In preparation for Tuesday’s showcase game against the G League Ignite, a select NBA minor league team, the Metros players handed their backpacks to screeners as they stepped through a hulking gray metal detector that was nearly 6 feet high. But Wembanyama, who has reportedly been measured at six feet without shoes, had to shrug and bend sharply to avoid a head-on collision.
Victor Wembanyama is coming to America. He can land here.
The building wasn’t prepared for its main attraction, and neither were the salivating residents.
Wembanyama then made his way to the field, where he went through an extensive pregame stretching routine barefoot. As trainers flexed his hips, Wembanyama’s massive sneakers, long enough to look almost like snowshoes, waited nearby. A Metros employee estimated that Wembanyama wears Nikes in size 55 in Europe, which is equivalent to size 20.5 in the United States. For reference, Nike’s basketball sneakers are usually only available up to size 18 on the website, and the official size scale is 22.
Standard measures don’t really apply to Wembanyama, an off-the-charts basketball prodigy that ranks among the most compelling prospects in the sport’s history. Without much effort, Wembanyama can jump and tap his head against the board. While warming up on Tuesday, he casually threw down a windmill dunk with his toes just inches from the hardwood.
Once the game started, 18-year-old Wembanyama continued to surprise Ignite’s players by appearing out of nowhere to block their shots. Wembanyama’s 2-meter wingspan means that he is rarely out of action, even when out of position. While centers usually have to sprint across the paint to contest layups, Wembanyama can often get the job done by simply extending his arms fully.
When he was done and waiting for Ignite drives, hilarity ensued. Wembanyama sent Scoot Henderson onto the field with the force of one block, and he volleyed another shot so hard it sailed to the Metros’ bench, prompting teammate Ibrahima Fall Faye to break into a tooth-bearing smile.
The NBA, of course, was built on tall players with long arms and jumping ability: Last season alone, 30 different 7-footers took to the field, and giants like Manute Bol (7-foot-7) and Yao Ming (7-foot) -6 ) remain known long after they retire. Over the past decade, a spate of skilled big men, including Washington Wizards center Kristaps Porzingis, have even been dubbed “unicorns” for their rare ability to shoot and dribble despite their massive frames.
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But no player as great as Wembanyama has ever done what he already can, and his performance on Tuesday was more fantastic than just a unicorn.
Consider: This was his first game in the United States and the first time he played by NBA rules and in an NBA standard 48-minute game. Also consider that the Metros were more than 5,400 miles from home and their transatlantic journey had taken place in the middle of their French league season. Finally, consider that more than 100 media members had flooded the Nevada desert from at least three continents, Phoenix Suns stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker sat on the court, and representatives from all 30 NBA teams were in attendance.
“In terms of global recognition, this has got to be the biggest game I’ve played in my life,” Wembanyama predicted Monday.
That didn’t scare Wembanyama, who finished with a game-high 37 points, seven three-pointers, four rebounds and five blocks in a 122-115 loss to the Ignite. How high did Wembanyama set the bar during its premiere? Danny Green is the only player in NBA history to score seven three-pointers and five blocks in the same game, and it took him three overtime to do it.
Henderson, a shrewd six-foot guard who is widely regarded as the second-best player in the 2023 class, made a point to attack Wembanyama early and often, finishing with 28 points, five rebounds and nine assists in an impressive display of its own. Wembanyama responded by biding his time coolly before taking over in the third quarter with a flurry of three-pointers to extend the Ignite’s double-digit lead.
Each shot was more ridiculous and graceful than the last. Wembanyama created his own looks from the dribble, turning into a fadeaway three in the corner and converting a four point play from the top of the key. After a midrange jump, he broke from his typical even stance to flash a look and turn both palms up as Michael Jordan shrugged.
Unlike many towering teens, Wembanyama doesn’t look like he’s trying to regain control of his body after a disorienting growth spurt. He moves fluidly and resolutely, and he looks more comfortable defining defenders on the perimeter than fighting for the post position.
“I’ve been playing this way for years,” Wembanyama said. “Even when I was 9, 10, 11, 15, I always shot threes and handled the ball. I didn’t look up to players for doing that. I inspired myself with everything I wanted to do.”
There’s heavy doses of Kevin Durant in the way Wembanyama sets up and uncorks his pure jump shots, but he’s much bigger and much taller than the Brooklyn Nets superstar. Wembanyama’s rim protection is reminiscent of Rudy Gobert, except that his compatriot rarely dares to dribble in traffic or pull up from the depths.
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While Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren can wander from rim to arc, he can’t quite match Wembanyama’s physical size. Anthony Davis was the most highly regarded big man of the past 15 years, winning an NCAA title as a freshman in Kentucky and becoming No. 1 in the 2012 draft. Still, Wembanyama is a much better outdoor shooter than Davis was at the same age, and he shadows the six-foot-tall Los Angeles Lakers attacker.
“Ain’t nothing to compare it to,” said G League Ignite Coach Jason Hart. “Special talent.”
No one, not Wembanyama or the Mets’ Coach, Vincent Collet, would portray him as a perfect player. The venerable Collet, who led the French national team to silver medals at the 2020 Olympics and the 2022 EuroBasket, said Wembanyama needs to get physically stronger, get smarter with his decision-making and be more efficient with his shot distribution.
Collet noted, however, that he had considered not coaching during the French League season due to EuroBasket’s rapid turnaround. Ultimately, he decided that guiding the final step of Wembanyama’s journey to the NBA was a “very special” opportunity that would never come again. Collet’s next hope is that Wembanyama will play for France at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“He’s the best candidate we’ve ever had in our league,” Collet said. “He is amazing not only for his size, but also for his incredible skills. I am impressed by how calm he is with all the buzz around him. He has a really impressive ability to listen.”
For now, but not for long, Wembanyama will remain a fishbowl phenomenon, known to basketball fanatics around the world but not yet a household name. Tuesday’s exhibit played to a half-full audience in a 5,500-seat minor league hockey arena, a far cry from the sales that LeBron James consistently drew as an Ohio teenager.
Fame and acclaim are coming and Wembanyama seems ready for the storm, in part because he played his first pro game at the age of 15 and has years of experience dealing with media obligations. There were no apparent nerves as Wembanyama stood in front of rooms full of cameras and recorders this week, and he lamented in fluent English that he would soon have to leave France because his “fate is here in the United States”.
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Once he had his sights set, Wembanyama laid down his next major milestone with the clarity of a young man who understands that there is no one else like him.
“Of all the prospects I’ve heard about in our class, I think [Henderson] is my favorite,” Wembanyama said. “He’s the most reliable I’ve seen. He is really a great player. If I had never been born, I think he would deserve first place.”