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NBA

Who is Victor Wembanyama, expected No. 1 pick in 2023 NBA Draft?

Following the 2022 NBA Draft, attentions are turning to next year - and Wembanyama, a prospect boasting “impossible” attributes, looks set to be picked first overall.

Update:
Following the 2022 NBA Draft, attentions are turning to next year - and Wembanyama, a prospect boasting “impossible” attributes, looks set to be picked first overall.
DANI SANCHEZDiarioAS

Everyone’s talking about Chet Holmgren. Everyone wants to know what’s going to become of the Oklahoma City Thunder recruit, a prospect labelled the ultimate unicorn, in the NBA. A tall, spindly player who has the ball handling of a point guard, shoots like a small forward and intimidates like a center, with those long, long arms. A total basketball player who may well be made for the NBA of today, in which positions are fluid and the game is all about movement, versatility and the perimeter. But, of course, with such a skinny frame that weighs so little, nobody can be sure he’ll be able to withstand the rough and tumble of the professional game. Or the pace of a gruelling NBA season. The Thunder selected him at No. 2 in the Draft. He has the potential to be a generational star worthy of the No. 1 pick. He also has the potential to be such a failure that it doesn’t bear thinking about.

But even with Holmgren yet to make his NBA debut, an even more exciting unicorn is homing into view. An upgrade to a prototype that hasn’t even been tested yet. While Holmgren is 7ft tall, has a wingspan of 7ft 6in and weighs just 195lbs, Frenchman Victor Wembanyama is 7ft 2in, has a 7ft 8in wingspan and weighs 229lbs. Barring any hugely (and I mean hugely) unexpected plot twists in the coming months, he’ll be the No. 1 pick in the 2023 Draft. And not just any old No. 1 pick. No: this is the kind of player who makes teams lose their minds, who leads to tanking at indecent levels.

“I thought I was tall...”

As Holmgren put it: “I thought I was tall, I thought I had long arms, but he takes it to a whole other level.” The American is 20 right now; Wembanyama, 18. On 11 July 2021, when the former was 19 and the latter was 17, they had just contested the final of the U-19 World Cup in Riga. The US won by the skin of their teeth - 83-81 - to finish the tournament unbeaten. Holmgren was tournament MVP, having averaged 11.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.7 blocks and a player rating of 19.3 in just 21.4 minutes per game. It was a tremendous Team USA: in addition to Holmgren, they had the likes of Jaden Ivey (5th overall pick in this year’s Draft), Johnny Davis (10th pick) and Patrick Baldwin Jr, selected at 28 by the NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors.

But it was also a Team USA that sweated blood to stop Wembanyama. He ended up fouling out in the final - and that proved decisive. France scored seven more points than the US during the minutes he was on court, and his stats were something special: 22 points, eight rebounds, eight blocks, a player rating of 30. He came away from the tournament with a silver medal, the eyes of US basketball on him, and an average of 14 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.7 blocks and a player rating of 20.1, in 22.5 minutes per game. And he was named in the All-Star Team, obviously. Alongside Ivey and Holmgren - and Nikola Jokic, who was also selected in the first round of this year’s Draft.

Wembanyama described as an “impossible” prospect

Wembanyama is taller and longer than Holmgren. He’s slim, albeit not quite so much, and has a better proportioned constitution which, on paper, looks easier to add weight and muscle to. He’s also a fine ball handler, creating and sinking baskets outside the three-point line. He perhaps has fewer backcourt instincts and is a more committed frontcourt operator. His defensive abilities are already well developed; he has a tremendous capacity to intimidate. In offence, he has almost indescribable potential; he resembles Mr. Fantastic, the Marvel super hero whose body can stretch endlessly. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie, an expert on the Draft and young prospects, talks about him as a potential star with “impossible” qualities. “It’s almost like watching Rudy Gobert if he were able to dribble, pass and shoot at an effective NBA level,” Vecenie writes. Others have described Wembanyama as having the physique of Kristaps Porzingis and the talent of Kevin Durant. Blimey.

In addition to his prodigious attributes, another factor that works in Wembanyama’s favour is that he’s already a professional. He’s shown what he can do at EuroLeague level. It’s a while since certain psychological barriers were broken down. Perhaps not in the minds of some fans in the US, but certainly when it comes to scouts and experts. When an 18-year-old lad is capable of registering 18 points and six rebounds against Armani Milan, with 4/5 on three-pointers, there’s a serious player in there.

ASVEL fighting to keep hold of Wembanyama

Born in Le Chesnay, the Paris suburb in which Nicolas Anelka also grew up, he did judo and soccer while his mother, a professional player, taught him the basics of basketball. He came through the youth system at Nanterre 92, staying at the club’s academy despite offers from ASVEL and Barcelona, who were only able to take him to Catalonia as a guest at the 2018 Minicopa del Rey. Two years later, in the 2019/20 U-18 EuroLeague, he averaged 15.8 points, 12 rebounds, 2.8 steals and six blocks per game. That was the year of his senior debut, in the EuroCup, at the age of just 15 years, nine months and 25 days. He made the move to ASVEL last season, and right now there’s an all-out war for his services in his final campaign in France. ASVEL president Tony Parker is determined not to let him escape his clutches, but Paris Basketball are after a transfer coup: they want him in their ranks while the basketball world counts down the days until his arrival in the NBA.

Once again, the problem is the doubts over his body’s ability to hack the NBA. Since December 2020, he has suffered a stress fracture in his fibula (sidelining him for eight weeks); a broken toe (three weeks); a shoulder injury that ruled him out for nearly two months this season; and, finally, a muscle issue that saw him miss the French league playoffs. As with Holmgren, some wonder whether his unusual characteristics will end up working against him. That’s an unknown. What is clear is that he has the potential to be the unicorn to end all unicorns. And, barring any surprises, he’ll be the top pick in next year’s Draft. Watch out for the tanking that’s coming up; it’s unlikely to be very subtle.

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