Many of my basketball buddies have been harbingers of doom about Victor Wembanyama. Many comments about the excitement of his first ten games have been immediately tempered with comments such as, “I hope he can stay healthy,” followed by mentions of the “usual suspects” — Ralph Sampson, Yao Ming, Shawn Bradley, Greg Oden, Andrew Bynum, Bill Walton. All of these big men had their careers cut short or compromised by various injuries. My friends list them as cautionary tales about what almost always happens to 7-footers. If I knew any OKC fans, they probably hear the same thing about Chet Holmgren, who already had to sit out his first season with an injury.
Perhaps because I am a “glass half-full type of person”, those are not the career comparisons I think about for the Spurs’ young Frenchman. Instead of looking at the list of injured bigs, let’s look close to home with the Spurs’ last two top draft picks: David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Even though each had some injury issues, both were extremely resilient and durable.
We can start with the Admiral. His back injury caused him to miss most of the 1996 season (at age 31), which also put the Spurs into position to get the draft pick that became Tim Duncan. Before Robinson’s back injury, outside of a torn ligament in his left hand that forced him to miss the final 14 games of the 1991-92 season, Robinson had missed just three games in his career up to that point. After his missed season, he then came back to play 73 of 82 games in Duncan’s rookie season, played 49 of 50 games in the lockout-shortened season in 1999, then he had three seasons of 80, 80 and 78 games. The Admiral played 64 games in his final season, at age 38. In related news, Kawhi Leonard has not played more than 60 games since the 2016-17 season with the Spurs.
Now let’s look at the Great Duncan. In his first thirteen (13!) seasons, TD played in 74 or more games each year — including six years in which he played 80 or more. (I am counting the 1999 season in those 13 seasons because he played 50 games in that 50-game season.) After those thirteen seasons, Duncan’s lowest game total was his final season in which he played 61 games at age 40. As with Robinson, that is more games than Kawhi has played since 2016-2017.
But as encouraging as those numbers are from the Spurs’ home-grown legends, I take even more comfort from another NBA great — Bucks and Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Victor and Kareem share similar body types: long and lean. They both move with a grace not often found in players of their great length. As reminder, Kareem was listed at 7 feet, 3 and 5/8 inches, just “short” of Victor’s 7’4”.
Kareem was one of the first athletes to embrace stretching — an early practitioner of yoga and the martial arts — and Victor has been following the same sort of regimen for years and will surely continue to do so. Kareem’s love of martial arts and his friendship with Bruce Lee even led to him starring as the “bad guy” in a movie called “Game of Death”. Spoiler alert, the 5’8’’ Bruce Lee beats the 7’3” Kareem in the final battle.
Perhaps as a result of his regimen and body type, Kareem’s durability was amazing. He missed less than 10 games per year in 18 of his 20 seasons. Even more remarkably, he missed a total of 80 games in his 20 seasons. That is an average of four games missed per season, for twenty years. A very valuable ability is availability, and Kareem was (almost) always available. Ironically, one of the most famous games in NBA history occurred in a game Kareem missed: Game Six of the 1980 Finals against the 76ers, known forever as the Magic Johnson Game, when rookie Magic had 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists to lead the Lakers to the crown on the road. Five years later, at age 38, Kareem won the NBA Finals MVP in the Lakers’ win over the Celtics.
One thing these three NBA greats had in common — they played four years of college basketball, with the Admiral tacking on two extra years in the Navy. As a result, their 18–22 year old years were spent playing 30+ games per season instead of 80+ NBA games (which are also 8 minutes longer). Studies show that a fish which grows up in cold water grows slower than in warm water, eventually winds up the same size as a fish which grew faster — but the slower growing cold-water fish lives longer. Similarly, a tree growing in shade develops thicker and more resilient bark than a tree with abundant sunshine. A company which expands more slowly is much more stable and likely to survive than the company which rapidly expands. There is a reason the term “quick fix” has a negative connotation.
Can we attribute at least some of Robinson’s, Duncan’s and Kareem’s longevity and durability to the same analysis? If so, maybe some of my optimism about Victor’s future may need to be tempered a bit.
But I still come back to the Kareem comparison: graceful movement, body type, and dedication to staying loose and mobile. I will stay with wishing — and hereby predicting — Victor Wembanyama to have a long, productive and healthy NBA career. And while I am at it, let’s have him spend it all in San Antonio.