A throng of around 200 NBA scouts and decision-makers descended on Las Vegas Tuesday night for a glimpse of the future.
The G League Ignite, an NBA developmental team based in Nevada, hosted the French club Metropolitans 92 in the first of two exhibition games. Sterling ‘Scoot’ Henderson, an expected top pick in next year’s draft, shone at point guard for Ignite, posting 28 points and nine assists in a 122-115 win.
But the NBA talent spotters’ attention was trained most keenly on the 7ft 4in teenager lining up for the Parisian side.
Victor Wembanyama is not only the hottest prospect in the 2023 draft but perhaps the most promising young player since LeBron James entered the league almost two decades ago. And he didn’t disappoint in his first appearance in the United States, scoring 37 points – including seven three-pointers from 11 attempts – and swatting five blocks. Such was his brilliance that many believe some teams are already considering whether to tank in order to get a shot at him with the No 1 overall pick in the draft.
With that performance, Wembanyama justified the hype that has been growing steadily since 2020. That’s when the video that announced him to the basketball world – which has now been viewed more than 6m times – was published on YouTube.
It shows the then-16-year-old taking part in a two-on-two practice game in France. His direct opponent in the scrimmage was three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. In a little more than four minutes, the youngster is seen snatching rebounds over Gobert, displaying guard-like dribbling technique and a fluid jump-shot. The hype train was off and running.
“I first saw him play in 2019 at the European under-16 championships,” says Jason Filippi, a Europe-based scout who has worked for several NBA teams. “He was 15-years-old at the time, but he caught everyone’s eye. Every colleague of mine that was at this event had him down as the No 1 prospect.”
Born in the Paris suburb of Le Chesney in 2004, Wembanyama hails from athletic – and tall – stock. His father, Felix, is a former long jumper who measures 6ft 6in, and his mother, Elodie, is a 6ft 3in former basketball player and coach. And it is not only his staggering height that makes Wembanyama such a unique physical proposition for opponents: with a wingspan recently measured at 8ft, he is a fearsome shot-blocker and rim protector and is practically unstoppable as a perimeter shooter.
What’s more, despite his relative inexperience, the 18-year-old center appears to have an intuitive understanding of the game, both on offense and defense.
“The ‘unicorn’ talk, it is kind of true,” Filippi says. “I’m not saying he’s the next Luka Dončić. I’m not saying he’s gonna be the greatest player ever. But he is special. It goes beyond his size. It’s the whole package – his combination of size, agility and skill, natural instincts. That’s stuff you can’t teach.”
American guard Keith Hornsby has encountered Wembanyama multiple times in France. He remembers being struck by the teenager’s unique defensive ability during their first meeting, an exhibition game in 2021.
“He switched on to me and he was playing pretty far off me,” Hornsby says. “So I decided to take a shot. Then I saw this lanky arm just extend out of nowhere and block it. It was honestly a little bit embarrassing. And then, of course, my coach is mad at me, like, ‘Why didn’t you attack him?’ And I was like, ‘I thought that I had room to get a shot off.’ But in Victor’s space, it’s just different than a normal defender.
“It’s very apparent that he has great touch and natural feel, something that I think you can’t really teach. He has a nice feel for shooting and a touch for finishing around the basket. And then of course on defense, he can block shots just off height and length alone, and his timing has gotten better as well. Whenever he’s on the floor, his presence is felt. You can just feel him, feel the fact that he’s lurking about. He’s dangerous on offense and defense.”
Nicola Alberani, the sporting director of French club SIG Strasbourg, is another fan. “It’s another game when he’s on the court,” he says. “You think you can shoot, that he’s not that close, but then in reality he is so long, you don’t realise how close he is. And when he passes the ball, you can’t contest any pass. He is like an added point guard. When he shoots, he’s always wide open, because nobody can get there.
“I become a basketball fan when I watch him play. He’s a unique package of everything. As long as he can stay healthy, to me, it’s illegal. I really think he can be one of the best players that ever played the game.”
Averages of one steal, 3.8 blocks and 9.4 rebounds per 36 minutes across his first two years as a professional demonstrate Wembanyama’s preternatural defensive ability. And he is equally impressive at the other end of the court, where he averages 15.2 points per 36 minutes.
With his size and length, he barely has to leave the floor to dunk and is a constant lob threat. He has a broad arsenal of post moves, too, and a modest average of 1.5 assists per 36 minutes undersells a passing ability praised by scouts.
American big Chris Horton first played against Wembanyama in France during the 2019-20 season, the teenager’s first campaign as a pro. Horton remembers being surprised by Wembanyama’s shooting range and technique, something the youngster has further developed since.
“I’m guarding him, and he caught it where the coaches usually stand, at that hash mark,” Horton says. “He didn’t take a dribble, just shot, and it was crazy. I’m not contesting that. He shot that with complete confidence.”
By all accounts, he is a balanced person off the court. “Victor likes life as much as he likes basketball,” his agent, Bouna Ndiaye, told Slam magazine recently. “He likes to draw, he likes good food, he is cultured. That’s really important to me, you can’t only be focused on basketball – it’s unhealthy.”
Last year’s Fiba Under-19 Basketball World Cup gave an indication of how Wembanyama might fare against NBA opponents. He was named on the Team of the Tournament thanks to averages of 14 points, 7.4 rebounds and a competition-record 5.7 blocks per game as he led France to the final.
Up against a United States side that included 2022 No 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Detroit Pistons’ Jaden Ivey, the French youngsters lost narrowly in the gold-medal match, beaten 83-81.
But it wasn’t for any lack of production on Wembanyama’s part. He racked up 22 points, eight rebounds and eight blocks, while holding tournament MVP Holmgren to just 10 points and two rebounds.
For all his immense potential, there remain some lingering concerns regarding Wembanyama’s long-term robustness, owing to his slender frame – he’s listed between 210lbs and 220lbs – and a worrying injury history that already includes absences for finger, foot and shoulder problems.
“He’s still extremely skinny,” Filippi says. “That limits his game. Once he starts to grow into his own body, that’s when we’re going to see the real Wembanyama. He hasn’t even scratched the surface.”
For the NBA scouts assessing Wembanyama as he took on the G League Ignite in Las Vegas, such doubts will have shrunk in significance as he displayed the full weaponry of skill and physique that makes him a generational prospect.
“He’s a once-in-a-millennium-type build and skillset – you just don’t see guys like him come around,” Hornsby says. “His ceiling is as high as he’s able to create.”
“I think he’s ready,” Horton concludes. “Once he gets into the NBA environment, I think that’s when he’s going to take off and be exactly what everybody thinks he can be.”
October 6, 2022 at 01:44PM Ryan Baldi