Victor Wembanyama has confirmed that he will play with Team France in the Paris Olympics, to no one’s surprise. There was, however, a quote that stood out a little about his statement. The 19-year-old said, “There’s no other goal than gold.”
Now, on its own, there’s nothing too noteworthy about Victor saying that. France has become a powerhouse in international basketball — the recent disappointment in the World Cup notwithstanding — and will have homecourt advantage. What’s interesting is that Wembanyama is saying this as the US seems ready to send its best to Paris, which would make that gold an extremely ambitious goal.
Olympics aside, it’s not the first time that Wembanyama has shown such a high level of confidence, which is definitely not a bad thing for such a heralded prospect but is just something Spurs fans are simply not used to seeing from their stars.
The stars of the past in San Antonio have rarely said anything that could be considered arrogant. David Robinson was one of the most mild-mannered superstars ever, to the point where some questioned his competitiveness. Tim Duncan was extremely reserved, so when he said the pretty innocuous phrase “We’ll do it this time” before the rematch with the Heat in 2013 people were shocked. Manu Ginobili never publicly complained about being a Sixth Man and was hyper-competitive but never boisterous. Tony Parker could be considered a little brash in his personal life but always knew what his place in the pecking order was. Kawhi Leonard was confident but wasn’t loquacious about it (or anything else, really). LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan were both humble and only talked themselves up when others were putting them down. The modern Spurs star has been modest.
Wembanyama doesn’t fit that mold. He hasn’t exactly gotten a “Chosen One” tattoo on his back, but he’s not afraid of the high expectations others have for him either and is always ready to speak his mind. During the entire predraft process, he was almost nonchalant about his status as a consensus future superstar, as if being seen as the savior of whichever franchise got him didn’t weigh on him, He’s said that no coach is going to change his game and made sure to be on the record about what position he wants to play. He’s already talking about the playoffs despite not ever seeing the floor of an NBA game yet. Wembanyama is self-aware enough to know he’s a big deal and seems to agree with the idea that he’s destined for greatness. He’s not in awe of anyone. He doesn’t care for false humility. He just exudes confidence, which is clearly not a bad thing but can feel a little foreign to Spurs fans.
In the last few years the Spurs had no choice but to embrace an underdog mentality. Their young guys all had the “no one believed in me” attitude that comes from being picked lower than expected in the draft and Aldridge and DeRozan had a chip on their shoulders because of how much their throwback games were questioned. The front office kept finding players who were overlooked and the coaching staff did its part to try to help veterans on the verge of washing away from the league get one last chance. The default mental state seemed to be humility and the driving force was to prove everyone wrong. Wembanyama can’t relate to that, for obvious reasons, so he brings a completely different perspective to the table. Whether his attitude will be considered endearing or off-putting will come down to personal preference and, more importantly, whether he delivers on the court, but it’s definitely refreshing.
Hopefully, it will remain a constant in his career because it seems like a true expression of who Wembanyama is. There’s no perceivable contrivance about his behavior. He acts and talks the way he does not because that’s how the most hyped prospect since LeBron James is supposed to act and talk but because that’s how he seems to genuinely feel. It helps that he’s already surprisingly good at dealing with the media because it has allowed him to always be in control of his own narrative, but the reality is there’s little friction at this point between how others see Victor and how he seems to see himself. Wembanyama is not only ready for scrutiny but also seems to invite it by not being concerned at all with tempering expectations. Years in the limelight before the jump to the NBA have forged him into the perfect person to handle the incredible amount of attention he’s getting, and a perfect fit for these Spurs.
Superstars are not only tasked with carrying their franchises on the floor but also with helping shape the culture in the locker room. For years the mantra in San Antonio has been “get over yourself,” which made sustainable winning possible and made sense for a squad that featured several Hall-of-Famers. A full shift from that mentality wouldn’t be the best idea, but after a few years of humbling mediocrity, it wouldn't hurt to add some unbridled confidence into the mix. Fortunately, it seems like the Spurs have the right man for that job.