As the new NBA season approaches, all eyes are on 7-foot-4 teenager Victor Wembanyama. Undoubtedly, being the No. 1 overall pick comes with a lot of hype, but even more so when one is considered a once-in-a-generation talent.
Considering Wembanyama was one of Europe’s greatest prospects at the age of 14, the young phenom has been on NBA scouts’ radar for the last several seasons. Now the time has come, as the curtains are opening and the spotlight is on, all are tuned in to watch how the Frenchman will perform upon his arrival in San Antonio this season.
The question that has long been the topic of debate is, can a player of this caliber live up to the expectations of being compared to the greats before him? If this sounds familiar, some might remember the “kid from Akron,” who at 16 was already forced into the center stage of stardom.
Can Wembanyama follow up the spectacle of a LeBron James career and make as big of a splash? Or is that too much of a tough act to follow? After all, the Akron kid went on to break the NBA’s all-time scoring record. Nevertheless, it’s easy to make comparisons of dominance when one sees the size, mobility, skillset, and potential of Wembanyama.
For one thing, being only a couple inches shorter than former No. 1 pick Yao Ming, as well as having the ball-handling skills and shooting of a shot-creating forward, puts Wembanyama in a category of his own. This is why scouts, NBA executives and players see the teenager as a true anomaly, with a high ceiling to have the potential to become one of the greats to ever play this game.
With that being said, some doubters say it is too early to tell, concerning the young prospect’s future.
“The hype is just crazy,” Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady recently told GQ Sports. “But I get it. It’s the media, they’re looking for a face for the NBA, and you got to have a new star that you got to build around. Bron is about to be on his way out, (Stephen Curry) and those guys…I get it.”
In particular, McGrady is speaking on behalf of those who wonder if expectations have been exaggerated to fit a narrative. After all, when saying farewell to a passing of a generation to make way for a future one, there tends to be a need to fill a void. Specifically in Wembanyama’s case, is there a chance to be hoodwinked into thinking this skillset is something that we haven’t seen?
“I’m just saying the hype is crazy to me,” McGrady elaborated. “It’s too much, bro. I’ve seen this before. Y’all act like you haven’t seen it. That s*** that Bol Bol can do? (Kristaps Porzingis) was highly skilled when he first came out, just like that. And h***, he’s 7-3, too. So I’ve seen it.”
This may be a “don’t judge a book (that hasn’t been written yet) by its cover” point of emphasis by McGrady. Although, it should be noted that Wembanyama certainly has experience, as he has been playing professional basketball in Europe since he was 15 years old.
Notably, during this past season, the young star joined the Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92 of the Pro A League in France, in which he led the league with averages of 21.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game. Regardless, skeptics wondered if Wembanyama’s game can transition into the NBA, and if he can compete against the likes of dominant big men Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid, who all won the MVP trophy in each of the past five seasons.
We will soon find out, as the rookie will face the Nuggets on November 26, the Bucks on December 19, and the 76ers on January 22.
Given his body framework, there have been many who seem to be knocking the rookie’s weight. At 230 pounds, scouts and fans alike say Wemanyama may need to bulk up his lanky frame to handle the physicality in the paint when facing stronger centers or double-teams.
In regards to the criticisms, former NBA star Gilbert Arenas said that all the talk is hogwash. In today’s game, having a slight build won’t keep Wembanyama from dominating his opponents, according to Arenas, who candidly said that today’s big men are not up-to-par with those from his generation (with a couple of exceptions).
“If you can get buckets, you can get buckets. It doesn’t matter how strong you are,” Arenas said on the TMZ Sports TV show. “You don’t have no one that’s really gonna challenge you and your size. For the most part, you should be fine. You should be perfectly fine.”
Concerning the previously mentioned tough center matchups that Wembanyama will have to face, Arenas correspondingly stated, “He only has two people in the position that he’s going to be guarding, you got (Embiid) and (Jokic). That’s six games a year. That’s gonna be real tough for you. Other than that there’s no one in your position. Everyone sucks. Everyone’s trash.”
And in any case, Wembanyama is an all-around offensive matchup nightmare for opponents considering his threat on the perimeter. So it’s apparent that he has a God-given advantage over his peers.
When making the jump to the NBA, one has to have the intangibles to be great when playing against the best of the best, and Wembanyama certainly is not lacking. Even without considering talent, not many prospects have an 8-foot wingspan, the ability to both block shots and finish putback dunks without jumping, as well as get off any jump shot with ease.
In addition, considering Wembanyama’s circumstances, he is in an ideal situation being already surrounded by greatness since joining the Spurs organization. In fact, he was actually a fan of the team that drafted him, as he grew up watching the Spurs, because of former players Tony Parker and Boris Diaw hailing from France.
Most lottery draft picks are not fortunate enough to have a five-time champion head coach like Gregg Popovich, who has the most wins in NBA history. Wembanyama also has access to mentorship from former franchise No. 1 picks David Robinson and Tim Duncan, who played the rookie’s same position throughout the many championship runs during the Spurs dynasty.
And ultimately, fellow French players Parker and Diaw both actually had a connection with Wembanyama back in the homeland. That is to say, Wembanyama was a previous player for ASVEL Villeurbanne, which is a club that Parker owns. In addition to being a player for Metropolitans 92, of which Diaw is team president.
Parker, who played 17 years for the Spurs, spoke on their relationship in an interview with The Associated Press.
“I know he wanted to go to San Antonio, and so it feels like it was destiny, with the French connection we built over the years,” Parker said. “And he is going to keep the legacy going. It’s pretty cool.”
Important to note, Robinson, Duncan, Parker, and Diaw have set a very high standard to follow, as they contributed to all five championships in the organization’s history (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014). So no matter how great of numbers Wembanyama puts up throughout his career, his legacy will always be remembered by how many rings he has on his fingers when it’s all said and done.
One thing is for certain, the youngster appears to be on the right path. Spurs Summer League coach Matt Nielsen said that he was thoroughly impressed with the rookie’s maturity level. Then again, it was a disappointing debut in the NBA Summer League for Wembanyama who only scored nine points on 2-of-13 shooting from the field. Not to mention that he got dunked on, crossed over, and couldn’t find his shot.
“He really wanted to learn and listen after Game 1,” Nielsen said. “His attention to detail in those areas is pretty special as well.”
In his second Summer League game, Wembanyama bounced back by scoring 27 points on 9-of-14 shooting, grabbing 12 rebounds and recording three blocks.
“He’s pretty unique in that way. He’s got a great head on his shoulders,” Nielsen said. “I’m not even trying to joke, but I’m not as mature as he is right now. I don’t know how he does it. It’s pretty impressive. I think that’s also his basketball temperament as well.”
Clearly, there is a certain maturity needed to stay grounded when the hype is this high for a young player. A perfect example of this was 18-year-old Lebron, who came out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School with the poise and sophistication of someone “who has been there before.”
As someone who was once in Wembanyama’s shoes and seemed to possess all the elements necessary for greatness, LeBron himself has high praise for the teenage sensation.
“He is a generational talent,” James said. “Everybody’s been a unicorn over the last few years, well he’s more like an alien. I’ve never seen — no one has ever seen — anyone as tall as he is, but as fluid and as graceful as he is on the floor. His ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot step-back jumpers on the post, step-back 3s, catch-and-shoot 3s, block shots. He’s for sure a generational talent.”
James, 38, has played 20 seasons in the NBA and says the key for Wembanyama is to avoid injuries.
“Hopefully he continues to stay healthy, that’s the most important for him, and as you could tell he loves the game,” James said.
Can Wembanayama take the torch from LeBron and become the new face of the NBA? Time will tell. But the 19-year-old certainly has a lot of time in the future to grow and develop to reach (or exceed) the level of expectations that are associated with his big name.