Victor Wembanyama is the evolution of basketball personified. But evolution requires a catalyst. Sure Wembanyama’s genes play a significant part, but decades earlier he could have been Frédéric Weis. Weis was the first French center whose name was seared into the memories of American basketball fans. But for all the wrong reasons. Vince Carter’s leapfrog dunk at the Sydney Olympics over the 7-foot-2 1999 first-round pick of the Knicks (15th overall) echoed around the world, but especially in his native France. Weis’ name became synonymous with posterization and French hoopers have been saddled with the soft label ever since.
The arc of the sports universe must bend toward jest because Wembanyama is an American comeuppance for what Vinsanity did to Frédéric Weis. Once LeBron James and Steph Curry call it quits, the game is in good hands, but not American hands. Nikola Jokic, Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are phenomenal, but none of them were considered the top players in their respective drafts. The first generational phenom in two decades is a French teenager.
As an individual talent, Wilt Chamberlain ruled the 60s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated the 70s intersecting with Jordan’s rise, and 19 years elapsed between Michael Jordan and LeBron’s NBA debuts. Wembanyama flying in as a highly-touted Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92 draft prospect and leaving as a megastar 20 years after LeBron flexed his overwhelming grown-man game against No. 1 Oak Hill in one of the earliest ESPN high school basketball showcases, was long overdue.
Wembanyama’s rollout was flawless. In both contests against the G League Ignite, Wembanyama silenced any skeptics by logging 36.5 points, 7.5 boards, 4.5 blocks, and made 50 percent of his 18 attempts from downtown. Those 4.5 blocks can’t be overlooked, either. Wembanyama is so agile and long that, unlike his fellow countryman Rudy Gobert, he won’t be uncomfortable stepping out to defend on the perimeter. The team that drafts Wembanyama won’t just be tough to score on in the paint, but may have a dome built around the side of the floor where Wembanyama is on. In an age where teams value space, his defensive instincts coupled with an 8-foot-wingspan are a space killer. If he continues filling out, he may be the most dominant defensive chess piece in league history.
Wembanyama is the generational phenom NBA circles have been waiting to descend into the NBA Draft. If he were thrust into the 2003 Draft, there’s a 50 percent probability he would have been the top prospect instead of King James, depending on who was drafting. LeBron’s otherworldly athleticism packed into a chiseled 6-foot-8 frame replete with the clairvoyant floor vision of a point forward was paradigm-shifting, and fit where the game was heading next. And obviously knowing what we know gives LeBron a significant edge, but Wembanyama is beyond unicorn. He’s a phenom and a basketball kaiju.
What separates Wembanyama from LeBron are his insane measurements and dexterity for such a large athlete. Countless unicorn athletes with unconventional skill sets have shot into the NBA’s ecosphere in the past 20 years. Over the last decade, bigs have begun stretching the floor to take advantage of the increased emphasis on 3-point shooting. Wembanyama isn’t just an effective spot-up shooter, he can take 29 footers off the dribble, casually drain a leaner off the dribble from the right corner or he drives and finishes above the rim.
Crowd his space and Wembanyama can blow by you after a few set-up dribble combos. Look what he did to poor Leonard Miller. Would you believe me if I told you that the pipsqueak catching a whiff of Wembanyama’s musty armpits was 6-foot-10?
An international player has never had the game in a chokehold like this. And for the foreseeable future, Wembanyama won’t be letting go.