Is the NBA Ready for Victor Wembanyama?
It's been almost three years since the first pick in the 2023 NBA Draft was set in stone — it was going to be French center Victor Wembanyama or bust at No. 1 overall, regardless of the team. That team turns out to be the San Antonio Spurs, who won the NBA Draft Lottery.
Standing 7-foot-4 and with skills unlike we've seen in a generation (or more), Wembanyama has the world at his fingertips and is set to be a household name by this time next year — which means now is your opportunity to get to know the 19-year-old before he blows up.
Wembanyama is actually so good he threatens to disrupt basketball as we know it. He's the NBA version of what we're currently seeing in the NFL, with an influx of young quarterbacks taking over and old quarterbacks leaving the game.
So, how did we get here? And is the NBA even ready for Victor Wembanyama?
Here's What Makes Victor Wembanyama Special
Being tall alone doesn't make you a great prospect. There are a lot of really tall basketball players out there who amount to a whole lot of nothing once they put on an NBA uniform. Look no further than 7-foot-3 Boston Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis — aka The Unicorn — who was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He set the NBA on fire in his first few seasons with the New York Knicks but saw his career come undone via injuries and a bad attitude.
So, what sets Victor Wembanyama apart? It's kind of like asking what made Michael Jordan special. Yeah, he can shoot. Yeah, he can block shots. Yeah, he can finish in ways that fill up your soul. But there's something else — as The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor put it in his must-read NBA Draft Guide ... Wembanyama's "got that dog in him."
Translation? It means he's a winner.
Who Is the Best NBA Prospect of All Time?
If we're talking about just the center position, Victor Wembanyama is the best prospect since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — then known as Lew Alcindor — who came out of Power Memorial High and then UCLA in the 1960s.
And that's actually a great comparison because they're about the same size — Abdul-Jabbar is 7-foot-2 — and both have a reputation for being high-volume scorers. That said, if we are doing rankings of the greatest NBA prospects of all time, we would put Wembanyama at No. 3 behind 2003 No. 1 overall pick LeBron James and Abdul-Jabbar, who was selected No. 1 overall in 1969 by the Milwaukee Bucks. Those are the kind of prospects we're talking about when we talk about Wembanyama.
From the Suburbs of Paris
Victor Wembanayama's backstory isn't unlike big-time prospects across all of professional sports — he comes from a very athletic family.
He was born on Jan. 4, 2004, in La Chesney, France — the Paris suburbs — to Felix Wembanyama, a 6-foot-6 track and field athlete who specialized in jumps, and 6-foot-3 basketball player Elodie de Fautereau. Both of Wemby's maternal grandparents, Michel de Fautereau and Marie Christine, were pro basketball players. His older sister, Eve, is also a pro hooper.
Victor was a goaltender in soccer as a youth along with playing basketball and learned the game mostly from his mom, who coached youth teams. By 10 years old, Victor was already 6-foot and drew the attention of club Nanterre 92. By the time he was 14 years old, he was being put on loan to play for FC Barcelona in the Minicopa del Rey but chose to return to France.
Playing Pro Basketball at Age 15
There are very different rules for playing professional sports in Europe, and Victor Wembanyama was competing against grown men for France's Nanterre 92 club several months shy of his 16th birthday when he made his EuroCup debut against Brescia in the LNB Under-21 League.
For the 2019-20 season, Wembanyama averaged 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game, mostly coming off the bench. He's only seen his numbers rise over the ensuing three seasons, not to mention his profile. In July 2022, he signed a two-year contract with Metropolitans 92 of the LNB Pro A League — the top pro league in France — and currently averages 21.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks.
Finding a Mentor in NBA Star Rudy Gobert
You could do a lot worse in terms of mentors than the one Victor Wembanyama found in three-time NBA Defense Player of the Year and three-time NBA All-Star Rudy Gobert.
Gobert, who also hails from France, was responsible for the first viral video of Wembanyama, which featured several minutes of the two playing 2-on-2 in France and hit the internet in 2020. He's also been there to lend advice to the young star over the last four years.
It was also Gobert's picture with Wembanyama in Las Vegas following an exhibition game in the summer of 2022 that set tongues wagging — showing the young prospect towering over the 7-foot-1 Gobert, who said Wembanyama is the only person who makes him feel "small."
Wembanyama Makes His Stateside Debut
The NBA preseason is usually a pretty dull time for basketball fans — there's plenty of football to watch, and you know you're not going to really see the big stars for more than a few minutes, if that.
The NBA started to capitalize on Victor Wembanyama's fame early and put a charge through the sports world in the fall when they invited Wembanyama's pro team, Metropolitans 92, to come to Las Vegas and face their NBA G-League Ignite team in two exhibition games. The Ignite are made up of the best NBA prospects in America that would usually be college freshmen — in this case, that included the lock for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft in point guard Scoot Henderson.
Wembanyama showed out — he averaged 36.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.0 blocks in two games and drew some famous fans to see him play, including LeBron James. "Everybody has been a unicorn over the last few years, but he's more like an alien," James said. "No one has ever seen anyone as tall as he is but as fluid and as graceful as he is out on the floor. At (his size), his ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot step-back jumpers out of the post, step-back threes, catch-and-shoot threes and block shots. He's for sure a generational talent."
NBA Tries to Avoid Tanking Crisis
Just like any other professional sport with a draft, the NBA is not immune to tanking — the practice of essentially not playing your best players to lose games in order to get a high draft pick. In the case of trying to tank for Victor Wembanyama, it's been taken to a new level because he's the type of player who could change the fortunes of a franchise for the next 10 to 20 years.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver could see it coming, though — after Wembanyama wowed in his U.S. debut against the NBA G-League Ignite, Silver issued a warning to all teams that might consider taking a dive in the 2022-23 season in order to have a better chance at landing the 19-yer-old French superstar.
“I know that many of our NBA teams are salivating at the notion that, potentially through our lottery, they can get him, so they should all still compete very hard next season,” Silver told reporters in the days following the Ignite games.
Which Team Has Best Chance in the Wemby Sweepstakes?
Here's how the NBA Draft Lottery works — the 14 teams that don't make the NBA Playoffs get their names put on ping pong balls in a lottery machine that has 1,001 possible combinations of outcomes. The team with the worst record gets the best chance of earning the No. 1 overall pick, but there's no guarantee they'll get it.
As of February 2023, there were only four teams that seemed to be completely out of playoff contention already that we can count on being in the lottery. In the Eastern Conference, it's the Charlotte Hornets and the Detroit Pistons, which had the No. 1 overall pick in 2021 and selected Cade Cunningham. In the Western Conference, it's the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets — the Spurs haven't had the No. 1 overall pick since they selected Tim Duncan in 1997. Duncan and the Spurs would go on to win five NBA championships during his career and won two of those paired with 1987 No. 1 overall pick David Robinson.
The Worst No. 1 Overall NBA Draft Picks of All Time
There's a long list of No. 1 overall NBA Draft picks who didn't pan out — but who was the very worst of the worst?
For a new practice, we'll go by decades since the NBA merged with the ABA. Take notice of how many of them are centers ... just like Wembanyama.
Worst No. 1 pick from the 1970s: Kent Benson, C, Indiana, 1977 (Milwaukee Bucks)
Worst No. 1 pick from the 1980s: Pervis Ellison, PF/C, Louisville, 1989 (Sacramento Kings)
Worst No. 1 pick from the 1990s: Michael Olowokandi, C, Pacific, 1998 (Los Angeles Clippers)
Worst No. 1 pick from the 2000s: Greg Oden, C, Ohio State, 2007 (Portland Trail Blazers)
Worst No. 1 pick from the 2010s: Anthony Bennett, PF, UNLV, 2013 (Cleveland Cavaliers)
The Best No. 1 Overall NBA Draft Picks of All Time
If everything goes right, we'll be talking about Victor Wembanyama as one of the greatest No. 1 picks of all time after he's selected as the top pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. Because as much as we like talking about how bad things can go ... when it goes well, it really goes well.
Here's a look at the top NBA Draft picks by decade, dating back to the 1970s when the NBA and ABA merged. Take note of how just one of them is a pure center like Wembanyama.
Best No. 1 pick from the 1970s: Magic Johnson, PG, Michigan State, 1979 (Los Angeles Lakers)
Best No. 1 pick from the 1980s: Hakeem Olajuwon, C, Houston, 1984 (Houston Rockets)
Best No. 1 pick from the 1990s: Tim Duncan, PF, Wake Forest, 1997 (San Antonio Spurs)
Best No. 1 pick from the 2000s: Lebron James, SF, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, 2003 (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Best No. 1 pick from the 2010s: Kyrie Irving, PG, Duke, 2011(Cleveland Cavaliers)
How Great Can Victor Wembanyama Really Be?
It might seem unfair, but it's true that Victor Wembanyama's career has already been defined somewhat before he even steps foot on an NBA court. What that means is that, if he doesn't win championships — if he doesn't win MVPs — then he will be considered a bust in all likelihood.
The NBA is betting big on Wembanyama living up to the hype. In October 2022, they made the unusual step of airing his games for Metropolitans 92 against the NBA G-League Ignite on NBA TV and on ESPN. The 2022-23 NBA regular season also featured several regular-season games in Paris for the first time ... which you can see as a direct connection to what they hope will be a yearly occurrence once the young star is in the league.
Can Wemby be the player we all want him to be? We're about to find out.