You don’t get far into scouting reports on presumptive No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama before you come across the word “unique.”
A frighteningly agile 7’4″ shot-maker who dominates the game defensively and can play on or off the ball in attack defies the 19-year-old comparison.
There is no template for Wembanyama. No obvious historical precursor. He is a basketball player developed.
We’ve seen many of his skills and attributes before – just not all in one package. They were spread out one at a time among several past and present greats. The Frenchman combines them, which is where his one-on-one status comes from.
Here we will try to capture the way Wembanyama, a player who might as well be from the future, draws from the past and the present. In other words, we will draw up a series of comparisons for a player who is, by definition, incomparable.
You knew a Kevin Durant comparison was coming, so let’s get that out of the way first.
Even the most skilled, extremely tall ball handlers have a sense of vulnerability. Their dribbles travel too high. Their control over the cliff loosens outside of a straight line. They are limited when they are pushed out of transition or when their first step is cut off. They have to throw their weight around when working in confined spaces.
Like Durant, Wembanyama is more of a tactician. He may have the same stride as Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the surgical probes, controlled footwork and crafty angles are KD-esque.
That directional command sets Wembanyama apart more than anything else. He can cross defenders in ultra-long pull-up and sidestep jerseys without the greatest flexibility and use his handle to turn corners, navigate lane congestion and crowd opponents with spins and hesitations.
Peak Durant probably had a faster first step. This is where Wemby’s step comes into play. He covers so much ground in such a short amount of time, even at slower cadences, that everything he does on-ball feels like it’s happening at warp speed.
— Dan Favale
Wembanyama’s 7’4” stature and nearly 8-foot wingspan allow for flat-footed blocks.
Mark Eaton was also 7’4″, and he had plenty of them, sometimes putting shots to the board without leaving the floor. Although Eaton led the league in hits four times and finished his career averaging 3.5 per game , ranking first in NBA history, Wembanyama is (check math) about a million times more mobile than the late Utah Jazz big man. Ditto for 7’7″ Manute Bol, second all-time with 3, 3 blocks per match.
Ralph Sampson, also 7’4″, is the best comparison among ultra-tall centers, but even he never moved with Wembanyama’s speed and quickness.
David Robinson, maybe most gifted big man athlete of his era, comes closest.
The admiral quickly blazed into the open floor, producing breathtaking pursuit blocks. He could cover the ground between the elbow and the basket in an instant, explode laterally to close the gap and then vertically to obliterate layup attempts that seemed uncontested a split second earlier.
Ironically, the best way to attack Robinson was probably to go straight at him. He wasn’t quite as athletically overwhelming from two meters from a standstill. That won’t work against Wembanyama, who is three inches taller than Robinson and has the vertical reach to obliterate the basket simply by standing upright with his hands up. Think of a taller Rudy Gobert in that regard.
Just to recap, we landed on Robinson as the official “mobile shot-blocking” comp, but still needed two other multi-time DPOY centers to paint the full picture. And we probably could have called on Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Dwight Howard for completeness.
We’re off to a roaring start.
Most of Wembanyama’s defensive fanfare is dedicated to his omnipresence as a roving shot-broker, but there is a distinct “everywhere, anywhere, all at once, relentless” to how he guards overall.
It’s almost Anthony Davis-ian.
Today’s AD will never spend as much time as today’s Wemby just helping from the corner. He is too involved in everything.
Guarding both ends of the pick-and-roll, on the same possession, is second nature to him. His recovery processing speed switches seamlessly from outside to inside and inside out. And he can just defend in space, against everyone from smaller guards to playmaking wings—not just as a last resort or part of a switch scheme, but directly, intentionally, at the point of attack.
Although Wembanyama does not have the same explosion in all directions, he is coordinated, infinitely long and quick enough to operate on a swivel. He can run out of the paint to compete with jumpers and capture primary ball handlers with elite pressure on the break. There will be half-court possessions, perhaps routinely, where he defends or assists against three-plus players.
Surrounding staff will help determine Wembanyama’s utility at the less glamorous end. San Antonio may decide to deploy him heavily, if not exclusively, below the free throw line. But he is capable of much more – now and certainly later.
Wembanyama joins the rest of humanity in falling short of Kevin Durant’s overall smoothness, so we need another lanky perimeter shot maker for this comparison.
Critics may note that Jayson Tatum is a little too reliant on jumpers, but his ability to shed defenders and create space to look off the dribble beyond the arc is part of what makes him one of the league’s most efficient goal scorers.
Wembanyama already has more in his side-step and step-back bag than Tatum did when he entered the league in 2017. The extra eight inches of height could ultimately make Wemby even harder to guard in space than the Boston Celtics’ three-time All-NBA superstar.
Tatum has developed incredible footwork on these shots, and he marries that with hesitation moves that throw defenders off. He can sidestep right or left while maintaining balance and leg drive, creating air space to rise where there was none.
Wembanyama isn’t nearly as polished as Tatum, but he doesn’t need to be. His rawer sidesteps and backsteps are already just as dangerous because the bigs who are supposed to guard him aren’t as equipped to dance on the edge as the guys who check Tatum.
Even a still-developing step-back three from a 7’4″ center is unfair on multiple levels, but Wembanyama already has that in his game. If he hones those shots and the ball-handling that precedes them like Tatum did, yes … good luck to whoever is tasked with guarding him.
Plus, there’s always the “tip-dunk your misses” option if the step-back learning curve is steep.
Between his length and size, Wembanyama makes finishing look effortless. He can find the cup, on the move, over defenders in displays of finesse. But he also packs in plenty of power.
Physical alley-oop endings are standard fare. And he’s so tall and long that some of his most aggressive poster dunks won’t actually be dunks. They will be extended throwdown layups:
Wembanyama is also no stranger to absurd put-backs. He can fly in for fierce friendly fire finishes. He’ll even hotfoot his way to the hoop and clean up his own misses — bungled step-back three-pointers included:
Kristaps Porziņģis can do many of these things (despite the offensive-rebound-from-his-own-missed-step-three-back). The subtleties in particular are staggering. Neither Wemby nor KP need to finish with force. They can drop in elaborate buckets from distances and angles inaccessible to most others.
Perhaps most alike, both can look like they’re playing below the rim, even when they’re not. Porziņģis has the more explosive vertical, but the range he and Wembanyama have can simplify what is actually complicated.
Just because it looks like theirs toes graze the hardwood when they get up for a slap, it doesn’t mean that what they’re doing isn’t ridiculously hard or blatantly explosive.
For five straight seasons, Giannis Antetokounmpo has led the NBA in transition points per game. match. An elite defensive rebounder with blistering open floor speed and impossibly long strides, he has weaponized the “grab and go” to a more lethal extent than anyone else.
Antetokounmpo turns opposing coaches into general contractors obsessed with building walls to prevent access to the rim.
Wembanyama can do the same.
Before Antetokounmpo, it would have seemed strange to see a player steal the ball at the opposing free throw line, take three dribbles and dunk. Wembanyama hasn’t mastered Giannis’ art of dribbling minimalism, but he may already have more shakiness in the open floor, and he’s one of the few people on the planet with the length to stretch to the basket from even farther away than the two – time MVP.
The scariest aspect of Wembanyama’s grab-and-go game is that walls can ultimately be useless. Unlike Antetokounmpo, who typically has to get all the way to the bucket to score effectively, the teenager’s full-court push can culminate in him picking a mismatch in space and drilling a jumper.
Antetokounmpo is the most potent transition player in the league, but even he can’t do this:
Passing has been cited as a potential area of development for Wembanyama. He can get tunnel vision on drives and be baited into bad passes at the last second, not unlike an early career Giannis Antetokounmpo. But in his finest moments, the Frenchman’s vision, IQ and even craft are overwhelming.
Setting others up while going downhill should be his bread and butter. The attention he attracts is unfathomable, and those around him will enjoy wide-open jumpers and duck-ins from his kick-outs and dump-offs, respectively.
Still, when you watch Wembanyama long enough, you can see what he does is a few notches above reactive. He can throw less obvious passes across the pitch and over the top of defenders others wouldn’t dare try. He can dime up cutters after leaving his feet. He can throw perfectly placed entry passes, high to low, thanks to his towering line of sight. He can dish out assists from deep in the paint, sometimes under the basket, through traffic.
There is also an eerie connection to Wemby’s game. Passing can be the direct result of prolonged work – of his breaking down defenses, grinding coverage into a fine powder. But he is at home and serves as an intermediary. His decisions on the catch are quick. He will drop dimes without ever dribbling or taking advantage of double teams wow over the free throw line.
This blend of methodical creation and conjunctive orchestration is rare. I’m not sure there is an ideal analog to his game. The most current version by Devin Booker feels most correct, if only as a nod to how many different forms Wembanyama’s facilitation can take.