The 2022 NBA Draft is not yet here, but you can feel its presence everywhere. The top prospects are all getting their first taste of the NCAA Tournament; the toilet-bound NBA teams who will pick at the top of the draft are doing their best to lose as often as possible in hopes of getting one of those potential future stars. Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero, and Jabari Smith Jr. will lead this year’s draft class in some order, and they’ll head to Orlando, Detroit, Houston, or some other team that’s both bad and lucky enough to earn a top lottery spot. The needs and abilities of all parties are clear.
Which is boring! Who wants certainty when you can have possibility, by which I mean: why pay attention to the 2022 draft class when you can ponder the potential of the top prospect in the 2023 class, a player who eludes categorization or the very notion of a ceiling? Why fret over Chet when Victor Wembanyama is coming next summer to destroy the NBA?
Wembanyama is an 18-year-old player from France who stands 7-foot-2 (or 7-foot-3, depending who you listen to) and has a pterodactyloid 7-foot-9 wingspan (some say it’s 7-foot-10.) His game defies even those implausible measurements, as he is a legit three-point shooter with passing range and a relatively mature offensive game. While never completely accurate, comparing prospects to altered versions of current NBA players—e.g., Holmgren is Kristaps Porzingis with a software upgrade, Davion Mitchell is counterfeit Kyle Lowry, Banchero is Blake Griffin if he put his skill points into different stats—is a useful guideline to understand what sort of impact to expect from a player. But this heuristic’s usefulness breaks down when you try to apply it to Wembanyama. He’s, uh, Rudy Gobert with a better version of Karl-Anthony Towns’s offensive skillset? Kevin Durant XXL? An even larger Giannis Antetokounmpo without any weaknesses? Not only are none of these quite right, it’s almost impossible to imagine any of those speculative players because we’ve never seen anything like any of them.
Which is to say: Wembanyama is as exciting of a prospect since at least LeBron James. Mike Schmitz, the best draft specialist in the business, called him the best prospect he’d ever evaluated. Jonathan Givony echoed this sentiment. It is pretty easy to see why. Wembanyama’s physicality alone would make him a top-tier NBA prospect. Gobert is basically the only player close to Wembanyama’s size the NBA has ever seen, and the soon-to-be four-time Defensive Player of the Year is a full two inches shorter than his younger counterpart. In his two pro seasons, Wembanyama has shown that he has both the movement and anticipatory skills to anchor an elite defense, but what stands out in his highlight reels is not just the volume of disruptive defensive plays he makes, which is high, but his propensity to stifle shots or passes that would have been safe to make against any other defender in the world. Wembanyama makes great plays, but because of the ways in which his size and skill takes normal basketball actions off the table for opponents, he also scrambles brains.
Wembanyama had the best game of his pro career last night against Zalgiris in the EuroLeague, blocking five shots and scoring 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting to help his team win on the road. When you watch Wembanyama play against fellow teens in youth tournaments and the like, his physical advantages are pretty outrageous, and he does straightforwardly rude things like block three-pointers from ten feet away, dunk on everyone regardless of pressure, and fly out of nowhere to erase fast breaks. It is another thing entirely to watch him make plays of the same caliber against grown men in the second-best basketball competition in the world. When you also see him throw no-look passes, get to his spot with one dribble, and make incisive cuts, you can see why conventional basketball taxonomy fails to make sense of him.
Here is the section where I am supposed to advise caution, to point to his age and lanky frame, to reference the ghosts of failed European prospects past, to prescribe Wembanyama a strict regimen of bucatini in order to keep himself from getting bullied by, like, Draymond Green; it is the part of the blog where the responsible thing to do is write, “To be sure, Wembanyama is not a finished product.” After showing you examples of a 7-foot-3 destroyer showing NBA-ready skill on the wing, I am supposed to tell you that the rigors of NBA basketball are significantly more arduous than those of the EuroLeague. But I think the standard level of caution isn’t really warranted here. The success of LaMelo Ball and Luka Doncic at the NBA level is proof enough that teenagers who produce in solid professional leagues can be considered safe in a way that the infamous Euro flameouts of the mid-2000s never were. And neither of those players are anywhere near the athlete Wembanyama is, nor the defender.
If you are a fan of the NBA (particularly any team set up to lose next year), or just someone who enjoys considering the outer limits of human athletic possibility, you should absolutely feel free to get excited about Wembanyama. He won’t see an NBA court for another year-and-a-half, by which time he’ll almost certainly have added to his game, but his time is on the horizon.