OPINION: Stern: Summer League flashes indicative of what's to come

Victor Wembanyama
Photo credit Ethan Miller / Staff / Getty Images

During the preseason of any sport, the natural tendency is to overreact to the impressive performances and justify the abysmal ones by saying, "It's just the preseason." While today's NBA players usually need a little time for maturation and development in order to reach their ceilings, the opening to this season's NBA Summer League should be fairly accurate in projecting how guys will fare in their rookie campaigns.

At this time last year, former top-overall pick Paolo Banchero scored 17 points with six assists and four rebounds in the Magic's victory against the Rockets. And the Duke product's stat line for the 2022-23 campaign was rather similar, as he averaged 20 points, 6.9 boards, and 3.7 assists. Another highly-touted rookie, Pistons guard Jaden Ivey, scored 20 in his summer league debut last year, averaging 16.3 points in his first season. Although their first minutes on the court were against inferior competition -- in less meaningful situations -- there's something to be said for the closeness in numbers.

While the glorified practice reps won't even be remembered once the league season gets going, they do serve as an all-important litmus test about how a newcomer will hold up. The schemes, game speed, and intensity at the NBA level are completely different, and they require additional time for adjustment. Those who enter the NBA at a young age also need to grow into their bodies.

History indicates fans should care about how players fare initially, considering their preseason minutes are more meaningful -- unlike quarterbacks, who play a preseason series just to hand the football off. And unlike NFL and MLB, they also battle a handful of guys who'll receive significant playing time right out of the gate. For the most part, more weight is placed on Summer League results than other types of preseasons.

Victor Wembanyama's underwhelming Spurs debut -- in which he went 2-for-13 with 9 points -- was followed up by a sensational double-double showing, as he recorded 27 points and 12 rebounds. When comparing the 19-year-old French phenom to his most recent opponent, Hornets forward Brandon Miller, there was initially reason to believe one player was more NBA-ready than the other. But, Wembanyama's first game jitters were replaced with adjustments and a seemingly increased sense of comfortability.

"It's just me getting comfortable with myself and my body -- with the court," Wembanyama told reporters of his early struggles last week. "Before today I had like two practices and one game, so I was just getting going."

Wembanyama's first weekend with the Spurs represents what we should see throughout the season, at least to some degree. Struggling over a 48-minute span, only to flash the marks of brilliance that made him one of league's most prized prospects of the last decade. Perhaps his mark on stat sheets doesn't sway so dramatically, but there's reason to believe San Antonio's future could experience the dramatic highs and lows seen over his first two games.

Taking the court against Western Conference players like Domantas Sabonis, DeAndre Ayton, and reigning NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokic, sure presents an exciting (yet daunting) situation that'll force Wembanyama to mature quickly. The main disadvantage for Wembanyama is that he's a No. 1 pick with very little talent surrounding him. Last year, the Spurs tied for the NBA's second- worst record, and their bare-bone roster offers little support.

San Antonio will return its leading scorer in the blossoming Keldon Johnson, who averaged 22 points last year. Tre Jones is a nice up-and-coming guard, too. But this is a young Spurs team with a lot to be desired on paper, and it needs to show they can play together. Having legendary NBA coach Gregg Popovich with them for the ups-and-downs will be an advantage, as he just signed a five-year contract extension. In the twilight of his career, this Spurs team feels like the perfect reclamation project for Popovich. Plus the players get additional support from above.

"It's just another sign from the franchise that they care about the project," the French phenom recently told reporters. "There's something great going on, and we kind of knew it was going to happen. But we can get started now."

Since the inception of the Rookie of the Year award in 1952, 22 winners have been drafted first overall, including last year's recipient in Banchero. And if he proved anything in producing solid numbers and impressing in his rookie year, it's that talented youngsters can overcome adverse situations.

With a colossal 7-foot-4 frame, there've been concerns about Wembanyama's durability. But load management and feeding off the energy of others should be enough to mitigate concerns. It may be a small sample size to work with, but nothing about this past weekend should be taken lightly.

Of course, predicting that the next golden era of Spurs basketball has arrived would be overblown. But, there's undoubtedly reasons for optimism with the young French sensation, and the game he can showcase.

Jack Stern is a columnist, anchor, and associate producer for CBS Sports Radio. You can follow him on Twitter @J_Stern97.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Ethan Miller / Staff / Getty Images