Victor Wembanyama Wants to Take Over the NBA
Boris Diaw was passing through Paris in late September and thought he would check out a basketball game. A young player he had heard about for years was playing.
It was the first home game of the season for the Metropolitans 92, a French league team led by the star teenager Victor Wembanyama. At Marcel-Cerdan Sports Palace in Levallois, near Paris, N.B.A. scouts sat courtside and fans trickled into the stands. A person in a bee costume, the Mets’ mascot, trotted around offering high-fives.
Diaw grew up in Paris and played 14 years in the N.B.A., including more than four seasons in San Antonio with Tony Parker, considered by many to be the best N.B.A. player ever to come out of France. But on that day in September, Diaw felt as though he had never seen so much excitement about a French player, even before scouts and celebrities watched Wembanyama dominate in a Las Vegas showcase, and before the demand to see him grew so overwhelming that the team had to move a game to a larger arena.
The enthusiasm is intense. So is the pressure.
“I mean, it’s tough for him,” Diaw said. “I hope he can actually get away from that and just focus on his career and playing and practicing and having fun, too.”
Wembanyama has been hailed as the most surefire N.B.A. prospect since LeBron James, and he is all but certain to be the No. 1 pick in the draft in June. But the pressure of being the first player chosen in the N.B.A. draft can crush even high school phenoms, big-name college players and international stars. The teams vying for the top pick in Tuesday’s draft lottery have to consider that, too.
But Wembanyama’s history and the way he has handled the past eight months, as the hype around him has intensified, suggest that he thrives under pressure. When the stakes are the highest, that’s when he’s at his best.
“It’s just something that’s inside of me that’s always been there,” Wembanyama said one October evening in Las Vegas, between a set of exhibition games designed as his American introduction. “It could be basketball or just a card game. Under pressure, I’ve been twice as good.”
One lucky N.B.A. team will be banking on that. The Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs had the three worst regular-season records this year, giving each the best possible shot — a 14 percent chance — to win the top pick among 14 lottery teams on Tuesday.
“Ten days before knowing my future team,” Wembanyama wrote in French on Twitter on May 6. “It’s really a crazy thing.”
The draft lottery brings Wembanyama one step closer to the start of an N.B.A. career he has dreamed about since he was 14 — which, to be fair, was only five years ago. At 19, he has already become the N.B.A.’s dream. He could change everything.
For the team that lands the No. 1 pick this year, Wembanyama could be what James was to Cleveland or what Patrick Ewing was to the Knicks. He could lead the franchise to perennial success and raise its value by hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s why the Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta ended a local television interview in February with this gratuitous line: “Pray for Victor.”
‘Expected to be the savior’
In many team sports, one player can’t reroute a wayward franchise. Basketball is different. Think of how James, the first overall pick in 2003, lifted the Cleveland Cavaliers to championship contention from obscurity and how Ewing helped lead the Knicks to 13 consecutive playoff berths, including two trips to the N.B.A. finals. Or how Shaquille O’Neal, selected first in 1992, made the fledgling Orlando Magic a playoff team before he and Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three straight championships.
James has made the All-Star team 19 times, won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award four times and been named the M.V.P. of the N.B.A. finals four times. He won at least one championship with each of the three franchises he’s played for, including the first-ever title for the Cavaliers.
A few years ago, Nike released an ad looking back on James’s career. It began with an 18-year-old James being asked at a news conference how much pressure he felt to perform immediately.
“There’s no pressure,” James said. “There’s no pressure at all. I’ve been getting pressure since I was 10 years old.”
He later added a bit of a caveat: “It hasn’t kicked in yet what I’m getting myself into.”
The weight of carrying a franchise’s hopes can be challenging, especially when it doesn’t work out.
In 2007, when the Portland Trail Blazers had the first pick in the draft, the consensus around the league was that the two best players were center Greg Oden and forward Kevin Durant.
“They even had billboards up around the city,” said Jim Taylor, who was a longtime communications executive for the Trail Blazers. “Honk once for Oden, twice for Durant.”
Portland took Oden at No. 1, and the Seattle SuperSonics drafted Durant second overall. Taylor rode the plane back with Oden, and thinks Oden must not have had any idea what awaited him — an exultant news conference followed by a rally packed with fans.
The Trail Blazers and many of their fans thought Oden’s arrival would mark the start of a dynasty, as he joined Brandon Roy, the 2007 N.B.A. rookie of the year, and LaMarcus Aldridge, who had just made the all-rookie first team. The last time Portland had won a championship, in 1977, the Hall of Famer Bill Walton was the big man who had led them there.
“That’s a lot of pressure; there’s no two ways about it,” Taylor said. “I can’t imagine being that young, having played just one year of college basketball, coming in and being expected to be the savior of the franchise or the new upcoming face of the N.B.A.”
A knee injury sidelined Oden for his first season and later three others. He played his last N.B.A. game in 2014.
There have been more hits than misses at the No. 1 pick — 12 of the past 20 have made All-Star teams — but the expectations for Wembanyama are higher than individual awards.
Wembanyama has long felt destined to do something great.
‘Born for this’
When Wembanyama was 14, he hoped he would not only make it to the N.B.A. but be the top draft pick and lead a team to a championship.
“This is a country of dreams, of the American dream, you know?” said Bouna Ndiaye, Wembanyama’s agent. “‘I’m, the best.’ They all want to be the best. Victor, he has this attitude in him every day, doing his best to be unique, and yeah, that’s very different from the French culture. But I think it just fits where he is going now.”
Wembanyama is 7-foot-3 with an eight-foot wingspan, which would set him up to be a great center. But he also has the agility and shooting touch of a guard. There’s no one else like him, which has escalated the projections of his ceiling almost beyond reason.
But he has spent his life surpassing his and others’ lofty expectations.
“To talk about pressure, I don’t think that that’s an appropriate word for Victor because he, I think he’s born for that,” Ndiaye said. “He’s just naturally born for this kind of situation.”
Examples of this go back to his days playing with the junior team at Nanterre, the club in the Paris suburbs where he played from age 10 to 17.
Frédéric Donnadieu, the president of Nanterre’s club, remembers going to see him play during a postseason tournament in 2018, when Wembanyama was 14. He wanted to answer for himself the question of how Wembanyama performed under pressure. At the time, he said, talking about the N.B.A. was “taboo.”
“There is a lot of pressure for young kids,” Donnadieu said in French, noting that the gym was filled with fans and other French professional clubs that day. “For the kids, some of them break down sometimes. And that’s why that year, we lost zero games that year because Victor, and the others, had big mental strength and they were frankly impressive.”
Donnadieu saw that mental fortitude again and again from Wembanyama, even more so when he started playing professionally for Nanterre at 16. At 17, Wembanyama was named the best blocker and best young player in the league, Donnadieu said.
Wembanyama’s affinity for pressure-filled moments has shown throughout this season with Metropolitans 92.
In October, in a two-game exhibition in Las Vegas that was nationally televised in the United States, Wembanyama faced the N.B.A.’s G League Ignite team featuring guard Scoot Henderson, who is expected to be the second pick in the draft.
With scouts from every N.B.A. team there, Wembanyama put on a show in the first game, scoring 37 points with seven 3-pointers and five blocked shots. But the Ignite won, and Wembanyama said he barely noticed the N.B.A. players sitting courtside to watch him because he was too upset about the loss.
He was asked about shooting so many 3s.
“At some point it was just about taking over because my team definitely needed players to step up,” he said, adding, “Three is more than two, so this time you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Two days later the teams met again. This time, Wembanyama had 36 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks. Metropolitans 92 won, 112-106.
‘He has his own agenda’
This season, the Metropolitans 92 have had dual goals. They want to win games, but they also want to develop Wembanyama into a player who can be a dominant force for years to come.
“I think what’s most important is what we do with the human being to make him grow and to keep him as a learner,” Vincent Collet, who coaches the Metropolitans 92 and the French national team, said in September. “Whatever we do this season, the process won’t be finished when we start next season in the N.B.A. He will be a rookie. Talented rookie, but still a rookie. He will have to learn many things.”
Team officials hoped to help Wembanyama strengthen his body, so he could handle the physicality and length of an N.B.A. season, without risking injury.
Ndiaye, Wembanyama’s agent, meets with the Metropolitans 92 every few weeks to discuss his progress.
“The good thing is every game we are seeing something different,” Ndiaye said last week. He continued: “He is now much stronger. Early in the season when he was driving, you know, sometimes he was falling because of physical defenders, but now he doesn’t move.”
Wembanyama is thinking about both his future and his present. He asks the people managing his schedule not to overload it so he can focus on his team’s games. He keeps telling people he thinks the Mets, who are second in their league, can win the championship. If they do, the championship round would end just a few days before the N.B.A. draft.
In the months since his season began, Wembanyama’s fame has grown. But what hasn’t changed is the way he tries to keep himself grounded. He can often be spotted with a book in his hand, whether he’s boarding a team bus or meeting people after a game.
He still enjoys doing things that allow him to reset so that his goals can’t overwhelm him.
“Victor is living his life,” Ndiaye said with a laugh. “After 9 p.m., you cannot reach him. He’s drawing, reading, listening to music, classical music, he has his own agenda.”
Next on his agenda: reaching his wildest dreams.
Léontine Gallois contributed reporting.
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