NEW YORK (AP) – Victor Wembanyama was the presumed No. 1 pick for months, the rare safety in an NBA draft process that is often a guessing game.
But as the clock above the stage he faced ticked all the way down to zero, butterflies set in.
“The longest five minutes of my life,” Wembanyama said.
The San Antonio Spurs are convinced he will be worth the wait.
The Spurs took the 19-year-old from France, who arrives with huge expectations to become basketball’s newest sensation on Thursday night, prompting chants of “Wemby! Wemby” from a group of Spurs fans who waved signs from the front row of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Wembanyama comes with far more height and hype than most No. 1 picks. Listed at 7-foot-4, he dominated his French league in his final season there, leading all players in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots.
Now he’s moving to the NBA, perhaps as the best prospect since LeBron James came out of high school in 2003. Wembanyama brings a package of skills that seems perfect for the modern NBA and too extensive for one player, with the size of a center and a guard’s shooting and ball handling ability.
He wept as he left the stage wearing his Spurs cap and hugged his siblings, joking afterwards about how quickly he was handed a white-and-black No.1 jersey with his name already on the back.
“Somebody knew this was happening somehow,” he said.
Almost everyone did.
Wembanyama was the center of attention throughout the draft process, sitting in the middle of the green room – for the short time he was there, anyway. He smiled at young fans who screamed “Victor!” as he walked around the arena, even encouraging someone to throw him a basketball, which he signed and tossed back into the stands.
The Charlotte Hornets selected Alabama freshman Brandon Miller with the No. 2 pick.
Scoot Henderson of the G League Ignite, whose bling-laden jacket contrasted sharply with Wembanyama’s solid green look, was No. 3 of the Portland Trail Blazers.
It was during a two-game series between teams with Wembanyama and Henderson last October in Las Vegas that Wembanyama solidified himself as the main man in this draft, scoring 37 and 36 points in front of scouts and some future opponents. His highlightssuch as a follow-up dunk of his own missed 3-pointer, became must-see content for basketball fans during the past season.
Wembanyama is the Spurs’ third No. 1 pick and first since Tim Duncan in 1997, leading to a stretch of five NBA championships through 2014 before struggling in recent seasons.
He became the first international player to be drafted No. 1 without playing college basketball since Andrea Bargnani in 2006, ending a 13-year streak in which a college freshman went first. Blake Griffin, a sophomore in 2010, was the last No. 1 pick who wasn’t a one-and-done.
Henderson was initially considered the likely No. 2 pick before Miller passed him after his outstanding season for the Crimson Tide. But the 19-year-old believes that the two years he played in the NBA’s minor league has him more ready for NBA success.
“I am the most prepared player in the draft. That’s what I’m saying,” Henderson said. “Going there for two years just taught me so much. Also on the field, but many things off the field.”
Draft history was made with picks No. 4 and 5. Overtime Elite twins Amen and Ausar Thompson became the first brothers to be selected in the top 10 in the same draft, with Amen going to the Houston Rockets and Ausar following to the Detroit Pistons.
“Means a lot to my family,” Amen Thompson said. “We would be happy with whoever went first. For us to go back-to-back, to be the first twins to go back-to-back in the top five means a lot.”
Anthony Black of Arkansas was taken sixth by Orlando, ending a run of three straight players who hadn’t gone to college. But then it was straight back to the international ranks when Indiana selected Bilal Coulibaly, Wembanyama’s teammate with Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92, whose stock soared in the post-season when the team reached the final of the Pro A League.
The Pacers dealt Coulibaly’s rights to Washington for Houston forward Jarace Walker, who was taken No. 8.
Picks No. 10 and 12 were also traded, with the Dallas Mavericks taking Kentucky guard Cason Wallace and relinquishing his rights to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had taken Duke big man Dereck Lively II.
Kansas’ Gradey Dick, whose dazzling red jacket resembled Dorothy’s shoes from “The Wizard of Oz,” went to Toronto with the No. 13 pick before Jordan Hawkins of national champion UConn was taken by New Orleans to end the lottery.
There were few trades in the first round, with the Utah Jazz making all three of their picks. They took Taylor Hendricks of UCF at No. 9, Baylor’s Keyonte George at No. 16 and Brice Sensabaugh of Ohio State at No. 28.
The first-round surprise was Villanova forward Cam Whitmore, projected to be a top-10 pick, falling to the Rockets at No. 20. Nick Smith Jr. from Arkansas went to Charlotte at No. 27 after being considered a lottery pick.
The Miami Heat, who lost in the NBA Finals, took UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. as No. 18.
Notable names in the second round included UCLA’s Amari Bailey to Charlotte at No. 41, Eastern Michigan’s Emoni Bates to Cleveland at No. 49 and Isaiah Wong from Miami to Indiana at No. 55.
The draft was shortened to 58 picks because Chicago and Philadelphia forfeited second-round picks for violating league rules with the timing of their free agent discussions.
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