The Raptors get a first hands-on look at the biggest prospect in all of sports on Sunday afternoon in San Antonio.
Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 Frenchman who had teams falling all over themselves last season to try to get in the running for him, has not disappointed five games into his NBA career. If anything, he’s proven to be worthy of the hype. It’s been two decades since an NBA prospect entered the league with the kind of expectations Wembanyama had placed on his skinny shoulders, but like a teenaged LeBron James, the 19-year-old has delivered. Wembanyama scored 38 points in a surprising win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday and has averaged 20.6 points on 50% shooting and only four players have blocked more shots. Wembanyama has also had two games already where he hit three three-pointers on at least 50% shooting and on defence he’s been swatting away three-point attempts and layups with equal ferocity.
The NBA has never seen a player like “Wemby” and the Raptors are about to get a taste. They’ve already run into 7-foot, 280-pound behemoth Joel Embiid twice this season, and fellow 7-foot giant Giannis Antetokounmpo. Raptors rookie Gradey Dick marvelled the other day at how players that big and strong could be so athletic and skilled. He hasn’t seen anything yet. Down the line Wembanyama might join that MVP club, but he’s a far different type of player. For one, he’s rail thin so he won’t bash his way past opponents like those two stars can, but he’s also nearly half a foot taller, with far better ball-handling skills. Even Embiid, now a solid three-point shooter, couldn’t fire away as confidently as Wembanyama already does from beyond the arc. Somehow, his ceiling is even higher than either. He’s definitely the basketball “alien” he’s been billed as. Don’t believe us? Listen to Kevin Durant, who told reporters after the loss to the Spurs that he was impressed. “He’s his own player, own person. He’s going to create his own lane and is much different than anyone else who has played,” said Durant, who pushed boundaries himself as a near 7-footer himself with a better three-point and mid-range shot than nearly anybody else in the league.
“I don’t see anyone else like him in this game,” Durant said. “We’re both skinny and I know he watched me growing up, but he’s his own player.”
It’s not easy to impress legendary Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, but Wembanyama seems to have energized the 74-year-old all-time NBA wins leader.
“He’s got confidence in himself,” Popovich said. “He made some plays that were unbelievable. That combination is pretty good.”
No kidding. The Spurs dreamed of winning yet another draft lottery last spring, having done so for both David Robinson and Tim Duncan, both all-time great big men. Somehow they did just that after purposely tearing things down in recent seasons. The Spurs had a 14% chance of landing Wembanyama, the same as Detroit and Houston, and pulled it off. Now, a franchise with five NBA titles, can dream of adding more hardware.
The Raptors helped them get there too, just as the Spurs helped the Raptors to Toronto’s only championship, by dealing them Kawhi Leonard. Keldon Johnson, the team’s scoring leader at 22 a game a year ago, was the draft pick that came back to San Antonio in the Leonard trade and Toronto owes the Spurs another first-round pick, Top 6 protected, from the re-acquisition of Jakob Poeltl last season. Poeltl had also been part of the Leonard trade, but the Spurs decided to move on. Wembanyama doesn’t yet play centre, he’s too skinny, but they’ve done pretty well in finding a long-term replacement for Poeltl.
Wembanyama’s probably doubled the franchise value of the Spurs and he’s probably made their next championship 99% more likely than it was before they added him.
Sure, the track record of players as tall as Wembanyama staying healthy for long careers isn’t great, but it’s not impossible. The Spurs are protecting him as best they can and he’ll add more bulk. In the meantime, he’ll continue to wow with his unique combination of size, skill, will, athleticism and creativity.
Once upon a time, Vince Carter bended gravity. Wembanyama also defies logic with some of the things he can do on the court. He tip-dunks his own three-point misses, comes from seemingly city blocks away to defend the rim in the blink of an eye and doesn’t even need to jump to play above the rim.
Wembymania has arrived, and the Raptors are about to see what all the fuss is about.