Victor Wembanyama’s NBA story is now underway. The NBA draft — one over which Wembanyama’s towering shadow has hung for months, blocking much of what is normally part of the process — is Thursday night, and he will be selected No. 1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs.
“Ever since I knew about the draft, exactly how it worked, I wanted to be the first,” Wembanyama said on Wednesday. “I think I started to realize that I could be a professional basketball player at the age of 12. Tomorrow something will happen, something I’ve been thinking about. [about] For years, I can’t really describe how I feel right now. I just know I’m definitely going to have trouble sleeping tonight.”
There has been no debate about who the Spurs should take with the No. 1 pick, no discussion of which player might be a better fit, no real attempt to raise any red flags about the supposed selection.
When a player like Wembanyama emerges – and perhaps no one ever has – there’s no real reason to drum up any drama. Spurs won’t miss out on someone who is listed at 7ft 4in but has the skills of a much smaller player.
The decision is certain but not official until commissioner Adam Silver says Wembanyama’s name on Thursday evening. And Wembanyama playfully corrected a reporter in New York who welcomed him to San Antonio.
“Not there yet,” said Wembanyama. “But thank you.”
The 19-year-old from France has been called the best prospect since LeBron James came out of high school 20 years ago, perhaps with some physical gifts that even the NBA’s career scoring leader didn’t possess.
The expectations from the outside world are sky high. Wembanyama insists it won’t bother him.
“I don’t let all these things enter my head,” Wembanyama said. “I have such high expectations of myself that I am immune to all this. I really don’t care.”
He arrived in the New York area on Monday, surprised to find some fans waiting for him when he landed at Newark Airport. Tuesday was his first metro ride – and a trip to Yankee Stadium to throw out the ceremonial first pitch (it was well out of the strike zone). And on Wednesday morning, before his NBA duties began, he had a weightlifting workout with a trainer.
He has been a big kid in an adult world. He signs autographs with a smile, makes fun of himself, does not mind that everyone tends to stare at someone of his height.
“Crazy,” he said of the first subway ride, with New Yorkers all around him.
Silver will call his name Thursday night, shake his hand, and before too long, Wembanyama will be on a plane to San Antonio to start the first chapter of his NBA life. Wembanyama said he will play in the Summer League starting in early July, although it remains unclear whether he will participate with the Spurs in the Sacramento summer league, the main NBA Summer League in Las Vegas or both.
“Wembanyama is built for the modern game,” said analyst Jay Bilas, who has been part of ESPN’s coverage of every draft since James peaked in 2003. “We’ve never seen anything like him on a basketball floor.”
The modern NBA game requires big men to be comfortable playing away from the basket, able to handle the ball and defend opponents at the rim. It’s a league where 7-footer Nikola Jokić just guided the Denver Nuggets to their first championship by becoming the first player to lead the season in total points, rebounds and assists, where first-team All-Defense centers Jaren Jackson Jr and Brook Lopez blocks shots on one end and shoots three-pointers on the other.
Wembanyama can apparently do it all. He was MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the French League and led the league in scoring, rebounds and blocks. The almost unbelievable highlights of some of those plays, a slap or a shot when he seemed too far away to make it even with his enormous wingspan, had basketball fans and even future opponents on both sides of the Atlantic buzzing all season long .
He will go to a San Antonio team that won five titles after selecting Tim Duncan, the last time they had the No. 1 pick in 1997. Duncan is a Hall of Famer and one of the best power forwards in NBA history, and perhaps it is too much to ask Wembanyama to become completely like this.
But he is the best of the bunch this year and maybe the last 20 years.
“I try to be the best,” Wembanyama said. “Being the best, it’s not just on the court. There are whole dimensions to the job of a basketball player, an NBA player. I also want to be the best for the media, the press conference, all this. I don’t like to do things halfway .”
Charlotte is expected to decide between Alabama forward Brandon Miller and G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson at No. 2, with Portland perhaps taking the other at No. 3. The Rockets and Pistons round out the top five.
These teams have been recent regulars near the top of the draft and should add another good young player to new coaches Ime Udoka in Houston and Monty Williams in Detroit. But those clubs shared the best odds with the Spurs to win the No. 1 pick in last month’s draft lottery, so there was disappointment to wipe away before thinking ahead.
That’s because while every draft has great players, very few will ever offer the chance to draft someone like Wembanyama.
“Everybody’s been a unicorn over the last couple of years, but he’s more like an alien,” James said last fall. “No one has ever seen someone as tall as he is, but as fluid and as graceful as he is out on the floor.”
James will get an overview of the upcoming season when his Lakers play the Spurs. So will the rest of the league. Wembanyama’s time starts now and he sounds as ready as can be.
“I just feel really, really lucky to be able to just live this life,” Wembanyama said. “I’m just so lucky.”