16 and 2.18 – these were the two figures that stuck in my brain after the first time I googled “Victor Wembanyana.” I did so because Nate Duncan had just mentioned Wembanyama as “the brightest prospect in world basketball.” I immediately – and I do mean immediately — typed the name into the keyboard of my laptop and pressed “enter.” Because that’s just what you do as a basketball fan when you hear a player described that way. Because I think I had never heard that type of description for a basketball prospect before. (I’m sure LeBron in the years leading up to his draft was also referred to as “the brightest prospect in world basketball,” but there were no podcasts in those days, and I didn’t read nearly as much about the NBA back then.) Or maybe I was surprised that Nate Duncan, a decidedly unflashy NBA podcaster, use such a superlative. Anyway, I was excited.
But when I saw the result of my Google search for Wemby, my immediate reaction was one of skepticism. Because at the time he wasn’t yet 17 years old – and he measured 2.18 meters! (That’s almost 7’2”) and boys often grow until the age of 19.
I was therefore wondering how much more Wembanyama would grow. I was sure it would be way past 2.20 meters, maybe somewhere between Rik Smits and Shawn Bradley. But these were players, with all due respect, I had always perceived as too tall to truly dominate because of their limited mobility.
I tried to think of the tallest big men who were still considered world-class athletes. The Admiral came to mind. As did Shaq. But no one else. Both were listed at 2.16 meters – two centimeters less than the sixteen-year-old Wembanyama.
Granted, I then read that Wembanyama was equipped with unprecedented skills for someone his size. I guess it makes sense for such a guy to be considered the brightest prospect in world basketball. Still, I was surprised. I was rather expecting some sort of mélange of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant.
But my doubts were brushed aside over time. Firstly, all the draft analysts agreed: Everyone described Wembanyama not only as far and away the best prospect in the draft, but the best one in years. Secondly, and more importantly, because of my favorite draft analyst, a German guy called Dennis Jansen, who is more critical than most when it comes to top prospect’s weaknesses, and who’s also very good at busting myths and questionable narratives.
Jansen argued the injury concerns that many voiced about Wemby due to his size had everything to do with past players and narratives, but nothing with Victor himself. He looked at Wemby’s injuries and said “I’ll have injury concerns when the concerns are justified. At this stage, they simply aren’t. It just doesn’t make any sense. There is nothing to suggest there is something chronically wrong with him.”
As for Wemby’s significant weaknesses, he mentioned processing speed and mental lapses. He also mentioned other things Wemby wasn't particularly good at, but emphasized that due to Wemby’s massive margin of error they probably just weren’t as relevant.
That’s when I really, really wanted him to join the San Antonio Spurs. But that wish turned out to be not too comfortable a situation since in the best-case scenario, the Spurs still only had a 14-percent chance to get him.
Then came the day of the draft lottery – or the night, if you live in Germany as I do. I watched it in bed. My wife gave me the okay, knowing there was a 14-percent chance I might tear the roof off. The odds of 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep were clearly on her side – holding steady at 86 percent. Well, she lost. But I think it was the first time I saw her smiling when I woke her up by being too loud. She knew something monumental had just happened.
About a month and a half later, we witnessed Wembanyama in his first two games in Silver & Black. As someone who didn’t watch his debut performance live, I could have gotten the impression Wemby had overnight been conclusively labeled the bust of the century. A promising career ended prematurely by Kai Jones, with a gigantic crapstorm as a result.
I normally don’t pay attention to these things. But in Wemby’s case I couldn’t ignore it completely. My verdict to what I read on social media: Those with the strongest opinions often haven’t the faintest idea.
Wemby, meanwhile, had a very good idea: He did nothing. He tweeted nothing, that is. He just played his next game. And suddenly everyone seemed to remember what we’ve all been told for years: Wemby can play basketball. And he’s equipped with physical tools that bring to mind video game cheat codes.
- As every big man who comes into the NBA as a teenager, Wemby still has an awful lot to learn, particularly on defense. But even at Wemby’s current stage of development, he’s likely going to be a plus on that end from the get go. I remembered Dennis’ words during some situations in Wemby’s Summer League outings: his margin of error is massive. But from what we can tell about Wemby’s desire to develop, as well as from the Spurs’ capabilities in terms of player development, I think it might not be too hot a take that Wemby will win more DPOYs than Tim Duncan.
- Simultaneously to how he projects as a rim protector, Wemby will also be an absolute nightmare on the offensive glass. His catch and dunk radius just isn’t fair. From past seasons, I remember Jakob Poeltl in fierce battles for offensive boards. Sometimes Jakob won those, sometimes he lost. But regardless of the outcome, it never looked easy for him. It’s completely different with Wemby, frankly, I think it’s pretty much unprecedented (when we disregard Manute Bol’s highlight tape). Wemby appears to be able to rebound and dunk in one motion, before the box out battle even begins. And his feet hardly have to leave the hardwood for him to score that way. I can’t help but believe that this alone could win the Spurs many close games in the future.
- Wemby came advertised as a big who can handle. But judging by reactions to his Summer League outings, some fans seem to have made a bit too much out of that. Guess what! Wemby isn’t a 7.5 version of Kyrie Irving. Because as long as the laws of physics apply there probably can’t be a 7.5 virtuoso ball handler. But I guess we can safely assume the Spurs didn’t draft Wemby so that Tre Jones can slot into the role of backup point guard. But where does that leave us fans in terms of ball handling expectations? My answer: Wemby’s handle has to be functional enough to create his own shot, and that’s it. If he can do that, and I’m optimistic he can, say “hello” to a shot that lets Dirk’s one-legged fadeaway seem guardable in comparison. Let’s just hope the ball goes through the rim equally as often.
I’ll leave it at three observations. I guess that’s enough after two exhibition games. It’ll be more than two months before we see Wemby on the court again. Time enough for me to enjoy feeling happy about becoming a Spurs fan in the mid-nineties. Because after having witnessed five championships and a quarter century of contention, I’m now in an extremely beautiful situation: The Spurs have drafted their clear-cut new face of the franchise. I can witness his development from day one. And he’s surrounded with players I have also witnessed from day one. It feels like becoming a Spurs fan for the second time. And that is something I never even thought could actually happen. We’re lucky, we really are.
Also, I’m now genuinely glad Kawhi left. His departure made all this possible. I never thought I’d say this, but I am: Thank you, Uncle Dennis. Thank you from the bottom of my (Silver & Black) heart.