December 5, 2022

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Is the NBA ready for Victor Wimpanyama?

Is the NBA ready for Victor Wimpanyama?

Victor Wimpanyama is the best player in the NBA since LeBron James. He stands at 7ft 4ft and doesn’t even need to leave his feet to change shots because he can extend his 8ft wingspan to keep jumpers away or push the ball away from potential attackers. With his size and locking mentality, at just 18 years old, he can deter players from even attacking paint. Wimpy’s length also gives him an unlockable jump shot; He made seven three-pointers when he scored 37 points against the G League Ignite on Tuesday, most of which came out of the action, like transition sprints, pop pickups, and strides. At his second show in Las Vegas on Thursday, he played a more complete brand of basketball, losing 36 points with the majority of his damage going inside the arc while driving, after fading, blocks and sticker cover.

We’ve never seen a player like Wimpy before. He looks like Kevin Durant who crossed paths with Rudy Gobert, making him General Z Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Ralph Samson who grew up on YouTube videos. Although it all seems hyperbolic, executives across the league are already in agreement that Wimpanyama has Hall of Fame potential with the upside to being one of the greatest players of all time.

Wembanyama is the first to admit that it’s too early to wipe it off as anything, but the Vegas show was staged in large part to showcase his talents on the world stage. Wimpey flew from France with the Metropolitan 92 for two exhibition matches against Ignite, led by a potential second pick in the 2023 draft (spoiler alert: we know who would go #1), Scott Henderson, electric guard in shadows for Allen Iverson and Russell Westbrook. Henderson shone himself in Vegas, despite a knee injury that sidelined him five minutes into Game Two on Thursday. Wembanyama has generally captured the spotlight. Scouts and executives from across the league dip into the pre-season schedule to watch the games. I sat in two rows of court and it didn’t take long for Wimpanyama to make it clear that he was the best in the 2023 class, and the best prospect I discovered in 11 years covering the draft.

“He’s not a franchise-changing talent. He’s a league-changing talent,” an NBA executive told me this week. Wimpey’s impact on the league was already being felt a full year before he entered. Losing teams are on the verge of collapse. Difficult this chapter. Play-in or bubble-playing bubble teams will drop games late in the year to sneak into the lottery. Teams will race to the bottom harder than ever before. All for a chance to pick one of the greatest prospects the league has ever seen.

“The meaning behind the word tanks is kind of weird,” Wimpanyama said on Wednesday. “I never want to lose. It’s a personal thing. But I’m really trying to stay out of it. Either way, it’s going to affect where I end up. All I can do for myself is focus on working on myself.”

While Wimpanyama’s physical talents are enough to hold your breath, the unseen hours the teen spent at his game are also evident. Over the past year, his jump shot has developed rapidly. He’s wrestled with bouts of squiggly streaks and hit 31 percent of 3 and 68.5 percent of the streak in recent seasons overseas. But in Vegas he looked more consistent and more comfortable experiencing the kind of complex shots and movements you normally see from a goalkeeper or winger.

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On Thursday, in one mind-boggling sequence, Wimpey took one dribble into the corner, planted his feet without traveling, and balanced himself in midair to launch 3 pointers over defense:

Most executives across the league are confident in Wembanyama’s ability to become a reliable shooter due to his rate of progress and the work ethic he has shown thus far. This year, he spent time working with Dirk Nowitzki’s longtime shooting coach, Holger Geschwindner. With a good touch around the edge and a willingness to learn, you can reasonably expect him to become more proficient. It’s only a matter of whether he shoots as well as Kristaps Porzingis (35.3 percent) or as crisp as Karl-Anthony Towns (39.7 percent).

“Victor would be unguardable if he beat the basketball players,” said an NBA general manager. If he hits shots consistently, teams will have to respect him on the outside, which will only open up driving lanes for draws, play-making opportunities, and finishes inside the paint.

Wimpy’s head coach, Vincent Colette, gives his young star the freedom to take the ball out on the court and create an attack for himself, a skill that could one day separate him from adults who finish plays, and allow him to become someone who generates buckets. For everyone.

“I’ve never seen a prospect with so many tools and skills. That’s why when you’re a coach you always limit something. But you adapt to the player’s potential,” said Collette. “You can still give him freedom and I think that’s better. If he makes the choices himself he will be more responsible. This is a way to get better.”

Although he missed a few contested attempts near the basket against Ignite, that was largely due to his inability to grow (left) rather than his inability to handle contact. Even while warming up before matches, he would practice lopsided shots around the edge, twisting his body and taking off angles he might encounter during a match. And sometimes, he’ll use that flexibility in a game to catch a body.

Wimpanyama says he’s been playing all over the field since he was a little kid, shooting 3s and catching the ball. Born in 2004, he grew up watching the basketball style we see today through spacing, movement, and free-flowing. At home, he was raised by athletes. His 6-foot-3 mom Elodie played basketball, just as her parents did. His dad, Felix, who is 6-foot-6, was a long jumper. His siblings also play basketball. NBA teams view his family as a powerful support system that will help him adjust to life in the NBA – and the inevitable fame that comes with it.

“He’s definitely a talent for generations,” LeBron said Wednesday after the Lakers played for the Sun in Vegas. “Everyone has been a unicorn for the past few years but it is more like an alien. No one has ever seen a person as tall as him but as resilient and graceful as him on Earth.”

Wembanyama had a muted reaction to LeBron’s praise. He said a good number of friends and family texted him about it and his reaction was just, “It’s cool.” There is maturity in the way the French superstar thinks and deals with basketball and life. Talk about how he invests time in being alone, and explore his ideas to figure out how to become a better person and player. One of his agents told me that Wimpanyama acts as if he is in his thirties. An executive who attended the games this week said they expect Wimpanyama to be the kind of maintenance-free superstar that promotes culture.

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Sometimes people can all talk, without work. But I was sitting near the Wimpanyama bench and he was actively talking at rallies during the breaks. On the field, he would scream and pump his fists as his teammates shot.

Near the end of Tuesday’s game, goalkeeper Tremont Waters threw in a poor pass for a careless spin. Wimpy looked straight at him and clapped as he shook his head. He then followed that up with a slug shot, a rifling, and a 3-clutch to keep the Metropolitan within easy reach of the Ignite. Many players, no matter their age, will become frustrated with their teammates or let the moment negatively affect their play.

“It’s normal. I just want to do better for my teammates,” Wimpanyama said after the match. “I would never yell at a teammate if he tried and made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes.”

Wimpanyama makes for himself. Colette would like to see him sharpen his decision on attack, knowing when to shoot and when to turn into a playmaker. And while Wimpey is a good passer, he’s definitely a top player at this point. In defense, he will sometimes be out of position when defending triage actions. But at his size, he can take one step further and be in a position to enjoy his mind.

The Wembanyama plays a lot on the ocean, but even with its slender 220-pound frame, it comes out for rebounds and contact sucking in paint. It’s impressive that Wimpanyama was able to excel at carrying a heavy offensive load in Vegas while engaging in so many defensive actions, especially considering he was playing 48-minute matches for the first time.

Even when he was tired, his defensive strength did not waver, and his communication did not break. He remained active at all times, and was rotating to change shots indoors. On multiple occasions on Tuesday, he blocked jumpers and forced Ignite to make tricky passes around the basket. At one point, Henderson tried to dunk him but was vehemently refused. Ignite players won’t be testing it until Thursday.

There have been plenty of great prospects in the NBA since LeBron entered the league in 2003, but none of them had ever made a comeback at Wimpanyama. Wimpey posed for pictures next to his French teammate, Rudy Gobert, after the match, while he was towering on him. Wembanyama was recently measured at 224 cm (7 ft – 4 variable), according to a source, who also added, “It’s possible that he’s grown a little more in the past few days after I saw him near Rudy.”

Only health can take Wimpanyama out of a dominant career. He already has a troubling injury history, including a fibula stress fracture, a scapula contusion and a problem affecting the psoas muscle in his back. There were whispers on Tuesday night that he might shut things down before the 2023 draft after a week that caught him in Vegas. But on Wednesday, Wimpanyama’s agent, Bona Ndiaye, told ESPN that’s not going to happen.

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“People in the NBA are asking me to shut him down, and we won’t shut him down,” Ndiaye said. “He wants to compete and get better. With Victor, it’s basketball first and everything else second.”

I asked a few executives about the risk Wimpanyama is taking. If he is injured, he will still not. 1 pick? Is Henderson, or any of the other possibilities in the draft, really big enough to get past him? All of them still believed Wimpanyama would go first, provided he was able to play shortly after he was drafted. Most recently, Joel Embiid finished third in 2014, although teams know he may be wasting time due to back and foot issues. He missed two full seasons before making his debut.

Teams wonder what Wimpanyama really is as a shooter, and would love to see him in a big way. Durability is also a concern given his injury history and the relatively short list of players of his size who have struggled with their long and healthy careers.

There have been 26 players in NBA history listed at 7-foot-3 or taller. Only seven have careers worth noting: Yao Ming, Ralph Sampson, Arvidas Sabonis, Zedronas Ilguskas, Rick Smits, Mark Eaton, and Christaps Porsengis. Of that list, only Smits and Eaton have long missed out. But neither of them faced the demands on both ends of the word that the others, or that Wimpanyama would make it to the NBA. The nature of the game today amplifies the pressure on Wimpanyama, given the senior player’s obligations to run the perimeter, defend every corner of the field, and handle the ball from outside.

The teams don’t think Wembanyama’s stock will realistically fall, nor can it rise any further. Some question whether it is in his best interest to focus entirely on training his body rather than playing basketball. But he is talking to who Wembanyana is that he wants to play. Live and breathe basketball. He wants to compete. he wants win over.

“He has a real determination to get better, so I expect that in a few months he will be better than he already is,” said Collette, unable to hide his smile. “Individually, his ability, the sky is the limit.”

There are a lot of teams entering the season looking to lose and increase their chances of relegation at Wimpanyama. Others could join the fray as the season goes on and the hype grows at Wemby. Many fans think losing is better than winning this season. Wembanyama still has room for improvement, but it’s as likely as Shaquille O’Neal or Tim Duncan – they just don’t come in very often. Having him on your team can ensure contention for years to come. One year of losing is a small price to pay for a player who could compete at a high level two decades from now, just as LeBron does.

A tall teenager in France is still just beginning to write his story. This week in Las Vegas, a star was born.