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The ‘humbling experience’ of trying to shoot over Victor Wembanyama

Pat Connaughton knows what an open shot feels like. As a nine-year veteran of the league, he’s taken hundreds of them, developing a sense for space and when there’s enough of it.

In early January, when Connaughton’s Milwaukee Bucks played the San Antonio Spurs, Connaughton got that familiar feeling again. With about eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Giannis Antetokounmpo drew a double team and found Brook Lopez alone on the right wing. San Antonio’s Julian Champagnie, Connaughton’s defender, scrambled to cover him.

As Lopez caught Antetokounmpo’s pass, the Spurs player responsible for covering Champagnie’s rotation was 27 feet away, one foot in the paint and the other on the floor’s other side. Connaughton knew the swing-swing pass from Lopez would come and he usually only needs two or three feet of separation from a defender to get off his shot. In other words, Connaughton was open. The ball left his hands two seconds later.

Then, it suddenly died in the air.

“I wouldn’t have shot it if I thought he was going to be able to get it,” Connaughton said later.

Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 rookie phenom who had made the rotation from the corner, met the ball 12 feet and seven inches into the air.

“Every second counts when you’re playing against him, right? So the swing-swings have to be quicker, and when you think you’ve got enough space, you really don’t,” Connaughton said. “We talked about it after the game, it was impressive stuff.”

Wembanyama isn’t just breaking basketball, but the very perception of openness — of basketball physics — within the NBA. He has blocked seven 3s this season, far from the league’s lead, but what stands out is the manner in which he has disrupted the inevitability defenders used to feel.

“Have I had guys tell me this?” Wembanyama said when asked about his long closeouts. “Yeah, all the time. Sometimes during the game, sometimes after. But it happens.”

The NBA’s modern era is the result of an evolved understanding and war over space. There’s always been more of it out past the 3-point line than inside, but over the last decade, teams and players have started using that territory exponentially more than before. It’s been long enough since the beginning of Stephen Curry’s rise for player development and norms to adapt to the game’s massive upheaval.

Yet while players have extended the horizontal plane to create space, the vertical one has remained constant. At this level, every player knows what an open shot looks and feels like.

At least they did before Wembanyama.

“He’s taking that space back, for sure,” Spurs teammate Tre Jones said.

Phoenix Suns guard Grayson Allen, the league’s 3-point percentage leader, fell victim to Wembanyama in the season’s opening week. He felt like Wembanyama was between him and another defender, not fully committed to guarding him. But Wembanyama reached Allen’s shot anyway, something that has only happened one other time in Allen’s 421 attempts from behind the arc this season.

“He’s one of probably two guys in the NBA that can block it from where he was,” Allen said.

Allen’s right. Connaughton’s jumper was labeled “wide open,” which the league’s tracking metrics use to identify shots taken when the nearest defender is more than six feet away. Wembanyama is one of just two players — the other is Minnesota’s Rudy Gobert — who have blocked three such shots this season, said the Synergy Sports product designer who provided tracking data for this story, Todd Whitehead.

“Part of my job is to figure out what those labels should be,” Whitehead said. “So to have Wemby come and throw a wrench into what I’m trying to do, making something happen that seems like it’s physically impossible — it doesn’t really frustrate me, but it makes the data point seem like (it’s) wrong because he’s so unusual.”

According to Synergy data, 86 percent of the 3-pointers that Wembanyama has contested fall into that “wide open” label, one of the “worst” rates in the league. In other words, when opposing players take shots, he’s rarely considered “close” enough to them to affect them. But the league is shooting slightly less than 36 percent on “wide open” 3s that he has contested, noticeably lower than the 39.2 percent league average. In other words, a “wide open” 3 isn’t wide open when Wembanyama contests it.

Teams are, of course, aware of Wembanyama. Before the Dallas Mavericks faced San Antonio in the 2023-24 season opener, assistant coach God Shammgod strapped padded extensions to his arms in an amusing attempt to simulate the impossibly long-limbed French defender.

And yet on the team’s opening possession, the first official shot attempted against Wembanyama came from Kyrie Irving, who pulled up for a 17-foot midrange jumper that was promptly blocked by the San Antonio debutant.

“I don’t mind that,” Irving said later, amused he was the first official victim of a Wembanyama block. “The right side of history.”

And that lesson, at least, stuck with Irving for the remainder of the game and consecutive matchups against the Spurs this season. Last month, he had a signature highlight finish over the lengthy big man.

What Irving learned in October was what Wembanyama’s teammates realized even sooner. Jones, the Spurs’ starting point guard, got a crash course in one of the team’s first open gym runs long before the season began. “I felt like I had an open look,” he said. “When we’re open, we pretty much know it.”

Dominick Barlow, the Spurs’ backup center, described the feeling of shooting near Wembanyama as a “humbling experience.”

“We’ve taken hundreds and thousands of open shots in our lives,” he said.

Barlow and Jones face an odd phenomenon: They try not to overadjust to Wembanyama’s presence, because being his teammate means they won’t have to face him in an actual game. Still, Wembanyama is an unavoidable presence in their minds whenever he’s wearing the other color of their scrimmage jerseys.

“The red light in your head goes off,” Jones said. “You definitely have the awareness when he’s around and know where he is at all times.”

Opponents aren’t so lucky. Irving said he passed up a shot similar to the blocked pull-up jumper later in the game to instead find a shooter nowhere near Wembanyama. Allen said he might just back up further. Connaughton thinks it might even require him to shoot differently.

“You got to take the Steph Curry moon ball,” he said.

Wembanyama’s shot blocking mostly happens at the rim, but these are the league’s best shooters all conveying a similar fear. Like many of the league’s best rim protectors, Wembanyama doesn’t only block shots, but also deters opponents from even attempting them. Yet Wembanyama is also doing the same thing on 3-point shots.

“When you get out there with him,” Irving said, “you’re a little bit more aware of his positioning.”

Over the past decade, as offensive players took up more and more of the floor’s space and used it to their advantage, defenders haven’t had much recourse. Jump shots have always held air superiority, using the space far above defenders’ reaches to avoid them.

But Wembanyama hasn’t only entered the league; he’s also launched himself to literal heights previously unreachable. And now, he’s at least one player fighting back.

“(He’s defying physics) as I did understand them,” Connaughton said. “Now I’m recalibrating.”

You can buy tickets to every NBA game here.

(Photos: Mark Blinch, Ronald Cortes / Getty Images. Illustration by John Bradford / The Athletic)

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