c/o Julien de Rosa

c/o Julien de Rosa

As we approach the 2023 NBA Draft, one prospect is in a league of his own: Victor Wembanyama. The 19-year old Frenchman has taken the basketball world by storm in the past year and has generated pre-draft hype that could only be compared to when LeBron James entered the league 20 years ago. Fans have even speculated that teams will “tank for Wembanyama,” meaning intentionally perform poorly this season for an increased chance at the number one overall pick. So how could a single player drive scouts, players, coaches, and fans this crazy?

First, Wembanyama’s lineage certainly helped his athletic prowess, as his mother and her two parents played basketball, and his father was a French long jumper who competed in several national events. Wembanyama’s older sister is also a professional basketball player, and his younger brother has started his journey in youth basketball. Wembanyama has the game in his genes, and it did not take long for his parents and others who watched him to start recognizing that. Wembanyama began playing for the youth division of Nanterre 92 at the age of 10 and was often mistaken for an older player or coach due to his nearly six-foot height at that age. After several years with Nanterre’s youth division and a brief stint with FC Barcelona basketball, Wembanyama made his professional debut for Nanterre at the age of 15, making him the second-youngest player in the history of the EuroBasket tournament. 

Wembanyama’s physical attributes were the first factors to draw attention to him during his professional career. Wembanyama has drawn comparisons to the likes of Kristaps Porziņģis for his impressive 7-foot-2-inch height and 7-foot-8-inch wingspan—however, these are only his listed measurements. Recent measurements, although not official, put him closer to 7-foot-4 or -5 with a massive 8-foot wingspan. He has a broad frame, and although he is lean, in the coming years he will be able to put on more muscle and fill out to become an even more imposing force on the court.

Whenever a player who is taller than 7 feet enters the league, all positive opinions about them will be countered with one word—injuries—and, historically, this is a valid argument. Due to the intense pressures that a tall center experiences, jumping to block shots on most defensive possessions and guarding equally physical and imposing players while often being quite lean, the tallest players in NBA history have never had longevity. Of the 26 all-time NBA players 7-foot-3 or taller, nine have not made it past their second season, and only six have made it to their 10th season. Even Yao Ming (7’5”), the player widely regarded as the best of the tallest NBA players, had a career cut in half by injuries, as he only lasted eight years before retiring at the age of 30.

These fears are very present for all those interested in Wembanyama, as in the 2021-22 season ESPN reported that he played only 33 out of 76 possible games for the French professional team ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne, missing 43 due to injuries. Although they were small injuries (broken finger and a shoulder contusion), a 19-year-old who has already missed significant playing time is worrisome to NBA scouts. However, this season, Wembanyama is playing for the French team Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92, and has played in all 21 of their games to date, en route to by far his most impressive season yet.

He has led the Metropolitans to a 15-6 record and put up an average of 22.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, and an impressive 3.1 blocks per game, leading the LNB Pro A, the top French professional basketball league, in all three categories. These numbers are highly inflated from his 9.4/5.1/1.8 statline in those same categories in the 2021-22 season. He is on track to  win the LNB MVP this season, and currently, his team is only two games behind AS Monaco for first place in the league.

Skill-wise, Wembanyama is an enigma. Although his percentages do not show it, Wembanyama is a skilled shooter who can post up from mid-range and shoot over any defender in the world, a la Kevin Durant. He has also shown glimmers of being a talented three-point shooter, and he is not afraid to take contested and even step-back threes even though he is still shooting just 30% from beyond the arc in his professional career, a below-average rate. Most of his three-point struggles, however, are from the top of the key because he has made corner threes at a ridiculous rate of 63% in the season so far. Wembanyama can also convert on his free throws (81% this year) which is all-important for a center who will be often fouled. He is also obviously talented in the paint and right around the rim, where he converts on around two-thirds of his field goal attempts. The one knock on Wembanyama’s scoring game is his ability to create shots for himself when he is playing with his back to the basket. He often will take difficult turnaround shots from the mid-range, which has lowered his percentages for these areas and makes him seem like a worse shooter than he is. On the defensive end, Wembanyama has as high a ceiling as anyone. He is the best shot blocker in his league and will no doubt become one of the best in the NBA, but that is not remarkable for a player his size. More than blocking shots, he also has the potential to become a skilled perimeter defender due to his agility, which is rare in a player of his size.

It is also worth mentioning that Wembanyama is playing a different caliber of basketball than college prospects. He is going up against real professional players with a great deal more experience than he has, so his accomplishments should be given even more weight than those of typical college players. Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Dončić had a similar path playing for Real Madrid in Liga ACB before being drafted, and many people credit the experience of playing this higher level of basketball with his immediate and immense success.

When evaluating a prospect, even though it may not speak to their whole body of work, scouts often look for signature performance which stands out above the rest, and Wembanyama has plenty. The performance which stands above the rest came in October 2022 at a series of two Las Vegas showcase games between the Metropolitans and the NBA G-League Ignite team led by the man who will most likely follow Wembanyama as number two in the draft, Scoot Henderson. The two players dueled magnificently in front of countless NBA scouts, coaches, and players. In the first game, Wembanyama showed every aspect of his game, scoring 37 points and five blocks while making 7 of 11 three pointers, even though he lost to Henderson. In the second game, the Mets won on the back of 36 points and 11 rebounds from their young star, who proved to everyone in the NBA that he was all he had been hyped up to be and more.

Every few years, pundits pick a player in the NBA Draft as the “Unicorn,” a player with a very rare skillset who could become a generational talent, and many have called Wembanyama the Unicorn, but LeBron James disagreed with this assessment.

“I think probably the same as everybody else thinks,” James said when asked about Wembanyama’s game. “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 but as fluid and graceful as he is on the floor.… He’s for sure a generational talent. Hopefully, he continues to stay healthy. That’s the important thing for him.”

Not everyone is sold on Wembanyama, though, and I must say I personally am still concerned about injuries (last year’s 7-foot Unicorn, Chet Holmgren, missed his entire rookie year due to a foot injury). Regardless, he will be this year’s number one overall pick, and if he can stay healthy, Victor “The Alien” Wembanyama will be unlike anything we have seen in this league.

Ethan Lee can be reached at ejlee@wesleyan.edu. 

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