SAN ANTONIO — When Victor Wembanyama and Zion Williamson square off on Friday night, there will be a common thread linking them beyond their status as former No. 1 overall picks with unbelievable highlight reels.
That link is Tre Jones.
The San Antonio Spurs’ starting point guard is the only player who has started games alongside both the New Orleans Pelicans’ Williamson and the Spurs’ Wembanyama — playing with Williamson during the 2018-19 season at Duke and then this season with Wembanyama. Spurs guard Devonte’ Graham has also played with both players but has never been in the starting lineup with either one, leaving Jones in a club of his own.
Jones, who is in his fourth season with the Spurs, has had a front-row seat to see both Williamson and Wembanyama at the onset of their playing careers — Williamson as an 18-year-old at Duke and Wembanyama as a 19-year-old when he joined the Spurs this season.
“It’s one of one for both of them with the body they’re given and the athletic ability, which is crazy,” Jones told ESPN when asked to compare the two, “but I think the thing that sticks out is they want to win and that comes first.”
Friday’s game will be the third between the Pelicans and Spurs this season, but just the second meeting between Williamson and Wembanyama, who sat out the Dec. 1 matchup on the second end of a back-to-back. When the two did square off on Dec. 17, Wembanyama outscored Williamson 17-15 and racked up 13 rebounds and four blocks, but Williamson’s Pelicans came away with a 146-110 win, tied for their largest margin of victory this season.
Williamson, who is listed as questionable for Friday’s game with a left foot injury, and the Pelicans are fighting for a spot in the Western Conference playoffs, while the Spurs are stuck in the basement. But Jones sees how easy both of them make things look on the court and can see them having battles for years to come.
“They both think the game at a real high level, and I think [it] just comes from them being competitive and wanting to win,” Jones said. “They know that they can dominate the game in so many different ways and just the fact that they’re able to kind of defer to others at times because how the teams are playing them and the amount of attention they bring on the court or the double-teams that they bring instead of forcing it, they’re still able to make the right basketball play at the end of the day to put our team in the best position to win.”
Himself a five-star recruit, Jones was a part of a stellar recruiting class at Duke that had commitments from future NBA lottery picks RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish before Williamson even announced he would be joining them in Durham, North Carolina.
Still, Jones remembers exactly where he was when he found out Williamson would be joining them.
“I was at my brother’s game, a Timberwolves game,” Jones said. “I was sitting in our season ticket seats, just chilling there.”
Jones’ brother Tyus was in the middle of his third season with the Minnesota Timberwolves and he felt a murmur flowing through the crowd after Williamson’s decision. He said people were stopping him with excitement about how he would get to play with Williamson the next season.
Jones was rehabbing an injury when he arrived at Duke that summer, so he didn’t get to make it onto the court right away with Williamson, but he did get to watch. And he knew right away it was going to be something fun.
“The quickness that he had, the explosiveness… some of the plays he was making were crazy and it was probably even crazier than some of the ones that we’ve seen that he made in the games of his freshman year,” Jones said. “It was just freakish. You can’t even really explain what he was doing out there. It was just his athletic ability and just his strength and everything all in one.”
While Jones was surrounded by thousands of people when he found out about Williamson’s commitment, circumstances were a little different when he found out he was going to get to play with Wembanyama.
I was just chilling at home, obviously heart racing a little bit thinking what could be if we get him,” Jones said.
“Just watching the lottery unfold, obviously not really knowing all the possibilities with the pingpong balls being rolled out and everything, but then when it got down to it, obviously that No. 2 pick got announced and we knew that we were getting the No. 1 pick.”
Jones knew something was special about Wembanyama from the start of the early practice sessions in the summer, much like he’d felt with Williamson. Still, Jones said Wembanyama has come so far from those moments to now.
“I think the thing that stuck out to me the most was just the way he thought the game,” Jones said. “You could give him the ball wherever on the court. He was reading the court really well. He was seeing cuts, he was seeing open guys, he was seeing the double-team come right away. He was just thinking the game at a very high level, even though the game’s a little bit different, he was able to still think the game at such a high level.”
Wembanyama and Williamson have vastly different frames. Williamson stands 6-foot-6 and weighs in at 285 pounds. Wembanyama is nearly a foot taller at 7-foot-4 but carries just 210 pounds on his body. Still, Jones said their games have one distinct similarity: There wasn’t a lob he could throw that they couldn’t get to.
“I don’t think I ever threw one that he didn’t get at Duke, whether it was practice or games,” Jones said about Williamson. “It was similar to Victor. Obviously, he is not 7-foot-whatever, but just his ability to just locate the ball in the air and just go get it no matter where it was, no matter who was around, he’s going to get the lob one way or another.”
There’s a bit of a different catch radius when it comes to throwing lobs to Wembanyama, including one of the first in-game ones they connected on back in the preseason.
On Oct. 13 in a preseason game against the Miami Heat, Jones set a ball screen for Wembanyama, who passed the ball to Jones on the right wing. Wembanyama then cut to the basket and Jones immediately let a pass fly as Wembanyama was just crossing the 3-point line.
It turned into an alley-oop.
“And he still seemed like it could have been thrown higher or further behind him or something,” Jones said. “It still looked like such an easy play, a routine play for him, even though he was at the 3-point line when the ball was in the air, and he caught it past the middle of the lane. It is crazy and he makes it look so easy, so nonchalant, just so routine. … It’s not anything we’ve ever seen before.”
But for all the highlight-reel dunks the two No. 1 picks have racked up — Wembanyama ranks fourth in the NBA this season with 100 dunks, while Williamson is tied for 33rd with 50 — the plays that stand out the most in Jones’ mind are a pair of blocks.
While a few plays stood out at Duke — a coast-to-coast rebound to dunk against Virginia at home over the Cavaliers’ 7-foot-1 center Jay Huff or the game when Williamson returned from the shoe blowout in the ACC Tournament against Syracuse and had 29 points and 14 rebounds on 13-of-13 shooting — the main one happened on Feb. 9 against Virginia as well.
That’s when Williamson took off from the paint and was able to block a 3-point attempt in the corner from De’Andre Hunter, who went No. 4 in the 2019 draft.
Zion elevates for vicious block
Zion Williamson shows off his athleticism as he hustles back to a wide-open Virginia player and flies for a nasty block.
“It wasn’t like it was some 5-10 kid that we were playing in an exhibition game,” Jones said. “It was a top-10 pick, top-five pick even, and he’s making freakish plays.”
Jones said it was hard to narrow down what play stood out from Wembanyama this season, but the no-look block he had against Tre’s brother Tyus on Jan. 20 stood out.
“He’s catching lobs that he’s dunking backwards and 360 and in the air but yeah, the no-look block that has to be up there,” Jones said. “He didn’t know where his guy was, so he turned around to find him and then he didn’t know where the shot was going up, put his hand up, but he was still able to block it from the other side of the paint too. We’ve never seen that before.”