Victor Wembanyama can't fix the NBA's worst defense by himself

Wembanyama shines with 20 points, 5 blocks vs. Raptors (1:42)

Victor Wembanyama puts up 20 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocks and 4 assists in an overtime loss to the Raptors. (1:42)

SAN ANTONIO -- THE Houston Rockets are looking to finish off an Oct. 27 win against the San Antonio Spurs, clinging to a 3-point lead with minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Spurs guard Devin Vassell misses a baseline jumper, and the rebound is corralled by Rockets guard Fred VanVleet, who starts the Houston break.

Jabari Smith Jr., the No. 3 pick in last year's draft, is barrelling toward the rim, the only thing standing between him and the basket is Victor Wembanyama.

Amen Thompson fires a bounce pass across the court to Smith, who catches it just inside the 3-point line. At this moment, the 19-year-old rookie is facing the rim, his back to Smith.

But Wembanyama turns around quickly.

Smith takes two steps and leaps for what appears to be a thunderous dunk to extend the Rockets' lead to five. But Wembanyama, standing at the top of the restricted area, jumps as well. The 7-foot-3½ rookie with the 8-foot wingspan wins the matchup, swatting away Smith's dunk attempt with his right hand.

The force of the highlight reel block carries Wembanyama out of bounds as the ball bounces around hitting the backboard, then the rim, then the backboard and the rim once again. As the ball falls to the left of the basket, Smith gathers it and goes back up for what he thinks will be an easy putback.

Wembanyama, under the basket and out of bounds when Smith corralls the ball a second time, leaps back inbounds and makes the block on Smith again -- this time with his left hand.

Wembanyama dazzles with back-to-back blocks on Jabari Smith

Victor Wembanyama denies Jabari Smith Jr.'s poster attempt, then blocks him again under the rim.

One possession, in his second career NBA regular-season game, showed the kind of defensive promise that has many around the league predicting multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards. And Wembanyama's defensive impact goes beyond the highlights, with eye-popping individual metrics.

There's just one problem: The Spurs, who had the worst defensive rating in NBA history last season, still rank near the bottom of the league in team defense heading into Wednesday's game against the New York Knicks (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), showing there's still a long way to go before the Spurs are considered a good defense -- Wembanyama's nightly highlights or not.

THE SPURS ALLOWED 119.6 points per 100 possessions en route to a 22-60 record a season ago. That was the worst mark since the league started tracking the stat in the 1996-97 season, according to NBA.com advanced stats.

The 1996-97 season was also when Gregg Popovich took over as the Spurs coach after the franchise fired Bob Hill on Dec. 10, 1996. Coincidentally, that's the last time the Spurs finished last in the league in defensive rating, a place Popovich's teams aren't used to occupying: The Spurs, who over the years have been led by defensive stalwarts such as David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Bruce Bowen and Kawhi Leonard, have finished as the league's top defense seven times under Popovich and have been top five 18 times.

Popovich deadpanned during the preseason that anything the team does to shore up the defense will help them get better -- because it can't get any worse.

"I'm not being a wise guy," Popovich said on Oct. 16. "I don't know what else to tell you. We sucked."

Adding Wembanyama is certainly one remedy, but the arrival of the most heralded rookie in a generation hasn't been able to single-handedly fix the Spurs' defense just yet.

That was evident Monday night, when the Spurs gave up 152 points in a loss to the Indiana Pacers -- the most ever scored on a Popovich-coached defense in regulation of an NBA game. After the loss to the Pacers on Monday, the Spurs are giving up 120.0 points per 100 possessions, worse than last season's record-breaking mark. Only the Washington Wizards (120.6 points per 100) are keeping the Spurs out of the basement.

There is evidence mounting, however, that Wembanyama is making a difference in his minutes on the floor.

In the 202 minutes Wembanyama has played, the Spurs have a defensive rating of 110.9 -- the second-best mark on the team. In the 144 minutes Wembanyama has been on the bench, San Antonio's defensive rating balloons to 129.4, the worst mark on the team.

"Size can translate into block shots, more rebounding, and that overall helps your defense,'" Popovich said. "Length helps you with deflections and that sort of thing, keeping people out of the paint. So it's been the emphasis since the beginning of training camp that we would behoove ourselves to improve defensively."

Victor Wembanyama swats 3-point attempt into the crowd

Victor Wembanyama denies OG Anunoby's 3-point attempt with a nice block for the Spurs.

For Spurs guard Tre Jones, who is in his fourth season with San Antonio, it became evident early in camp just how much defense was going to be the focus.

"It was definitely within the first couple days," Jones said on Oct. 31 before the Spurs won two games in Phoenix. "Coach was on us hard about it, but they're letting us have a lot of freedom this year with defense and trying to just make plays on the ball and then recover after that. Just be active, as active as we can be and let the rest just take care of itself."

During training camp, both Vassell and Keldon Johnson said having Wembanyama behind them allows the team to gamble more on defense but it's Vassell's absence the past two games with a groin injury that has had a major impact on San Antonio's struggles.

During the first five games of the season, the Spurs had a defensive rating of 98.6 in the 100 minutes that Vassell and Wembanyama shared the court. So while Wembayana's presence helps make the Spurs better, it's clear it's going to be a complete team effort for San Antonio to get where it wants to be on that end of the court.

THROUGH HIS FIRST seven games, Wembanyama has 18 blocked shots, ranking second in the league behind Los Angeles Lakers big man Anthony Davis. Wembanyama leads the Spurs in deflections (21), ranking in the top 15 in the league in that category. He's also added nine steals, making him the first player with at least 18 blocks and nine steals through his first seven career games since Kenyon Martin in 2000-01.

Beyond the box score, Wembanyama's presence alters multiple shots per game, whether it be players second-guessing shot attempts or immediately passing out of would-be shots because of the rookie's looming presence. Most of the shots that are attempted on him, meanwhile, aren't falling.

According to Second Spectrum tracking data, when Wembanyama is the closest contesting defender, opponents are shooting a paltry 33.3%, tied for the second-best mark in the NBA among players defending at least 60 shots this season. The league-leading mark last season (min. 500 field goals defended) was Kevin Durant at 38.3%.

Opponents have shot 60.0% on layups and dunks against the Spurs with Wembanyama on the floor. When he is off, that jumps to 71.2%.

In the 134 minutes Wembanyama has shared the floor with center Zach Collins, opposing teams are shooting 58.1% at the rim. Like with San Antonio's perimeter defenders, Wembanyama's presence changes how Collins defends since he knows he's not the only 7-footer on the floor.

"He allows me and him to be able to switch on guys and I know that he's capable of guarding the 5 if we do that," Collins told ESPN. "And when it comes to who's going to go over to the help side, if we're both on the weak side, we can both communicate that. "If I have a shooter, I can stay out and we can still get that block at the rim. So it's definitely huge to have that."

Despite Wembanyama's size, the Spurs have used him in different ways to get the most of his defensive abilities. He'll typically guard the team's weakest perimeter shooter, allowing him to roam freely. On the rare occasions the Spurs use zone, sometimes they'll let Wembanyama fly around trying to make plays.

It's a new opportunity for Wembanyama, something he has relished.

"On defense, I've played a role that I have never had before and I really love it," Wembanyama said on the eve of the regular season.

"I love learning and I've learned so much, experiencing so much new stuff, even just at practice. I'm really, really excited and it's promising. I think we've learned quicker than I expected, so the possibilities on defense are endless."