Friday, May 27, 2022

NBA Draft: Meet 7-foot-2 Victor Wembanyama, the French prospect who could be the No. 1 pick in 2023

Nothing Victor Wembanyama does on a basketball court looks normal. The phenom from France stands at a towering 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan. Blocking shots is second nature to him. When teams target him in a switch on the perimeter, it’s the equivalent of watching Rudy Gobert try to defend Kevin Hart on a nerf hoop. With long and gangly arms, even when he’s out of position he’s able to turn and recover as well as any big man prospect in the sport. 

At just 18 years old, Wembanyama might be the reason your favorite NBA team is accumulating draft assets for the future. (Looking your way, Oklahoma City.) Wembanyama’s not eligible for the NBA Draft until 2023, so the race to “Waive Wins for Wembanyama” (catchy, maybe?) isn’t officially on, but the rare combination of his length, shot-blocking, scoring, size and versatility has him among the most intriguing prospects on planet Earth.

Here’s more evidence why.

Wembanyama’s disruptive length

In the FIBA U19 World Cup gold medal game against Team USA last year, Wembanyama had 22 points and eight rebounds while swatting eight (YES: EIGHT!!) shots. His length was bothersome to even the best of USA’s talent, including potential No. 1 pick in 2022 Chet Holmgren, another gangly big who Wembanyama outplayed in an MVP-caliber performance (before Holmgren went on to win MVP honors).

On offense, simply staying in front of Wembanyama and fronting him to defend the entry pass is not enough. Look here how he gets behind Holmgren — a listed 7-footer who is averaging 3.4 blocks per game for Gonzaga as a true freshman and has elite defensive potential — for a clean look at the rim. Wembanyama misses the tap-in over the top, but gets fouled in the process by Holmgren, going on to make both free throws. He finished the game a perfect 9-for-9 from the free throw line.

Staying in front of him doesn’t work, either. With the ball in his hands he has the shake and bake of a wing. Check out how he puts this poor Lithuanian defender into a blend cycle as he takes one dribble from just beneath the free throw line, drop-steps and is at the cup for an easy finish, absorbing contact for an and-one in the process.

In most cases, simply throwing the ball at the rim and in the general vicinity of Wembanyama is a winning play. He’s not just a lob threat; he’s virtually an automatic bucket with a catch radius that puts D.K. Metcalf to shame. What looks like an overthrow here for Wembanyama — and for probably most players in basketball — turns into an easy flush for him.

Another example here from the FIBA U19 gold medal game. Wembanyama sheds Holmgren in a switch, and France’s point guard tosses a lob with Wembanyama at the free throw line. It turns into an uncontested dunk because — seriously — how many people in the world could contest this?

Shot-blocking second nature

If you hand-selected one pro prospect to be the assigned selfie-taker of a large group, Wembanyama’s the No. 1 pick with a bullet. His wingspan would rank third-widest among all prospects measured at the NBA Draft Combine since 2000 (behind Tacko Fall and Mo Bamba). So because of his length and wiry arms — coupled with amazing timing and mobility — Wembanyama by nature is a shot-blocking sorcerer. Remember how I mentioned earlier that he can be out of position but still leverage his length to recover? Here’s one example. He gets backed down off a drive and gets too deep, swallowed under the basket, but he loads quickly, springs to the shot and with an outstretched left arm throws the shot attempt out of bounds.

Here’s another example from a different game. Notice below as he gets caught up in a screen in the post yet even as his man catches the ball for what looks to be enough room to get off a hook shot, Wembanyama is there just in time to throw an arm up. The shot goes undeterred for a foot or so before being met with an emphatic swat.

Against Lithuania in the FIBA U19 World Cup, this play in particular nearly popped my eyes out of socket. The volleyball style swat and secure is one thing; the recovery to stay in bounds and the response to sprint the floor and finish is another. This sequence is one of the many he’ll flash in games in which he affects both ends of the floor as a two-way force.

Good luck switching

By good luck I mean, seriously, good luck. Against Enes Kanter or Derrick Favors, drawing them out on the perimeter and putting them in a pick-and-roll might be how you can attack on offense. Against Wembanyama, it’s asking for trouble. Below, Lithuania’s point guard got Wembanyama switched onto him at the top of the key then tried every herky-jerky move in his bag before Wembanyama bent down for a kind, casual swat.

This point guard from Spain didn’t get the same kind treatment. After floating out on the perimeter via a switch, Wembanyama stays in front of his man then detonates the shot at the rim.

When you do that a few times, you get into players’ heads. You start calculating if you have enough room to get a shot off. This is the Wembanyama tax you pay playing against him — the discomfort of knowing that at any time your shot is liable to find a place in the second row of the bleachers. The threat of that alone is enough to force even the most intelligent players into wicked and wild shots. Such is the impact a player of his caliber can make, affecting plays even if in the stat sheet it doesn’t count for anything. 

Offensive versatility

If blocking shots, switching screens and using all of his 7-foot-9 wingspan isn’t enough to make Wembanyama a special talent, what he can do on offense — beyond just finishing lobs — surely is. The casual spin cycle I showed earlier pales in comparison to this move on Holmgren. Notice how he fakes right, drops back left into the center of the paint then goes up — wayyy up — for the sky hook over Holmgren’s long arms.

The shot extends beyond the paint, too. The footwork in this play is a tad clumsy, but check how he puts a defender at his back then fades into the baseline for an and-one.

The 3-point shot isn’t a regular in his repertoire, but that appears to be only a volume problem for Wembanyama and not a value problem. He made 37% of his 3s last season with Nanterre (though he went 4-of-22 in the U19s) on 46 attempts. Casually pulling up from the logo like Damian Lillard is not a shot he’s afraid to take (and can make).

What’s jarring is how quickly, and easily, he can unload the shot. He has 3-and-D potential as a 7-foot center. Quick load, smooth, high release and the beautiful follow-through.

A lot can change between now and June 2023, when he is eligible to be drafted. And injuries have been an off-and-on constant background concern. But nearly two years out, it’s clear Wembanyama is the early frontrunner to go No. 1 and might be considered the best-long term non-NBA prospect in basketball regardless of level. He can block shots and make shots. He can defend the perimeter and make shots on the perimeter. There’s nothing, at 18 years old, that he can’t do, even if he lacks the seasoning and zest to be declared a generational talent. Over the next year-plus as he continues to develop, there’s likely to be intense jockeying for position to win him as a reward at the top of the draft.

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