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Renck: Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama couldn’t eclipse Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, but he’s taking game to new heights


The future of the NBA dribbles between his legs, shoots 3s, speaks with a French accent and has the wingspan of a pterodactyl.

San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama is the most fascinating athlete I have ever seen in person, which includes Dave Winfield, Bo Jackson and Andre the Giant. He has reflexes of a cat, feet of a ballerina and the hand-eye coordination of a .300 major league hitter.

Nikola Jokic was the best player on the floor on Tuesday night. He doesn’t play games, he paints a canvas with his brilliance. But his reaction to Wembanyama in the Nuggets’ 110-105 victory spoke to how much the young big man is impacting the league.

Even without shooting well, the 7-foot-4 Spurs star messed around and almost notched a quadruple double. You read that correctly: 23 points, 15 points, nine blocks and eight assists.

“It’s going to happen,” Wembanyama said afterward. “But I have other priorities.”

Jokic seemed to make up his mind before the game that he was going to live above the rim, firmly in dunk mode when Wembanyama was on the court. And even when he wasn’t. He had three slams in the first quarter.

It was unusual. And a compliment to Wembanyama. Jokic was doing the type of stuff that will win him his third MVP award. At one point that included a bumper pool pass to Christian Braun – it was straight out of The Matrix as he redirected the ball with sleight of hand – for a wide open 3-pointer.

“It’s not one thing I respect about his game,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Jokic. “It’s his overall savant-type play. He is a basketball savant.”

Eventually, ultimately, inevitably, the Nuggets won. It’s what they do at home – they are 31-8 – even though Jamal Murray’s absence remains glaring. Getting him ready for the playoffs has superseded claiming the top seed in the Western Conference, though the latter remains available. The Nuggets cannot harbor dreams of going back-to-back without Murray back and healthy.

As for Wembanyama, he is so long, it makes him easier to appreciate than explain. He reminds me of former Houston Rockets and Virginia star Ralph Sampson with better knees and a point guard’s athleticism. In the first quarter, Wembanyama challenged reality. He wasn’t hooping, he was teaching a class in physics.

He drained a 3, blocked two shots and scored 12 points, including a finger roll from eight feet away that would make George Gervin blush. It left Jokic with his arms in the air exasperated.

Wembanyama came across the lane and feathered the ball into the hoop, which does not sound particularly noteworthy. Except he did it with his left hand. He’s not a southpaw. Seeing it live, it was like watching someone skimming a pool or releasing a Go-Go Gadget arm into space.

The sport seems ready for him. His numbers demand attention: 21.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists. He also leads the league in blocks with 3.4 per game. There were times the Nuggets would drive into the lane, then jump onto the off-ramp and circle until Wembanyama’s one-car I-25 traffic jam cleared. He is a deterrent, a player already boasting obvious shades of excellence.

“Get out of the way,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone on his pregame advice to guards facing Wembanyama on the wing. “We all understand that he’s going to be the Rookie of the Year. But it’s really impressive how much better he’s gotten this season. It’s noticeable. It jumps off the screen when you watch him. You can tell he has flair and looks to make teammates better.”

What played out in the fourth quarter wasn’t just hoops. It was theater. With 1:27 remaining in the fourth, Jokic backed Wembanyama into the lane and drained a 6-foot hook. The rookie answered moments later with a block and a driving layup that knotted the score at 105 with 1:02 left.

A Braun pass, after he circled around Wembanyama on the baseline, ended the suspense as Michael Porter Jr. buried a 25-footer.

“It’s fun (facing Jokic). It’s really demanding. We have to react quickly. There’s no room for a mistake at any position,” said Wembanyama. “It was a good fight. We showed great effort on both sides of the court. I am not going to lie, I am tired. It’s hard to think right now.”

Wembanyama could not outlast Jokic, but he made a Tuesday night in April wildly entertaining. San Antonio played hungry, creating anxious moments for a Nuggets team slightly out of sync. He missed some bunnies and, because of injuries, he was surrounded by bench players.

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