Throughout the history of the National Basketball Association, one thing has almost always been true. The league is exceptionally difficult – and especially so for rookies. Unless your name is Magic Johnson, the first year of one’s career portends struggle, heartbreak and mistakes aplenty. But what the NBA has also taught its players is that the name of the pro game is resilience. It’s about what one does with those hard times that matters most. Fall, but get up. And when it comes to the 2023-24 season’s two most hyped rookies – Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, who were picked first and third in the 2023 draft, respectively – the new season is proving to be a test of all they’ve prized and prided themselves on in the past.
Last week, the teenagers met for the first time in the NBA. The game, which was the opening of two back-to-back ones for the Spurs and Blazers, also marked the first occasion the two rookies squared off in opposing jerseys since October 2022 in a then-highly touted showcase, which pitted Henderson’s G-League team against Wembanyama’s Metropolitans 92 squad from the French top division. This time, it was Wemby’s San Antonio Spurs playing against Henderson’s Portland Trail Blazers in the City of Roses. With the teams struggling at the bottom of the Western Conference, the matchup shed light on the reality that last year’s headlines won’t quite carry over to this year. But led by championship coaches – Gregg Popovich for San Antonio and Chauncey Billups for Portland – the question remains: How will the rookies rise to the level of their decorated play-callers?
“Just try not to skip any steps – and coach,” said Popovich when asked what it takes to build his roster and No 1 pick into a winner ahead of Thursday night’s game. “It’s pretty early in his career to start talking about what he needs to do – we’re just learning who he is.”
“He’s going to have a long career,” said Billups of his own young star prior to Thursday’s tip. “I just think his confidence has grown so much in this process. I feel like the game is kind of slowing down for him. He understands what I want out of him every day. He’s starting to get to know his teammates’ games out there a little bit more. And he’s studying more and more.”
While the two rooks have long roads ahead, there has already been a great deal of praise for what they can do as young stars in the league. From remarkable dunks to marvelous potential to eye-popping highlights, there is a reason why there is so much talk around both. “I’m going to be what I needed as the third pick in the draft at 20 years old,” Billups, a former point guard and No 3 pick, has said about the talented Henderson, who essentially replaced Blazer icon Damian Lillard this year after Dame was traded to Milwaukee. “I promised him that.”
Today, it would seem that Wembanyama is a bit further along than Henderson, but that may be because he boasts something coaches cannot teach: incredible height. He also has big-time skill, the ability to dribble and shoot like a wing and the knack for stifling defense around the basket that others like Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Adul-Jabbar came to be known for. On Halloween night, Wemby dueled with all-timer Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns, coming out victorious for one of San Antonio’s few wins this year. The two teams’ next game also featured a breakout performance by Wemby. The matchup led Durant to call him a “unique” player. “He is going to be a force in this league for a long time,” he said.
Along with his physical gifts, Wembanyama’s coach has praised his maturity. In a virtual press conference earlier in 2023, Pop touted what Wemby has up top. “Many people have talent in this league,” the Spurs coach said. “But I think the people who end up in superstar status have something that the rest do not have and that lies between their ears.” Popovich complimented the 7ft 3in star’s parents for bringing their son up well. “He’s one of the most mature 19-year-olds I’ve ever been around,” the five-time champion coach said. Still, Pop stressed a wait-and-see approach. He and his staff want to observe Wemby and bring him along slowly, he said, while giving him the freedom to explore and make errors. “[Like] what’s an appropriate time for a three, and not,” Pop noted.
By the week of the Portland games, Wemby was leading his team in four of the five major counting stats: points, rebounds, blocks and steals. But the team’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t have a true point guard in its starting lineup, with no player on the team averaging more than five assists per game. Wemby, who is listed at 209lbs, also needs to put on weight, some say. “He’s obviously a generational player,” former Spurs head coach Bob Hill told the Guardian. Hill should know; he coached the former MVP center David Robinson in San Antonio in the mid-90s. “[But] it’s going to take a while for [Wemby] to become a winner playing in the NBA. He has to get bigger and stronger.”
As for Henderson, his rookie year has been full of fits and starts. While Thursday saw him score his career high with 25 points, he was also responsible for six turnovers in the game, which opened with a 28-6 Spurs run in the first quarter. Henderson, who has started only a portion of Portland’s contests, has also spent a stint down in the G-League. But he showed flashes over the weekend why he was so highly thought of. He’s fast as can be and solid as a rock, physically. But he can also be tentative at times and he’s not shooting the ball all that well, especially around the hoop, hitting at about 37% from the field. Wembanyama didn’t help that cause Thursday, notching seven blocks, including several on Scoot’s attempts.
It’s worth noting, too, that Wemby and Henderson aren’t the only two standout rookies this year. Charlotte’s Brandon Miller, the No. 2 pick in the latest draft, is averaging about 15 points per game and Oklahoma City’s star center Chet Holmgren, who sat out last year due to injury, is averaging better than 17 points and nearly three blocks and eight rebounds per game in his first official year—doing it on a winning team. Yet, even more than these two, it was Wemby and Henderson who garnered most of the headlines ahead of this NBA season. All eyes are on them.
On Thursday, the skyscraping Wembanyama, who is averaging about 19 points per game, opened the matchup with a turnaround lefty hookshot that wowed Blazer fans. Ahead of the game, many in the stands (especially kids) shouted his name, holding handmade signs, hoping for his attention. After hitting the hook, Wemby followed it up quickly with a made three-pointer. But Scoot, who is averaging about 12 points per game, was also involved, flying around for a steal and layup attempt that led to a big put-back dunk by a teammate in the opening minutes, pushing the ball where he could.
But both players’ youth was evident in the opening tilt, with Scoot missing a number of close-range shots and Wemby looking at times like a fawn out in a field, all limbs and youthful face on a swivel. The towering Frenchman did show the willingness to take a charge, however, and he ran to teammates for a helping hand when they were on the floor. By the end of the game, Wemby notched 30 points, six rebounds, six assists and seven blocked shots in a record 24-minutes. And Scoot tallied 25 points, three rebounds, four assists, a steal and six turnovers. The final score Thursday was 118-105 Spurs.
But after the game, once most of the fans had left Portland’s Moda Center, Henderson was back out on the floor for about 45 minutes, practicing various shots on his own, from jumpers to floaters, getting more and more reps on his home court, making sure his touch around the rim was fine-tuned, displaying his work ethic. And ahead of Friday night’s game, the burgeoning star guard told the Guardian that he feels like he’s grown significantly since his debut some 20-plus games ago.
“I think just pace-wise,” the soft-spoken Henderson said of his improvement. “Use my albitites. My confidence [is] still the same, I think, just more [of it]. Just me getting more comfortable with the reps.” And how might he look to continue his progress? “Every game, just watching film afterwards. Most time, it’s the same thing. So, continue to chop at it and get better.” Henderson, who could easily be mistaken for a Marvel superhero if dropped into some other context, says his “ability to fly [up court], speed, strength, all that” have also taken leaps and bounds.
In Friday’s game, Wembanyama was held out of the back-to-back by the Spurs due to an ankle issue he sustained earlier in December. Coach Popovich says he’s on a mandated minutes restriction and he can’t play back-to-backs for a couple of weeks until the team takes another look at his foot. “He’d rather be playing,” Pop acknowledged. Henderson, on the other hand, started Friday’s game again (his seventh start of the year), with Portland’s capable guards Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe both out.
In the matchup, one in which Billups said he hoped Henderson would limit his turnovers, saying Scoot needed to get the team “off to a better start”, the young point guard gave the ball away twice in the opening frame, but the Blazers stayed close with the Spurs in the first quarter, unlike the night before, the two squads finishing it tied at 29. Scoot scored six points in the first period, finishing the game with 22, 11 assists, seven rebounds and four turnovers. In the end, the Trailblazers won a close game, 134-128, taking advantage of the big Frenchman’s absence. But while fans didn’t get to see Wemby and Scoot take the court together for a second straight night on Friday, the two are slated to match up again in Texas on 26 January. And if their early bouts are any indication, their games will continue to be must-see TV for years to come.