Is the NBA Ready for Victor Wembanyama?

Is the NBA Ready for Victor Wembanyama?

Victor Wembanyama is the best NBA prospect since LeBron James. He stands at a towering 7-foot-4 and doesn’t even need to leave his feet to alter shots because he can stretch his 8-foot wingspan to swat away jumpers or poke the ball away from would-be attackers. With his size and lockdown mindset, at only 18 years old, he can deter players from even attacking the paint. Wemby’s length also gives him an unblockable jump shot; he drilled seven 3-pointers when he scored 37 points against the G League Ignite on Tuesday, and most of them came off movement, like transition sprints, pick-and-pops, and stepbacks. In his second Las Vegas exhibition Thursday, he played an even more complete brand of basketball, dropping 36 points with the majority of his damage coming inside the arc on drives, post fadeaways, lobs, and poster dunks.

We’ve never seen a player like Wemby before. He is like Kevin Durant crossed with Rudy Gobert, making him a Gen-Z Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Ralph Sampson raised on YouTube videos. As hyperbolic as it all sounds, executives around the league already agree that Wembanyama has Hall of Fame potential with the upside to be one of the greatest players ever.

Wembanyama is the first to admit it’s way too soon to anoint him as anything, but the Vegas showcase was organized in large part to display his talents on a worldwide stage. Wemby flew all the way from France with Metropolitans 92 for two exhibition games against the Ignite, who are led by the potential second pick in the 2023 draft (spoiler alert: we know who is going no. 1), Scoot Henderson, an electric point guard with shades of Allen Iverson and Russell Westbrook. Henderson himself shined in Vegas, though a banged knee sidelined him five minutes into the second game on Thursday. Wembanyama seized the spotlight overall. Scouts and executives from around the league dipped out on the preseason schedule to see the games. I sat two rows back from the court and it didn’t take long for Wembanyama to make it clear he is the best prospect in the 2023 class, and the best prospect I have scouted in my 11 years covering the draft.

“He’s not a franchise-altering talent. He’s a league-altering talent,” one NBA executive told me this week. Wemby’s influence over the league is already being felt a full year before he enters it. Losing teams are about to tank hard this season. Playoff or play-in bubble teams will drop games late in the year to sneak into the lottery. Teams will race to the bottom with more vigor than ever. All for the chance to select one of the greatest prospects the league has ever seen.

“The meaning behind the word tanking is kinda weird,” Wembanyama said on Wednesday. “I would never want to lose. It’s a personal thing. But I really try to stay outside of it. Either way, it’s gonna affect where I end up. All I can do for me is focus on the work on itself.”

While Wembanyama’s physical talents are enough to take your breath away, the unseen hours the teenager has invested into his game are also apparent. Over the past year, his jump shot has developed rapidly. He battled bouts of streakiness and shot 31 percent from 3 and 68.5 percent from the line in recent seasons overseas. But his form in Vegas looks far more consistent and he’s more comfortable trying the type of complex shots and moves you’d normally see from a guard or wing.

On Thursday, in one mind-boggling sequence, Wemby took one dribble into the corner, planted his feet without traveling, and balanced himself in midair to launch a 3-pointer over the defense:

Most execs around the league are confident in Wembanyama’s ability to become a reliable shooter because of his rate of progress and the work ethic he’s displayed so far. This year, he spent time working with Dirk Nowitzki’s longtime shooting coach Holger Geschwindner. With good touch around the rim, and a willingness to learn, it’s reasonable to expect him to become more efficient. It’s only a matter of whether he shoots as well as Kristaps Porzingis (35.3 percent) or as crisp as Karl-Anthony Towns (39.7 percent).

“Victor will be unguardable if he’s knocking down jumpers,” said one NBA general manager. If he’s hitting shots with consistency, teams will be forced to respect him from the outside, which would only open driving lanes for pull-ups, playmaking chances, and finishes inside the paint.

Wemby’s head coach, Vincent Collet, gives his young star the freedom to take the ball up the court and create offense for himself, which is a skill that could someday separate him from bigs who finish plays, and allow him to become someone who generates buckets for everyone.

“I have never seen a prospect with so many tools and skills. That’s why when you are the coach, you always limit something. But you adjust to the potential of the player,” Collet said. “You still can give him freedom and I think that’s better. If he makes selections by himself he will be more responsible. That’s a way to get better.”

Though he missed some contested attempts near the basket against the Ignite, it was largely due to his underdeveloped off-hand (his left) rather than an inability to handle contact. Even while warming up before games, he practiced off-balance shots around the rim, contorting his body and taking off from angles that he might face during a game. And sometimes, he’ll use that flexibility in a game to catch a body.

Wembanyama says he’s been playing all over the court since he was a little boy, shooting 3s and handling the ball. Born in 2004, he grew up watching the style of basketball we see today with spacing, movement, and free-flowing action. At home, he was raised by athletes. His 6-foot-3 mother, Elodie, played basketball, just as both of her parents did. His 6-foot-6 father, Felix, was a long jumper. His siblings also play basketball. NBA teams view his family as a strong support system as he adjusts to life in the NBA—and the inevitable fame that comes with it.

“He’s for sure a generational talent,” LeBron said Wednesday after the Lakers played the Suns in Vegas. “Everybody’s been a unicorn over the last few years but he’s more like an alien. No one has ever seen anyone as tall as he is but as fluid and as graceful as he is out on the floor.”

Wembanyama had a muted reaction to the praise from LeBron. He said to your of friends and family texted him about it and his reaction was merely, “It’s cool.” There’s a maturity to the way the French star thinks and approaches both basketball and life. He spoke about how he invests time into just being alone, exploring his thoughts to figure out how to become a better person and player. One of his agents told me Wembanyama acts like he’s 30. An executive attending the games this week said they expect Wembanyama to be the type of low-maintenance superstar who enhances culture.

Sometimes people can be all talk, no action. But I was sitting near Wembanyama’s team’s bench and he was actively talking in huddles during timeouts. On the court, he’d scream and fist pump when his teammates hit shots.

Near the end of Tuesday’s game, point guard Tremont Waters threw a bad pass to commit a careless turnover. Wemby looked directly at him and clapped while nodding his head. Then he followed up with a blocked shot, a steal, and a clutch 3 to keep the Metropolitans within striking distance of the Ignite. Many players, regardless of their age, would have been frustrated with their teammate or let the moment negatively affect their play.

“It’s natural. I just want to do what’s best for my teammates,” Wembanyama said after the game. “I’m never going to yell at a teammate if he tries and misses. Everyone makes mistakes.”

Wembanyama makes his own. Collet would like to see him hone his decision-making on offense, knowing when to shoot and when to turn into a playmaker. And while Wemby is a good passer, he’s most certainly a score-first player at this stage. On defense, he’ll occasionally be out of position when defending screening actions. But at his size, he can take one step and be in a position for a block.

Wembanyama plays a lot on the perimeter, but even with his slender 220-pound frame he boxes out for rebounds and absorbs contact in the paint. It’s impressive that Wembanyama was able to excel carrying a heavy offensive load in Vegas while being involved in so many actions on defense, especially considering he was playing in 48-minute games for the first time.

Even when he was tired, his defensive intensity didn’t waver, nor did his communication shut down. He stayed active at all times, rotating to alter shots inside. On multiple occasions Tuesday, he blocked jumpers and forced the Ignite to take tough layups around the basket. At one point, Henderson tried to dunk on him but got viciously denied. Ignite players wouldn’t even test him on Thursday.

There have been plenty of great NBA prospects since LeBron entered the league in 2003, but none that have had Wembanyama’s upside. Wemby stood for photos next to fellow French center Rudy Gobert after the game, and he towered over him. Wembanyama most recently measured at 224 centimeters (7-foot-4 and change), according to a source, who also added, “It’s possible he grew a little bit more those past few days after I saw him near Rudy.”

Only health can derail Wembanyama from a dominant career. He already has a concerning injury history, including a fibula stress fracture, a scapula contusion, and an issue affecting the psoas muscle in his back. There were whispers on Tuesday night he might shut things down before the 2023 draft following his banner week in Vegas. But on Wednesday, Wembanyama’s agent, Bouna Ndiaye, told ESPN that’s not happening.

“NBA people are telling me to shut him down, and we are not going to shut him down,” Ndiaye said. “He wants to compete and get better. With Victor, it’s basketball first and everything else second.”

I asked a handful of executives what the risk really was for Wembanyama to play. If he got hurt, would he still be the no. 1 pick? Is Henderson, or any of the other prospects in the draft, really great enough to surpass him? All of them still think Wembanyama would go first, provided he’d be able to play soon after being drafted. Most recently, Joel Embiid went third in 2014, despite teams knowing he might miss time with back and foot issues. He missed two full seasons before making his debut.

Teams wonder what level Wembanyama really is as a shooter, and they’d like to see him bulk up. Durability is also a concern given his injury history and the relatively short list of players his size who have sustained long, healthy careers.

There have been 26 players in NBA history listed at 7-foot-3 or taller. Only seven have had noteworthy careers: Yao Ming, Ralph Sampson, Arvydas Sabonis, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Rik Smits, Mark Eaton, and Kristaps Porzingis. Of that list, only Smits and Eaton didn’t miss significant time. But neither of them faced the demands on both ends of the floor that the others did, or that Wembanyama will once he reaches the NBA. The nature of the game today only amplifies the pressure on Wembanyama, given the obligations for a big to switch on the perimeter, defend every corner of the court, and handle the ball from the outside.

Teams don’t think Wembanyama’s stock will realistically drop, and it can’t really rise any higher. Some wonder whether he would be in his best interest to focus entirely on training his body rather than playing basketball. But he speaks to who Wembanyana is that he wants to play. He lives and breathes basketball. He wants to compete. He wants to win.

“He has a real determination to get better, so I expect in a few months he will be even better than he is already. And he’s already good,” Collet said, unable to hide his smile. “Individually, his ability, the sky is the limit.”

There’s plenty of teams entering the season looking to lose and increase their chances at landing Wembanyama. Several more could join the fray as the season rolls on and the Wemby hype increases. Many fans will view a loss as preferable to a win this season. Wembanyama still has room to improve, but he’s a prospect like Shaquille O’Neal or Tim Duncan—they just don’t come around very often. Having him on your team could guarantee contention for years to come. One year of losing is a small price to pay for a player who could be competing at a high level two decades from now, just like LeBron still does.

A tall teenager in France is only at the beginning of writing his story. This week in Las Vegas, a star was born.

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