interest in Wembanyama.
Of course, that comes with the job description. Wembanyama is 7-foot-4 and will undoubtedly be a face of the league moving forward, so naturally, his every move is carefully watched.
He's never minded that fact, however. Wednesday morning was no exception.
"Anytime we can make some kids happy ... it's always fun for us," Wembanyama said of the experience. "It costs us nothing, and it makes their day and possibly their week or their month."
Spending time with the high-school age basketball players — all with aspirations of playing at the highest level — was a chance to give back to the community he remembers being a part of.
He, too, used to dream of playing in the NBA. Of being No. 1.
"I've always had this ambition, ever since I knew what the draft looked like," Wembanyama said. "If I had a chance to talk to my younger self, I wouldn't say anything. I wouldn't change anything about the path here."
Wembanyama's path, though long and winding, led him to Miami for shoot-around, and later for a game against a team he loved watching growing up.
It was a full-circle of sorts.
"The Heat is also a team I grew up watching," San Antonio's rookie said. "They had some great players over time. One of the teams that has been great for a long, long time. Their culture is inspiring."
Unfortunately for the 20-year-old, the team that opposed him inside Kaseya Center was a much different-looking Miami Heat squad but played with the same poise he remembered, which was enough to carry it past the Spurs for a 116-104 victory.
San Antonio was outmatched. It didn't get to the free throw line as many times, gave up more turnovers and fouled one-too many times, especially in the final period.
That was certainly touched on by Popovich.
"We didn't shoot well," he said. "But the shots that we took were good.."
"They played better in the fourth quarter," the veteran coach added. "It's not the first time. ... They're experienced, they're talented, and in the fourth quarter, it shows. They're just a better team."
"Better team?" Perhaps.
More heart? No.
Same level? Also no.
The Spurs' loss to Miami revealed once again the negative edge of their youth. Competing at the near-perfect level required to win consistently in the NBA is just not something they're quite capable of, but that doesn't mean they don't try.
Falling short to the Heat didn't diminish that level of effort, either. In fact, it gave San Antonio another lesson in maturity and late-game poise.
"Of course [there's something to learn]," Wembanyama said of his team's loss. "They play mostly the right way. Not many mistakes. It shows throughout the season. ... It explains [their success].
"The difference was details. They were better than us ... in a multitude of details."
Wembanyama, like usual, focused on the positive aspects of San Antonio's shortcomings. Facing a team in the top half of the Eastern Conference isn't a walk in the park, and adding the road environment doesn't make it any easier, not to mention the looming knowledge that the young team won't be home for another three weeks.
All of it makes for an exhausting ordeal, but ever the optimist, Wembanyama canned that mindset. Instead, he opted to focus on a positive takeaway.
"The fact that we could hold up for more-than three quarters," he began, simply. "It shows some progress on our side."
Progress; Noun: "Forward or onward movement toward a destination."
Sounds like a young team with a bright future. Sounds like Wembanyama. Sounds like the Spurs.
That was the lesson learned in Miami.