‘A Good Sign’: Why Gregg Popovich’s 1st Year Coaching Victor Wembanyama Was A Silver-Lining Success

The San Antonio Spurs finished the year once again near the bottom of the Western Conference, but despite the trials and tribulations they faced, their year under Gregg Popovich had its moments, which made for a silver-lining type of success that they can build on in the offseason.

APR. 14 – Sitting down in front of the media for the last time of the season, Gregg Popovich surveyed his surroundings during the 10-second silence that preceded his first question.

Shifting between the faces of reporters who had followed his young team all season to others who were there just for the night in the midst of the Detroit Pistons’ final road game, he took in a scene that he was familiar with, yet going to be missing for a few months.

Missing? Popovich? The coach known to eat reporters alive?

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Being without media availability wasn’t likely to weigh heavy on the heart of the San Antonio Spurs’ veteran leader, but something about it being the final time certainly came with a certain sentiment.

Yet, Popovich treated it the same.

“Eight guys scored in double figures,” he said of his team’s performance in their season-ending victory over Detroit. “We had 33 assists. They play hard, they play for each other. That’s why I’ve said the things I’ve said all year about them … It’s one hell of a good group.”

Popovich didn’t elaborate. He kept his answers short and brief — just as he had all season — yet sometimes coded in sarcastic messages, which seldom went unnoticed. This time was no different.

Before the game, the coach claimed he’d need a week and a half after the season before he’d be ready to go again. So, naturally, that was the next question.

“Does that week and a half start now?”

Evidently, it didn’t.

“I was just joking,” Popovich quipped. “We’ve got work to do.”


Apr 10, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA;San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich watches his team from the sideline.

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Indeed he does. The Spurs do. But while that might be true, there isn’t denying the positives that arose from a season of losing, which Popovich spearheaded. In fact, his first season was a success.

A silver-lining type of success, but one nonetheless.

Coaching & Development On and Off the Court

Gregg Popovich didn’t lie.

Referring to his team in a positive light was something he did often, and from an inside perspective, it makes sense. While some saw San Antonio’s record as its defining factor, Popovich saw his players’ work ethic in the face of piling-up losses. And he made that abundantly clear.

“I have to give them unbelievable credit for their character,” Popovich said. “There was no letdowns, back-biting, blame or ‘Poor me.’ … That really is a testament to their character, and I really am impressed by that and grateful for it.”

The Spurs were thrown through the wringer throughout the season, to say the least. Yes, they had Victor Wembanyama as their newly-installed franchise cornerstone — and to the fanbase, their superhero — but despite his jaw-dropping talents and continued improvements in efficiency, the NBA’s youngest team only notched 22 wins.

A year ago, the question of whether or not San Antonio would notch 20 wins was posed as it continued to drop games and fall into a favorable position to land a top lottery pick. Once it won the right to draft Wembanyama, it seemed those worries would melt away. Disappear.

But instead, the same question could have been posed heading into the final month of the regular season, Wembanyama and all. Surprisingly, that wasn’t even rock-bottom for the Spurs.

Losing a franchise-worst 18 games in a row was.

Popovich showed his experience in that moment, too.

“The effort is there, and I can see the wheels turning,” he said following his team’s120-108 loss to the Grizzlies. “They’re learning about each other, [and] I’m really proud of them. Nobody likes to lose, but they’re getting smarter with every game.”


Nov 18, 2023; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Gregg Popovich yells at Spurs center Zach Collins during a timeout.

Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

While the Spurs eventually overcame their woes on a Friday night with LeBron James in the building, it wasn’t close to an easy experience to lose that many in a row. The team knew it, and Popovich felt it.

So, he took development off the court as well.

“We ate together (and we) spent time together,” Popovich said. “(Those moments) were special.”

As many games as they played, it was moments where Popovich’s players showed their humanity and their non-basketball sides that truly defined the year:

The time Victor Wembanyama was almost the last one on the team bus after facing the New York Knicks for the first time, but was instead waited on by Jeremy Sochan, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Tre Jones, Zach Collins and Charles Bassey epitomized the brotherly bond formed by the team.

The instance when Jones, Doug McDermott and Julian Champagnie gave back to the girls’ basketball team at S.J. Davis Middle School with dinner and a basketball clinic showed the Spurs’ constant mission of serving their community.


San Antonio Spurs small forward Doug McDermott breaks out a huddle with some of the girls basketball team from S.J. Davis Middle School during the team-hosted “Hope to Dream” event.

Reginald Thomas II/San Antonio Spurs

Whatever it was, San Antonio made sure to think beyond basketball.

Again, that was sparked by Popovich — who donned a turkey hat while handing out Thanksgiving meals to families in need during a team-sanctioned event at Frost Bank Center in November. His willingness to be there for his players allowed them to connect in a deeper way.

“He made it very clear (from) Day 1 that he cares about his guys as people first,” Wembanyama said of his coach. “I’m just glad things are the way they are here because he’s there. He is there to poke on us sometimes or to correct us, but the way my teammates and I have responded to all the advice, it’s just been great and the dynamic is very good.”

Wembanyama wasn’t the only one who entered “Day 1” with certain expectations. While he was ready to follow Popovich with “eyes-closed” faith, Sochan was given a warning.

“I remember before the season, everyone was like: ‘Watch out, this monster is going to eat you,’ and this and that,” Sochan said with a smile, recounting his first encounters with Popovich.

Luckily, it wasn’t long for that myth to be busted.

“He was great. He’s a legend. … I listened to everything he said and just wanted to learn and grow. He helped with that. I feel like we made a connection not only on the court, but off the court, too.”

Sochan faced his own set of challenges this season attempting to adjust to a position he wasn’t familiar or comfortable with, but with Popovich, the battle became easier.

In fact, the entire team’s battle did.

A Silver-Lining Success

San Antonio was far from contending this season.

Even with a 7-foot-4 French phenom leading the charge, it was ultimately a tale of youth and inconsistency that spelled out the Spurs’ woes this season. Between learning how difficult it can be to play a full 48 minutes in the NBA to losing Charles Bassey halfway through the season to Sochan playing point guard and Collins coming off of the bench, there were a lot of moving parts.

Popovich, sitting in the media room for the final time of the year, acklowledged that.

“They were dealt some tough circumstances — a couple that they couldn’t control: being young and never having played together,” he said. “But it’s like it never happened. Every practice, every shoot-around … they were ready for the next day.”


Dec 15, 2023; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with his team.

Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

A lot changed since Wembanyama entered the league. Popovich first faced the challenge of learning to coach a generational prospect while the rookie simultaneously faced the challenge of playing a different style of basketball.

But, like they’ll continue to do, they adapted.

“(Wembanyama) is a lot more disciplined in channeling his talents in a direction that would make him more consistent and the team more consistent,” Popovich said. “(He was mindful) of the time, score, when to be aggressive, when to shoot early shots and he was posting up more than he ever has in his life.”

“The fact that he learns so quickly and carries things over from a practice to a game … (means) he’s going to continue to be an awesome figure on the court.”

San Antonio didn’t finish as high as it might have hoped entering the season. It might not have been consistent when it needed to, or played full games. It might have gotten injured one-too-many times, or disappointed onlookers expecting to see a winning turnaround the likes of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but it’s not worried about that.

Popovich isn’t, at least.

“You know as well as everybody that when you go through those experiences, trials and tribulations, you learn from it,” the veteran coach said earlier in the year. “And until you go through it, since you can’t practice it, you do it all you want. But you got to be in it when the lights are on … [that’s when you] finally get it right.”

This season under Popovich was a silver-lining success for the Spurs defined by their deepened relationships and dedication to playing good basketball. They haven’t yet “got it right,” but they’re inching closer with every passing game, practice and shoot-around. And the little things matter.

Even if it’s a season-ending win against the Detroit Pistons heading to the offseason.

“It’s certainly not a bad sign,” Popovich, answering the final question of his season, said sarcastically when asked if beating Detroit was a preview of next season.

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