The 7-foot-5 French sensation went No. 1 in the draft and could make more than $12 million next season — excluding endorsements. Not bad for a 19 year old.
IIt was just a formality when Victor Wembanyama crossed the stage at the Barclays Center on Thursday night, wearing a San Antonio Spurs hat and posing for pictures with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. The 7-foot-5-inch French phenom had long been projected to go No. 1 in the 2023 NBA Draft, regardless of which team won the lottery. And so for 19-year-old Wembanyama, the hype has now officially paid off. His pick at the top of the draft should also guarantee him more than $50 million in salary over his first four seasons.
“This is to achieve something that I’ve dreamed about my whole life,” Wembanyama told ESPN after the selection was made. “When I heard that sentence from Adam Silver, I’ve been dreaming about it so much now. I have to cry.” And then he did.
And if Wembanyama can actually live up to his far-over-the-edge expectations — he’s widely considered a “generational talent” and often compared to LeBron James, who entered the league straight out of high school — that money could look like a steal.
“Put it this way, if he doesn’t get hurt, he’s going to be great,” said Torrel Harris, CEO of Unique Sports Management International, which represents his son Tobias Harris as well as Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kevin Obanor, a draft hopeful from Texas Tech. “He can shoot, he can block shots, he can hammer the ball. He has the whole package.”
Based on the NBA’s rookie salary scale, Wembanyama’s contract could be worth as much as $12.2 million in his first season. While the cap space for the first overall pick is projected to be just over $10 million this year, teams are allowed to exceed it — or come in just under it — by as much as 20%. The last two top picks – Paolo Banchero (who came out of Duke and plays for the Orlando Magic) and Cade Cunningham (an Oklahoma State point guard who now plays for the Detroit Pistons) – both got maximum value on their rookie season salaries. (Banchero earned $11.6 million as a rookie last season, the first of a four-year contract worth just over $50 million including options. Cunningham signed a rookie pact worth $10 million in 2021, which could max out at just over $45 million over four years.)
In total, Wembanyama’s on-court earnings could be as high as $55.2 million through the first four seasons of his NBA career, based on current salary cap projections. Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, the first two years are guaranteed, while teams are then awarded consecutive options for Years 3 and 4. Salaries increase incrementally through rookie agreements.
However, each slot in the first round has a decreasing value. The contracts for the second and third overall picks, if maxed out, have projected values of $49.4 million and $44.4 million over four seasons.
The NBA first instituted a predetermined salary structure for rookies back in 1995, a year after No. 1 pick Glenn Robinson signed a ten-year, $68 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks out of Purdue, where he was the Big Ten Player of the Year. and the NCAA scoring leader during his senior year. At the time, agents could negotiate any sum for incoming players. Those 1995-96 guidelines required the top pick, Maryland’s Joe Smith, must be paid just over DKK 2 million in his first season according to RealGM.
Today, changes to the rookie scale run parallel to the salary cap. The numbers for this year’s draft class reflect an expected increase of approx. 10% cap hit from $123.65 million in 2022 to $136 million this year.
The NFL similarly caps rookie salaries, a practice it started in 2011. A year earlier, the Rams (then based in St. Louis) had signed Sam Bradford to a six-year, $78 million contract, with $50 million guaranteed. This year’s top NFL pick, Bryce Young, doesn’t come close to that amount — or Wembanyama, for that matter. Spotrac projects the total value of Young’s contract to about $38 million over four years.
And Wembanyama’s upside extends far beyond his rookie contract – he’s also a marketing dream. Before playing a single game in the NBA, he is already a Nike athlete, thanks to a multi-year deal he signed during his French pro-league career. Brands are apparently eager to get involved. In February, his agent, Bouna Ndiaye, told ESPN that Wembanyama is already “turning down some rich, million-dollar deals right now because he wants to focus on basketball.”
There is plenty of precedent for global basketball stars to experience marketing success. Both Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 28-year-old “Greek Freak” from Athens, and Luka Doncic, from Slovenia, appeared on Forbes‘ annual list of the world’s highest-paid athletes in May, with off-field earnings of $45 million and $10 million, respectively. Wembanyama could match those numbers and maybe even surpass them if he lives up to the hoops dreamer’s expectations.
“He’ll be a guy in a lot of commercials and everything,” Harris says. “The dollar amount is unlimited for him.”
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