(Sam Donsig/Intermission Sports)
By: Chris Harrison
It feels like the hype around Victor Wembanyama has quieted a bit lately. Though he is toiling away on a mostly hopeless San Antonio Spurs team that sits at just 11-43 currently, Wemby is actually exceeding the incredibly high expectations placed on him when he was drafted first overall last summer. Yet, with all the hype before the season and now having played more than half a season so far, it somehow still feels impossible to project what kind of player he’ll become.
Height has always been king in the NBA, but players who are extreme outliers in size (7’3” and up) rarely find themselves among the league’s greats. Behemoths like Shawn Bradley (7’6”) and Gheorghe Mureșan (7’7”) have tended to be stationary shot blockers with limited mobility, positioned as close to the rim as possible. Offensively, they’ve typically been limited to the low block. The thinner ultra-tall players, like Manute Bol, often get pushed around in the paint. Even the best of them, like Hall of Famers Ralph Sampson (7’4”) and Yao Ming (7’5”), had their careers cut short by chronic lower body injuries.
Wembanyama, though, seems to be something different entirely. He’s an elite shot blocker at just 20 years old. And while you would expect a player with an 8-foot wingspan to swat plenty of shots, he’s not doing so by simply standing near the rim and putting his hands up – he’s swooping in from nearly impossible angles, erasing layups that look certain to go in. Just ask Anfernee Simons:
Or take a look at this play, where 6’10” Kyle Anderson lofts a jump hook from the very edge of the right block, which Wemby somehow blocks from the middle of the charge circle. His length, sense of timing and athleticism make him a constant threat to embarrass offensive players. His reach warps the dimensions of the court, forcing offensive players to re-think shots that have been safe for their whole careers. If the Spurs ever put a group of competent defenders around him – the Spurs’ defence is mediocre when the young Frenchman is on the court, but the worst in league history when he sits – they could field a suffocating defence for the next decade.
Beyond the counting stats – a ridiculous 4.2 combined blocks and steals in under 29 minutes a game –, what’s most striking about the plays Wembanyama makes on defence is the way he moves. The phrase “he’s like a create-a-player” is overused, but here, it’s apt. He looks less like the typical towering big man and more like an athletic 6’6” wing as viewed through a funhouse mirror. He’s uncommonly flexible and explosive for someone his size and it translates to the offensive end of the court just as much as on defence.
Simply put, nobody Wemby’s size has ever moved like this, not even kung fu movie star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We’ve been in the era of the ultra-skilled big man for a long while now, but I can say with confidence I’ve never seen a 7’4” player hit a Shammgod at full speed without falling on their face. The graceful finish at the end, which plenty of guards can’t hit, is just the icing on the cake.
It’s easy to overlook how well Wembanyama has played this year because he’s on a young team with no real hope of going anywhere this year, but he’s averaging 20.5 points and 10.1 boards in a season he began as a teenager.
What’s striking is there’s still so much room for improvement. He can still tighten his handle and add strength for finishing in the paint. He’ll also need to become more consistent as a shooter, which would make him virtually unstoppable. After all, who can contest his shot?
Someday, he’ll get to play with a better supporting cast and get more opportunities to dunk from comically far out. But the best of the best can get their own shot. As Lamarcus Aldridge told Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson in an interview, Wemby will need to develop a go-to move and a counter, to simplify the game when possessions matter the most.
Will his signature be a silky fadeaway like Aldridge’s? Will it be a stepback three like James Harden? A line drive of a mid-ranger like Kawhi Leonard? The incredible thing about Wembanyama is that every single one of those seems equally plausible and equally likely.
Whatever play style he grows into and whichever signature shot he chooses, it could be the defining image of the next era of NBA basketball.