Is the NBA ready for Victor Wembanyama? – The Ringer

Is the NBA ready for Victor Wembanyama?  - The Ringer

Victor Wembanyama is the best NBA prospect since LeBron James. He stands at a towering 7-foot-4 and doesn’t even need to leave his feet to change shots because he can extend his 8-foot wingspan to swat away jumpers or push the ball away from would-be attackers. With his size and key mentality, at just 18 years old, he can discourage players from even attacking the paint. Wemby’s length also gives him an unblockable jump shot; he drilled seven 3-pointers as he scored 37 points against the G-League Ignite on Tuesday, and most of them came off movement, such as transition sprints, pick-and-pops, and stepbacks. In his second Las Vegas exhibition Thursday, he played an even more complete brand of basketball, dropping 36 points with the majority of his damage coming inside the arc on drives, post fadeaways, lobs, and post dunks.

We have never seen a player like Wemby before. He’s like Kevin Durant crossed with Rudy Gobert, making him a Gen-Z Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Ralph Sampson raised on YouTube videos. As hyperbolic as it all sounds, executives around the league already agree that Wembanyama has Hall of Fame potential with the upside of being one of the greatest players ever.

Wembanyama is the first to admit that it is too early to anoint him as anything, but the Vegas exhibition was organized largely to showcase his talents on a global stage. Wemby flew all the way from France with Metropolitans 92 for two exhibition games against the Ignite, who are led by the potential second pick in the 2023 draft (spoiler alert: we know who goes No. 1), Scoot Henderson, electric point a guard with shades of Allen Iverson and Russell Westbrook. Henderson himself shone in Vegas, although a knocked-out knee sidelined him five minutes into the second game on Thursday. Wembanyama grabbed the limelight altogether. Scouts and executives from around the league dipped into the preseason schedule to see the games. I sat two rows back from the court and it didn’t take long for Wembanyama to make it clear that he was the best prospect in the class of 2023, and the best prospect I had scouted in mine. 11 years covering the draft.

“He’s not a franchise-changing talent. He’s a league-changing talent,” one NBA executive told me this week. Wemby’s influence over the league is already felt a full year before he enters it. Losing teams are to be tanked hard this season. Playoff or playoff bubble teams will drop games late in the year to sneak into the lottery. Teams will race to the bottom with more vigor than ever. All for the chance to pick one of the greatest prospects the league has ever seen.

“The meaning behind the word tanking is a bit strange,” Wembanyama said on Wednesday. “I would never want to lose. It is a personal matter. But I really try to stay out of it. Either way, it will affect where I end up. All I can do for myself is focus on the work itself.”

While Wembanyama’s physical talents are enough to take your breath away, the untold hours the teenager has put into his game are also apparent. Over the past year, his jump shot has developed rapidly. He has battled streak attacks and shot 31 percent from 3 and 68.5 percent from the line in recent seasons overseas. But his form in Vegas looks a lot more consistent and he’s more comfortable trying the kind of complex shots and moves you’d normally see from a guard or wing.

On Thursday, in one mental sequence, Wemby took one dribble into the corner, planted his feet without traveling, and balanced himself in the air to launch a 3-pointer over the defense:

Most officials around the league are confident of Wembanyama’s ability to become a reliable marksman due to his rate of progress and the work ethic he has shown so far. This year, he spent time working with Dirk Nowitzki’s longtime shooting coach Holger Geschwindner. With a good touch around the rim, and a willingness to learn, it’s reasonable to expect him to become more effective. It’s just a matter of whether he shoots as well as Kristaps Porzingis (35.3 percent) or as crisply as Karl-Anthony Towns (39.7 percent).

“Victor will be unguardable if he knocks down jumpers,” said one NBA general manager. If he hits shots with consistency, teams will be forced to respect him from the outside, which would only open up driving lanes for pull-ups, playmaking opportunities, and finishes inside the paint.

Wemby head coach Vincent Collet gives his young star the freedom to take the ball up the court and create offense for himself, which is a skill that could one day separate him from big men who finish games, and allow him to become someone who spawns buckets. for everyone.

“I’ve never seen a prospect with so many tools and skills. That’s why when you’re the coach, you always limit something. But you adapt to the player’s potential,” said Collet. “You can still give him freedom and I think that’s better. If he chooses himself he will be more responsible. That’s a way to improve.”

Although he missed a few contested attempts near the basket against the Ignite, it was mostly due to his underdeveloped forehand (his left) rather than an inability to handle contact. Even when warming up before games, he practiced off-balance shots around the rim, twisting his body and coming off angles he might face during a game. And sometimes, he’ll use that flexibility in a game to catch a body.

Wembanyama says he has been playing all over the court since he was a little boy, shooting 3s and handling the ball. Born in 2004, he grew up watching the style of basketball we see today with spacing, movement and free-flowing action. At home, he was raised by athletes. His 6-foot-3 mother, Elodie, played basketball, as did both her parents. His 6-foot-6 father, Felix, was a long jumper. His siblings also play basketball. NBA teams look to his family as a strong support system as he adjusts to life in the NBA—and the inevitable fame that comes with it.

“He’s definitely a generational talent,” LeBron said Wednesday after the Lakers played the Suns in Vegas. “Everyone has been a unicorn for the past few years but he’s more like an alien. No one has ever seen someone as tall as him, but as fluid and graceful as he is on the floor.”

Wembanyama had a muted reaction to LeBron’s praise. He said a bunch of friends and family texted him about it and his reaction was simply, “It’s great.” There is a maturity in the way the French star thinks and approaches both basketball and life. He talked about how he invests time to be alone, exploring his thoughts to understand how to become a better person and player. One of his agents told me that Wembanyama acts like he is 30 years old. A manager attending the games this week said they expect Wembanyama to be the type of low-maintenance superstar who improves culture.

Sometimes people can be all talk, no action. But I was sitting near the bench of the Wembanyama team and he was actively talking to the crowd during breaks. On the court, he would scream and fist pump when his teammates hit shots.

Near the end of Tuesday’s game, point guard Tremont Waters threw a bad pass to commit a careless turnover. Wemby looked straight at him and clapped his head. Then he followed up with a blocked shot, a steal, and a clutch 3 to keep the Metropolitans within striking distance of the Ignite. Many players, regardless of their age, would get frustrated with their teammate or let the moment negatively affect their game.

“It’s natural. I just want to do what is best for my teammates,” said Wembanyama after the game. “I will never yell at a teammate if he tries and misses. Everyone makes mistakes.”

Wembanyama makes his own. Collet would like to see him improve his decision making on offense, knowing when to shoot and when to become a playmaker. And while Wemby is a good passer, he is definitely a score-first player at this stage. Defensively, he will sometimes be out of position when defending screening actions. But at his size, he can take one step and be in position for a block.

Wembanyama plays a lot on the perimeter, but even with his lanky 220-pound frame he boxes out for rebounds and soaks up contact in the paint. It’s impressive that Wembanyama was able to excel carrying a heavy offensive load in Vegas while being involved in so much action on defense, especially considering he was playing in 48-minute games for the first time.

Even when he was tired, his defensive intensity did not waver, nor did his communication shut down. He remained active at all times, rotating to change shots inside. On multiple occasions Tuesday, he blocked jumpers and forced the Ignite to take tough layups around the basket. At one point, Henderson tried to dunk on him but was brutally denied. Ignite players wouldn’t even try him on Thursday.

There have been many great NBA prospects since LeBron entered the league in 2003, but none that had the edge of Wembanyama. Wemby stood for photos next to fellow French center Rudy Gobert after the game, and he towered above him. Wembanyama recently measured 224 centimeters (7-foot-4 and change), according to a source who also added, “It is possible that he has grown a little more in the last few days after I saw him near Rudy.”

Only health can derail Wembanyama from a dominant career. He already has a relevant injury history, including a fibula stress fracture, a scapular contusion and a problem affecting the psoas muscle in his back. There were whispers Tuesday night that he might shut things down before the 2023 draft after his banner week in Vegas. But on Wednesday, Wembanyama’s agent, Bouna Ndiaye, told ESPN that is not happening.

“NBA people are telling me to shut him down, and we’re not going to shut him down,” Ndiaye said. “He wants to compete and get better. With Victor, it’s basketball first and everything else second.”

I asked a handful of executives what the risk was for Wembanyama to play. If he got hurt, would he still be the no. 1 choice? Is Henderson, or any of the other prospects in the draft, really great enough to surpass him? All of them still think Wembanyama would go first, as long as he could play soon after being drafted. Most recently, Joel Embiid went third in 2014, despite teams knowing he might miss time with back and foot issues. He missed two full seasons before making his debut.

Teams wonder what level Wembanyama really is as a shooter, and they’d like to see him get bigger. Durability is also a concern given his injury history and the relatively short list of players his size who have gone on to long, healthy careers.

There have been 26 players in NBA history listed at 7-foot-3 or taller. Only seven had notable careers: Yao Ming, Ralph Sampson, Arvydas Sabonis, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Rik Smits, Mark Eaton, and Kristaps Porzingis. Of that list, only Smits and Eaton did not miss significant time. But none of them faced the demands on both ends of the floor that the others did, or that Wembanyama will once he reaches the NBA. The nature of the game today only strengthens the pressure on Wembanyama, given the commitments to turn on the perimeter, defend every corner of the court and handle the ball from outside.

Teams don’t think Wembanyama’s stock will realistically fall, and it really can’t go any higher. Some wonder if it would be in his best interest to focus entirely on training his body rather than playing basketball. But it speaks to who Wembanyana is that he wants to play. He lives and breathes basketball. He wants to compete. He wants to win.

“He has a real determination to improve, so I expect in a few months he will be even better than he already is. And he is already good,” said Collet, unable to hide his smile. “Individually, his ability, the sky is the limit.”

There are many teams going into the season looking to lose and increase their chances of landing Wembanyama. Several more could join the fray as the season continues and the Wemby hype builds. Many fans will view a loss as preferable to a win this season. Wembanyama still has room to improve, but he’s a prospect like Shaquille O’Neal or Tim Duncan—they just don’t come around very often. Having him on your team could guarantee contention for years to come. One year of loss is a small price to pay for a player who could compete at a high level two decades from now, just like LeBron still does.

A tall teenager in France is just beginning to write her story. This week in Las Vegas, a star was born.

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