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Facing immense pressure, Spurs' Victor Wembanyama is up for the challenge

Facing immense pressure, Spurs' Victor Wembanyama is up for the challenge

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — As Victor Wembanyama took the stage for his first news conference inside his new home arena, he couldn’t help but notice an accessory that the San Antonio Spurs commissioned for the occasion.

It was a replica of the Eiffel Tower — made from Legos. Hundreds of them.

Wembanyama loves Legos. He looked down at the 4-foot replica when he saw it and smiled. And then he sat next to Spurs general manager Brian Wright and started to talk business.

The scene was a perfect microcosm of Wembanyama’s world right now. He’s still a teenager, albeit a very big one, at 19 years old and not averse to saying that he enjoys building things with Legos. And he’s also the player, who seems incredibly mature for his age, on a world stage that the Spurs are betting on to change their fortunes and help them return to championship contention.

“I feel like they’ve already started to take great care of me,” Wembanyama said.

They have to. The world is watching. And the hype level is already incredibly high.

The notion of basketball being a global game and the NBA being a global league is not new, with roughly one out of every four players in the league born outside of the United States. But there’s never been an international player coming into the NBA with the hubbub that Wembanyama has; he’s already a global brand and global phenomenon even without playing an NBA game.

Not even LeBron James had this much global attention when he came into the league 20 years ago.

The Kid from Akron, as he still calls himself, is one of the biggest success stories in the history of sports — grew up with almost nothing, instantly found fame and fortune as a teenager thanks to an enormous Nike contract that he signed when he entered the league, now is a billionaire, the all-time scoring leader in NBA history and still going strong.

LeBron was a big, big, big deal in the U.S. in 2003.

Wembanyama is a big, big, big deal globally right now. That’s the difference.

Stories have been written about him in English, French and Spanish over the weekend. He speaks English just about perfectly, and now that he’s in San Antonio he wants to learn Spanish as well. If he plays for France in the Basketball World Cup this summer — something he wants to do, but time will tell if the Spurs are on board with that plan — he’ll be playing games in Indonesia and the Philippines.

And if he plays on that world stage, he will be getting as much attention as any player in the tournament. Same goes for when he plays at Summer League next month. And it’ll be the case when the NBA season opens; Denver will raise a banner and get championship rings on opening night, some free agents that’ll start agreeing to new deals in the next few days will be in new cities, but every storyline to start the season will have Wembanyama’s 7-foot-plus shadow looming somewhere around it as well.

“Because of all the hype, he’ll have a target on his back,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “So more than Os and Xs to begin with, we’ll be most interested in setting a framework in an environment where he’s comfortable, where he can be Victor. He’s not LeBron or Tim (Duncan) or Kobe (Bryant) or anybody else. He’s Victor and that’s who we want him to be.”

His presence just adds to the level of international stardom in the league right now.

The reigning NBA Finals MVP is Denver’s Nikola Jokic of Serbia, the reigning league MVP and scoring champion is Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid of Cameroon, and the top three finishers in that MVP race this season were all international players — Embiid, Jokic and Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee. That trio has combined for the last five MVP awards; Dallas’ Luka Doncic of Slovenia should be in the MVP mix for years to come as well.

There’s even talk of a World vs. the U.S. format to the All-Star Game before long. That might be a heck of a challenge for the American side.

“We’re really seeing the ongoing continued growth of this league,” Commissioner Adam Silver said earlier this year. “I know David Stern, who unfortunately is no longer with us, but it was so much of his vision to turn this into the global game it’s become today. If he’s looking down on us, I know he’d be incredibly proud of those numbers.”

Stern would have loved Wembanyama.

The teenager — already being mentored by past Spurs great big men like Duncan and David Robinson, along with French Spurs Tony Parker and Boris Diaw — is worldly, mature, engaging, funny and somehow has stayed humble even with all the attention. His family shuns the spotlight. They want no part of the attention. Wembanyama’s parents are almost always around, but never meddling.

“To my family, it’s got to be weird sometimes,” Wembanyama said. “It’s got to be strange. There’s a lot of new stuff. But they’re really smart and grounded people. Whenever I need to find stability, I can go to them.”

He’s going to need those bits of normalcy. The challenge that awaits him is as tall as he is and the world is watching.

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