Victor Wembanyama: Destined for Greatness or Premature Retirement?
By: Tony Jeon
Considered the greatest basketball prospect since Lebron James, Victor Wembanyama has NBA teams desperate to tank in hopes of landing the first overall pick at the upcoming 2023 NBA draft. Despite other elite prospects such as Scoot Henderson being part of a stacked draft, there is absolutely no doubt that Wembanyama will be the first name called on June 22.
Victor Wembanyama was born in Le Chesnay, France to Felix Wembanyama and Elodie de Fautereau, who stand at 6 foot 6 inches and 6 foot 3 inches respectively. Felix is a former track and field star for the Congolese national team while Elodie is a former basketball player for the French national team and coaches at Yvelinois Basketball Academy. Victor also has an elder sister, Eve, who plays professional basketball in France and a younger brother, Oscar, who plays youth basketball.
Growing up, Wembenyama played football as a goalkeeper and even tried judo. However, nothing trumped his commitment to basketball thanks to his mother’s influence as a former basketball player and current coach. At the age of seven, he began playing basketball for Entente Le Chesnay Versailles before joining Nanterre 92’s youth system at age ten. The story goes that while watching one of Wembanyama’s games, Nanterre 92 coach, Michaël Allard, mistook Wembanyana as an assistant coach due to his unusually long frame at such a young age. After finding out the truth, Allard immediately rang the Nanterre 92 technical director to report his discovery.
On October 29, 2019, Wembanyama made his professional debut at age fifteen for the Nanterre 92 senior team in a EuroCup game. A year later, he went on to debut in France’s top flight, the Ligue Nationale de Basket Pro A, where he would be awarded the LNB Pro A Best Young Player Award in his first season. Then, in the summer of 2021, Wembanyama signed a three-year contract with ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne. After winning a second-consecutive Best Young Player award in his first season with ASVEL, the French native moved to Metropolitans 92 for the 2022-23 season. This season, he has averaged an impressive 21.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 3.2 blocks while playing 31.9 minutes per game. Similar to Wembanyama, decorated center Rudy Gobert spent his teenage years playing in the LNB Pro A prior to getting drafted twenty-seventh overall in the 2013 NBA Draft. To emphasize how impressive Wembanyama’s numbers are this season, here’s a comparison to Rudy Gobert’s final LNB Pro A season before joining the NBA.
Rudy Gobert is more than just a mere point of comparison to Wembanyama. The two are teammates on the French national team and Rudy Gobert is partially responsible for Wembanyama’s swift rise to international fame. In 2020, a video of Wembanyama playing a two-on-two against Rudy Gobert went viral on the internet. At the time of recording, Wembanyama was sixteen years old while Rudy Gobert was twenty-eight years old and the reigning back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Despite Gobert demonstrating his physical dominance and experience against the young Wembanyama, the sixteen-year old had no issue scoring and grabbing rebounds over the NBA star. Holding his own against a decorated NBA player despite a twelve-year age gap, this performance put Wembanyama on the radars of many basketball fans and scouts.
Check out the video:
A Generational Prospect
Wembanyama has a complete package of skills, athleticism, and length to dominate the NBA. He possesses a towering presence on the court, standing at a staggering 7 foot 4 inches. Not only that, Wembanyama also has an 8 foot wingspan, longer than any active NBA player. Wembanyama’s combination of height and wingspan makes him a dominant presence in the paint as an elite rim-protector. On the other side of the court, this makes him a prime weapon on alley-oops due to an incredible catch radius.
Aside from his one-of-a-kind stature, Wembanyama can do everything on the court. Exceptionally mobile for his size, he possesses straight-line and lateral quickness along with a high level of agility and flexibility for a player of his stature. His impressive movement combined with a silky ball handle allows the French phenom to slither past defenders. Once he gets into the interior, Wembanyama exhibits great control and footwork when working in the post. And while he can evade defenders with crafty finishes at the rim, he is certainly not afraid of generating contact.
When it comes to shooting, Wembanyama has demonstrated a confident ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc. According to Basketball-Reference, he has a 30.3% three-point field goal percentage on about 3.4 attempts per game across his three professional seasons in France. While these numbers are not amazing, the combination of his fluid jumper and world-class NBA trainers ready to get to work with Wembanyama will ensure an improvement in efficiency from beyond the three-point arc once he enters the NBA.
Wembanyama’s plethora of scoring methods forces defenders to pick their poison when guarding him: press up and risk him driving to the basket for an easy finish or back off and let him take an open jumper. Possessing such a commanding presence on offense, defenders tend to double-team him in the paint in an attempt to contain him. This then leaves teammates wide-open for Wembanyama to pass out to for an easy look from the perimeter. With an elite blend of confidence and excellence on both sides of the court along with one-of-a-kind physical attributes, there is no surprise general managers across the NBA are desperate to acquire the first overall pick at the upcoming draft.
An Injury-Riddled Future?
There is really only one thing stopping Wembanyama from relishing an extensive and decorated NBA career: injuries. In his young career, Wembanyama has already faced injury concerns. During the 2021-22 season, he only managed to play in thirty-three of the seventy-six possible games for ASVEL due to two separate fractures and also missed the playoffs with an undisclosed injury.
Historically, many players of Wembanyama’s freakish height have had unfortunate endings to their career due to injury issues. Across the twenty-six players in NBA history who were 7 foot 3 inches or taller, most have experienced underwhelming careers. Below is a data table with their career statistics along with a link to a more detailed version of this table.
*Data is up to date as of of March 8, 2023 Career Statistics of NBA Players 7’3” and Taller
Averages across this group are approximately 330 games played, 3250 points, 2056 rebounds, and 606 blocks during their NBA career. When computing the averages on a per-game basis, the numbers come out to about 6.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks. As any basketball fan will tell you, these numbers are quite underwhelming. To further illustrate the lackluster history of extremely tall NBA players, only nine out of twenty-six players played more than 410 games, which is equivalent to four full NBA seasons, while ten players finished their career having played less than 82 games in the NBA.
Despite the general mediocrity of this group, it is important to note that three of these players were inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Yao Ming, Ralph Sampson, and Arvydas Sabonis. Despite joining the illustrious Hall of Fame, all three players faced injury issues that were at the root of their cause for retirement. Look no further than the infamous career of Yao Ming. Ming played eight years in the NBA and was selected as an All-Star every year. However, in those eight seasons in the NBA, Yao Ming missed a staggering 180 games due to injury. While in the prime of his career, a long series of foot and ankle injuries got the better of him, eventually forcing him to retire at the age of thirty-one. We cannot deny that Yao Ming left an incredible legacy on the NBA, but many fans like myself wonder how much more he could have achieved without his lingering injuries.
At such a tall and skinny frame, the constant physical demand as an NBA player in the modern era makes players like Wembanyama more susceptible to injury because of the immense stress on their lower extremities. This is the main concern scouts hold regarding Wembanyama’s transition into the NBA, which are further fueled by the recent plethora of injuries to players of similar stature despite advanced injury-prevention technology being more accessible than ever. Take the second overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft, Chet Holmgren, for example. Similar to Wembanyama, the 7’1” center out of Gonzaga was a highly-touted prospect that carried some uncertainty due to his skinny frame. Despite an impressive performance in the NBA Summer League, the doubt surrounding Holmgren is still at large after he was ruled out of his entire rookie year with a foot fracture. Realistically, the best way for Wembanyama to avoid a situation similar to Holmgren is to consider putting on some muscle to increase his physical durability in the NBA’s high-demanding environment. As we saw with Giannis Antekounmpo, a change in body composition might be what Wembanyama needs to ensure a long and prolific NBA career because while there is no doubt he has the ability to shine in the NBA, the durability of his body will determine whether he falls to the same fate as his towering predecessors.
Under the NBA’s draft lottery system, the three teams with the worst regular-season record are given a league-high 14% chance of receiving the first overall draft pick. As of March 7, the three teams with the worst record are the Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs. All three outcomes are intriguing in their own way and would have Wembanyama team up with young up-and-coming talents. As a part of the Pistons, Wembanyama would join an exciting core of players that includes 2021 first-overall pick Cade Cunningham and 2022 fifth-overall pick Jaden Ivey. It is important to note Detroit’s history of developing elite centers such as Hall of Famers Ben Wallace, Bill Laimbeer, and Bob Lanier. On the other hand, in Houston, Wembanyama would team up with another exciting young cast consisting of Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Alperen Sengun, and Kevin Porter Jr. Similar to the Pistons, the Rockets have a history of decorated centers that includes the great Hakeem Olajuwon along with aforementioned Yao Ming and Ralph Sampson. Lastly, in San Antonio, Wembanyama would get the chance to play under Greg Poppovich in arguably the most developed lineup out of the three, composed of Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Tre Jones, and Jeremy Sochan. And just like the other two teams, the Spurs are no stranger to dominant centers.
Wherever Wembanyama gets drafted to, the spotlight will follow. Expectations will be at an all-time high with people eager to watch the French sensation fill up the stat sheet as well as critique his every move. However, the 7’4” prodigy is only at the beginning of writing his story, so let’s just sit back and witness greatness in the making.
Sources: Basketball-Reference, Vizzlo