The Portland Trail Blazers defeated Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs 85-80 in the second game of their 2023 NBA Summer League schedule. Wembanyama scored 27 points with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks against Portland’s bigs, but point guard Michael Devoe shot 10-17 for the Blazers, leading all scorers with 29. Devoe started the game in place of Scoot Henderson, Portland’s third-overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. Henderson sat out the game to rest a shoulder injury sustained in Portland’s first outing in Las Vegas, a 100-99 loss to the Houston Rockets.
Portland’s offense against the Spurs was fairly simple...standard Summer League fare. They tried to push it on the break. That wasn’t terribly successful, as Wembanyama and the San Antonio bigs were as fast as forwards down the floor. Failing that, simple screens or dribble hand offs for drive-and-kicks dominated the day. Lacking the omnipresent threat—and surprisingly good eyes—of Henderson, execution proved sloppy early. The first priority on every play was pretty much “Don’t Turn it Over”. That accomplished, any kind of decent shot was acceptable.
Portland didn’t have a ton of coordination on offense, which was frustrating, as they didn’t have a ton of individual shot-creating power either. Most of the open shots they drew were long. They hit fairly few of those to start, and the situation was a long time improving.
Shaedon Sharpe might have been a one-man cure for this, but he looked far more comfortable stepping back for the long shot himself than driving and finishing. He had a couple nice passes off the drive in the first half, but he didn’t occupy the lead scoring, let alone star, vacuum left by Henderson.
Defense was a different story. The Blazers reacted well to the threat of Victor Wembanyama, fronting him often, doubling and recovering when appropriate. They kept the superstar-in-waiting out on the perimeter, where his effect was modest. Credit to Portland’s bigs for standing in and using their bodies.
A side note on Wembanyama. His defensive potential is huge right out of the gate. Lithe fluidity combined with overwhelming height is a potent combination. He covers space like a cheating AI. His issues are all strength-related, maybe with a bit of technique thrown in. His footwork is good, but he brings the ball down and gets stuck between aggressiveness and contemplation. Quick and hard sometimes works, as does slower and calculated. Wembanyama appeared to be second-guessing in the first half, ending up in the middle. When he shows the ball to a defender, ripping it away isn’t too difficult.
But every once in a while, one of Wemby’s possessions shows exactly who he’s going to be: a lightning-quick fade-away release on a jumper (at 7’4, unblockable) or a seemingly-effortless put-back dunk without even leaving the floor. And that speed. My god, that speed. He’ll have to adjust to the power and athleticism of the NBA, but when he gets there, he’s going to be great.
Back to Portland: their bigs have muscles and are great on effort, but the skill level just isn’t there. Playing across from Wembanyama makes the gap even more pronounced. Though the Blazers seem to conjure scoring guards out of thin air, they’re still going to need size and talent in the frontcourt on the main roster. Their list of summer projects is long enough to keep your average suburban dad occupied for three years. Whether anybody actually breaks through after all that work? Keep fingers crossed.
The most promising of the bigs is returning second-round draft pick Jabari Walker. His rebounding was solid, his interior defense smart and measured. The touch on his shot looked nice today at every range too. Duop Reath showed plenty of hustle and had a monster day on the boards himself.
But the game story was all about Devoe showing strong. He scored 17 in the first half alone, shooting 7-10 as Sharpe, his backcourt mate, went 0-9. Devoe finished with the aforementioned 29. He is not a natural distributor. Though he’s quick on both ends, he’s not a defender and would be outsized in the league. But dang, he put on a heck of an offensive display in this one.
Continuing with the game, the Blazers got out running in the third quarter, accentuating their guard advantage and putting the Spurs on the ropes. Unless they tossed to Wemby quickly, the San Antonio couldn’t play effectively at tempo, turning over the ball with regularity. When Wembanyama sat, Walker, Reath, and company showed they were just as good as San Antonio’s other bigs. A little success led to even more aggressiveness from the young players. At that point, Portland had the game in hand. They turned a 10 point halftime lead into 14, 66-52, after three.
Sharpe got better looks in the second half than he did in the first, but he was still a mixed bag. Turnovers and standing still marred the occasional spectacular display. Shaedon is one of the most highlight-worthy players in the league, but if these Las Vegas performances are any indication, he is not ready to start. Those hoping for him to be the next Kobe Bryant may have to deal with the reality that he needs teammates to distract defenses to get him free, else stepping back from long range is his only comfortable shot.
That’s part of the reason that Portland’s offense melted like a gummy bear in the microwave in the fourth period. San Antonio’s quick guards threw full-court pressure against the not-quite-point-guard Devoe. The ball became insecure. Even when Portland kept it, it went out of their big scorer’s hands. Whether to Sharpe, Justin Minaya, or one of the bigs, connecting proved difficult. Once the tempo slowed, the Spurs proved too dominant in the paint on defense. Wembanyama’s shadow covered the whole lane. Portland couldn’t hit enough jumpers to keep their margin intact.
Nor could the Blazers stop Wemby on the other end. Either directly, or by drawing the defense and making it easier for teammates, Wembanyama took over the offensive game the same way he dominated the defense. It’s worth noting that this happened as he moved out further on the floor, abandoning theoretical (but largely ineffective) post dominance for floor spreading. Portland’s centers couldn’t cope being out on the floor with him, even with help.
San Antonio got it within four twice as the game clock wound down, then down to one with just under two minutes left when Wembanyama hit a three. But Devoe hit a “take that” triple in return and Sharpe was goaltended on a layup soon after, pushing the edge back to four. When Wembanyama missed a wild three on the next possession, the Spurs found themselves too far behind to make up the distance in the time remaining. Intentional fouls and free throws gave us the final score.
Sharpe ended up shooting 4-18 for the game, 0-5 from distance. Walker and Reath went a combined 10-15 to help make up for it. Walker finished with 11 rebounds, Reath 8, and Sharpe 4. Both Walker and Reath scored 13, tying them for second-leading scorers.
The Blazers will suit up again on Tuesday to face Brandon Miller and the Charlotte Hornets at 5:30 PM, Pacific on NBA TV.