It's not easy being the face of a struggling team. Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama has handled that job with uncommon grace for his age.
It’s not easy being the face of a struggling team. Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama has handled that job with uncommon grace for his age.

AUSTIN — Forget the super-stretchy Space Jam dunks and the casual, flat-footed dad blocks. Forget the one-legged fadeaway 3-pointers, the one-handed crossover dribbles, and the self-serve alley-oop off the backboard. Forget the triple-doubles, the five-by-five game, and every other time Victor Wembanyama made the sport of basketball and its record books look obsolete.

None of that compares to the most impressive feat accomplished by this unfathomably gifted rookie during a season he began as a teenager.

Night after night, in city after city, Wembanyama has answered for loss after loss. And he’s done it without ever once losing his temper or his dang mind.

“It’s hard to stay, you know, polite every day,” the preternaturally patient Wembanyama conceded Friday night after a 117-106 loss to Denver at the Moody Center. “But it’s part of the job.”

His head coach might dispute that last part, and so might a few of his most notable face-of-the-franchise forefathers. If a willingness to talk about the Spurs in public was a prerequisite for a gig as the franchise’s best player, neither Kawhi Leonard nor Tim Duncan ever would have made the cut.

But even amid the day-in, day-out disappointment of what’s on pace to be the worst season in the organization’s history, Wembanyama sees an opportunity in his obligation, or perhaps an obligation in his opportunity.

The day before he was drafted last summer, Wembanyama declared at a Times Square hotel in New York that he wanted to be “the best at the press conference,” because he wanted to be the best at everything. Reminded of that Friday night, when he dutifully showed up for another round of questioning after his typical postgame routine of stretching, weightlifting and treatment, Wembanyama said nothing has changed since then.

“It can only help me in my life,” he said.

The longer the season goes on, the more noteworthy that perspective becomes. Nobody in the entire organization is more accountable than Wembanyama is. Few, if any, display more consistent maturity. And on a team in which every other member is older than he is, nobody is asked to answer for either victories or defeats like Wembanyama is.

Of the 59 games he’s played this season, he has fielded questions — and almost always many of them — after all but two. In the first instance, near the end of an 18-game losing streak in December, the assembled press corps offered him a trade, suggesting that he take the night off from rehashing another loss in favor of talking about bigger-picture issues the next day at practice. Wembanyama accepted the deal.

The other exception came earlier this month, when Wembanyama suffered a shoulder injury in Houston. That night, the Spurs sent him back home to San Antonio in a Sprinter van to see team physicians while the rest of the squad flew to Sacramento.

Other than that? Wembanyama always has been available, even on the night when the Spurs’ media-relations staff told him he could have the night off while he suffered through a particularly brutal allergy attack.

In the old days, the Spurs occasionally would respond to Duncan interview requests by saying, “Tim says, ‘No, thank you.’” In this case, Wembanyama was saying, “No, thank you,” who were trying to get him off the hook.

“Have you ever seen him in a bad mood?” Gregg Popovich asked this week, rhetorically, but it’s not just about Wembanyama’s relentless good cheer. There are times when it’s clear, understandably, that the rookie isn’t enjoying the chance to elaborate on every misstep, and he conceded Friday that it can be “mentally tiring.”

Popovich, for his part, has missed a couple of postgame media sessions this season, and more than a few times has walked out after an opening statement without fielding any questions. There are veterans on the team who speak to the media about every other game (mostly because of demand), but not more than that.

And although he said Friday that serving as the team’s everyday ambassador can be a “two-edged sword” at times, Wembanyama insisted he still sees it as a good thing.

“It allows me to give some messages that are important to me, or to defend my teammates,” Wembanyama said. “So it’s also very useful.”

It’s useful not only for him, but for his employer. When the Spurs need someone to put fans’ minds at ease about their rebuilding plan, nobody does it better than Wembanyama does. And when they needed someone to hype the games in Austin this week, they had no better spokesman than the 20-year-old who’d visited the city only once in his life.

Across the hall Friday night, not everyone had received the message. When Denver coach Michael Malone was asked about the chance to play in Austin, where the Spurs and the league are trying to build their fan base and their economic footprint, it was clear that he didn’t quite get it.

“I really don’t know why we’re here, to be honest with you,” Malone said.

Maybe he just needed someone to explain it to him. Maybe he needed to hear from a 20-year-old who understands the power of marketing. Maybe he needed to remind him never to take a connection for granted.

Whether or not it’s part of the job.