In 2020, three-time NBA defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert was practicing on a court in France in a two-on-two situation with three other seven-foot behemoths. In a video that then went viral, the ‘man’ he is guarding dribbles the ball once between his legs, then again while slightly hesitating forwards. Gobert moves back and the tall, lanky player unleashes a smooth shot from the edge of the three-point line… Splash. Gobert smiles, picks up the ball and hands it back to the player. He then hesitates to Gobert’s right, then sidesteps onto the left and unleashes that same shot again… Splash. The moves aren’t special – the player is.
Gobert got an early introduction to what many call the greatest prospect to emerge from the NBA Draft since LeBron James in 2003. Victor Wembanyama was only 16 years old at the time of the practice session with Gobert and was only a year into his professional career. Three years on, the French centre is the consensus No 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft and was selected by the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday to lead their franchise.
To say that he is tall is an understatement. At 7-foot-4, Wembanyama elicits wonderment like Andre the Giant would during his professional wrestling days. But there have always been tall athletes in the NBA of varied builds. What makes Wembanyama – whose eight-foot wingspan is the same as the body of a Learjet – special is that if one were to type in the exact dimensions and attributes of the perfect NBA player into an artificial intelligence platform, the computer would likely throw up Wembanyama as the perfect prototype.
It’s not the height of the Frenchman that’s special. It’s the uniqueness of how complete every aspect of his basketball game is. Born in an era where shooting guards launch the ball from halfcourt while pointing to their veins, Wembanyama bought into that game, and then somehow managed to translate it into a body that shouldn’t be able to do the things he does.
Over the past year, highlights upon highlights of the wiry centre make their way onto the internet, each more wondrous than the next. In one instance, Wembanyama takes a three-point shot, misses, and somehow processes the ball bouncing from the rim, leaps in the air and dunks the ball into the net. Forget the athletic ability to pull it off, it’s the computational gut-feel physics of his mind that makes one sit up.
Then there is the ability to defend players. At 7’4, freely moving on a basketball court is a luxury to most players. Not Wembanyama. Search YouTube and the 19-year-old holds his own against guards trying to twist, turn and throttle him. It doesn’t work. Wembanyama’s movements are deceptively quick. He stays on the players and swats away their shots. Moments later, he has already bounded down the length of the court and unleashed a deep three-pointer from his spot. It’s a textbook move of an NBA-level guard, except one of the tallest players in the league will be pulling it off in a few months.
It is what has gravitated all thirty of the NBA teams to somehow try to win the Wembanyama sweepstakes – one that was taken by the Spurs, who lost 60 games in a row to give themselves a 14 percent chance of winning the draft lottery to acquire Wembanyama. The comparisons of greatness reached James, who described the hottest prospect in the NBA as an ‘alien’. “He’s for sure a generational talent,” LeBron said. “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.”
One league executive said that Wembanyama was not a ‘franchise-altering talent’ but rather a ‘league-altering talent’. Michael Jordan, Steph Curry – there aren’t many names that come to mind when one thinks of players who altered the way basketball was played. That’s the expectation that comes with drafting Wembanyama.
Born to athletes
Born in Le Chesnay, a suburb outside of Paris, France, Wembanyama had athletic genes from the very beginning. His father Felix Wembanyama was a Congolese 6’6 triple jumper, long jumper and 100m runner. But while the way to run and the intricacies of athletics were drilled into him by his father, it was his mother’s sport that eventually trumped.
Elodie de Fautereau, Wembanyama’s mother, was a part of the French national team and a basketball coach for children from the age group of four to ten. She introduced her son to the sport at the age of four – especially at a time when judo and football would take up as his primary interests.
— NBA (@NBA) June 23, 2023
While he started playing for a team at the age of 7, it was with Nanterre 92 that a 10-year-old Wembanyama got his first real start in basketball. Since then, there was a brief loan to FC Barcelona for an Under 14 tournament, followed by the start of his professional career. He first played for Nanterre 92’s LNB Pro A (France’s top basketball division) team. After two years at Nanterre, Wembanyama signed with AVSEL before finally switching to Metropolitans 92, the team he is currently with.
The thing with unicorns
The basketball world has a specific word to describe players like Wembanyama – a unicorn. This is because tall players who can play like centres in the paint and guards on the lanes are a rarity. Even more rare is the longevity these players enjoy.
Just last year, seven-foot-one centre Chet Holmgren was hailed as the NBA’s latest unicorn. Drafted second, his season came crashing down hastily because of a Lisfranc injury to his foot that ruled him out of the entire season. This is the unicorn’s biggest threat – not a question of where the talent can lead the player to but rather how much that tall a frame can handle the rigours of an 82-game plus playoffs season.
The same rules will apply for Wembanyama and concerns over injuries will follow for most of his career. His broad shoulders though have given hope that a Giannis Antetokounmpo-like muscular transformation might be on the cards a few years in. He has often mentioned Antetokounmpo’s body transformation as a possible goal for him once his NBA career begins – a terrifying thought for teams that already see him as a tormentor on so many different offensive aspects.
There is then also the question of where his development is at the moment. At 19, Wembanyama is not as finished a product as Luka Doncic was when he got drafted to the NBA after becoming the Euroleague MVP. His outside shooting has been quite streaky but his shot mechanics are almost airtight. His release point is so high, NBA players are better off praying to the basketball gods than trying to raise their hand up and defend the shot. Wembanyama has also been working with German coach Holger Geschwindner – an eccentric mastermind who trained German legend Dirk Nowitzki and has inspired players like Kevin Durant.
“I’m ready to learn, man…I’m ready to learn.”
— NBA (@NBA) June 23, 2023
At the San Antonio Spurs, he will have one of the best sets of coaches available for a player’s development in the league. He will also work under the NBA’s longest-reigning coach in Gregg Popovich. The steps to make this a successful partnership are all there.
In San Antonio, the expectation from Wembanyama would be similar to what Tim Duncan was to the franchise – a special player with the ability to be the nucleus of a Championship contending team. But unlike Duncan, Wembanyama will most likely be given the time to adapt his game from the weaker French league to the NBA. Even with that consideration, it is his body that will ultimately dictate the trajectory of his career.