Victor Wembanyama puts the difficulty of Raptors’ rebuild in perspective

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TORONTO — You don’t forget your first time walking into an NBA gym. You certainly don’t forget it when you have just become an employee of a team in the NBA.

“I’ll remember forever. Coach (Gregg Popovich) came right away to introduce himself and talk to me,” Toronto Raptors coach Darko Rajaković remembered before his team lost 122-99 to Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. “I was nobody, which pretty much is the same today, but … when that kind of man comes to you and treats you like an equal, that set a tone definitely for me and my time in San Antonio. … It really helped me (understand) what it takes to win on the highest level and what kind of work you need to put in day in and day out — and how much you need to be focused on process and not really the outcome.”

Rajaković was something approaching a part-time scout when he first worked for the Spurs, yet now the 44-year-old first-time NBA head coach and Popovich, 75, and in his 28th year in that gig, are in a very similar position: They are leading teams much more concerned with winning tomorrow than today.

Popovich’s age has come up recently as a potential problem given where the Spurs are in their developmental curve. He seems into the process at the moment.

“We’re the youngest team in the league and that tells me that there has to be some room — you have to understand that (a player might) have a down night because losing is not fun,” Popovich said. “But it cannot linger. By breakfast the next morning, it’s over. It’s back to work.”

Maybe it is easy to be that chipper, at least when you are 11-43, if you get to coach a transcendent talent. As similar as Rajaković and Popovich’s jobs might be in the broad strokes, there has never been anything especially close to the opportunity to coach 7-foot-4 Victor Wembanyama.

An incomplete list of mean, unfair things Wembanyama did to the Raptors on Monday night on the way to a 27-point, 14-rebound, 10-block, five-assist performance in just 29 minutes:

• Blocked the shot of 7-footer Jakob Poeltl to start the game, despite taking the Austrian’s shoulder into his chest. He then hit a 3-pointer as the Spurs got in transition. So, those were the first 27 seconds.

• Blocked a put-back attempt from Poeltl, getting to the ball so early that Poeltl mimicked the goaltending sign. In reality, it wasn’t even close to illegal.

• When 6-2 Raptor Immanuel Quickley tried to isolate and drive by him after getting “a mismatch,” not only did Wembanyama not merely try to time a block, but he stripped him on the perimeter.

• Threw a no-look pass to Jeremy Sochan after rebounding his own miss, the only time he missed in the first half.

• Tried to catch a lob while facing away from the basket and put it home with two hands back over his head, like some kind of perverse volleyball set. Alas, he was fouled.

• Speaking of volleyball, he spiked fellow rookie Gradey Dick’s shot attempt in a very unfortunate moment for the 20-year-old Raptor.

• Slid through traffic and dunked over Poeltl in a move that looked 10 times more impressive and less possible in person than on replay.

Wembanyama had one of the defining performances in a rookie season that is becoming more memorable by the game. Watching him in person makes the mere thought of imagining anyone else being the future of the sport feel silly.

It makes you wonder, all over again, what the Raptors were doing last year when they made a trade to chase a Play-In Tournament spot instead of doing whatever they could to get a few more lottery balls for a shot at Wembanyama. Even the wry Popovich would admit the opportunity to shepherd Wembanyama and Tim Duncan into the league accounts for more than his share of professional good fortune.

The Spurs’ mission this season has been clear: See what Wembanyama can do while keeping him healthy, and seeing who fits around him. The Raptors have shifted visions, from giving mid-level competitiveness one last shot to going to a clear rebuild.

“He’s a serious dude. He’s a detailed guy,” Popovich said of Rajaković. “He delves all the way down to the basics. He doesn’t miss anything. He doesn’t skip any steps. He knows what it takes. … He’s very confident about what it takes to win and what it takes to make up a team and put a team together and create a culture.”

Popovich has five titles. If he wanted to take on a full-time front-office role as the Spurs navigate this process, it would be understandable. On the contrary, this was precisely the job for which Rajaković was hired.

At the beginning of the season, when the Raptors still had Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Dennis Schröder, Rajaković received plenty of criticism for his lineups and his game decisions. To be fair to Rajaković, he hasn’t been a head coach since 2013-14, when he led Oklahoma City’s G League affiliate.

The Raptors’ brass will never admit it, but they likely hired Rajaković knowing that the overwhelming probability was that the roster would get younger very soon. Wins and losses would inevitably become less important.

“Right now, we are really, really focusing on parts of the offence — of execution — and how to do things much more oriented on player development inside the system and how we can move the needle there,” Rajaković said. “Our shootarounds are small practices. We go for 45 minutes or an hour, and 90 percent of that is really focused on us and what we need to do night in and night out. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. As we grow, we will be able to implement more things and teach more schemes and whatnot regarding opponent preparation.”

When I wrote about Rajaković before the season started, I thought former Raptors executive Maurizio Gherardini made the salient point: This was the coach you hired if you were ready for a youth movement. For now, the coach gets the benefit of the doubt, because this roster needs more of a makeover. Still, there can only be so many performances as aimless as Monday’s.

“It was lack of effort,” said Rajaković. “It was lack of intensity. It was lack of focus — all of that from the start of the game.”

Unlike Popovich, though, Rajaković is working without a cheat code.

Notes

• Early in the second half, the Raptors got caught up trying to beat Wembanyama at the rim. That is the sign of an immature team. The guy is different, but they should have been somewhat used to it by that point and somewhat altered their plan of attack. Instead, it seemed they got more stubborn.

“I guess it’s not on the scouting report that he’s blocking shots,” Spurs swingman Devin Vassell said. “I don’t know I guess they’ll learn one of these days.”

• The Raptors broadcast spotted Scottie Barnes leaving the court before the game was over.

“It is definitely a learning opportunity for all the players on the team, from young guys to all the vets,” Rajaković said. “And this is not the performance that we want to have, the competitive spirit that we want to have. So everybody is going to look in the mirror and figure out what we need to do.”

The Raptors chose to sit Siakam for a game after he left the court following fouling out late in an early-season game during the 2020-21 season they played in Tampa.

• Credit to the Spurs, but Monday’s defensive effort was as bad as we have seen from the Raptors in a while, and that is saying something. The bushel of turnovers early didn’t help, but the Raptors’ failures in transition and closing out on shooters were egregious. This was the type of performance that will lose you fans.

• Usually, Barnes is the first starter to go to the bench, and he comes back into the game late in the first quarter to run the second unit. Against the Spurs, Rajaković slid Quickley into the spot. Quickley has to get a lot more comfortable when getting to the rim.

• Another nice offensive night for Dick, who had 18 points to lead the team. If the starters are going to play like this, I wonder how long you can keep him out of the opening group.

(Photo of Victor Wembanyama making a no-look pass as he’s defended by Scottie Barnes: Cole Burston / Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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