Victor Wembanyama showed up at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, wearing a dark green suit and a pendant that, as he explained, was like a miniature comic book galaxy. What he would wear was the biggest unknown at the NBA draft ceremony when it came to the French center. Everyone knew he was going to be the number one, the first pick. And everyone knew, therefore, that he will play next season for the San Antonio Spurs, who won the lottery last month. And so it has come to pass. Wembanyama, 19 years old and 7 foot, 4 inches tall, aspires to make a mark in American professional basketball or, what is basically the same thing, in world basketball.
An emotional Wembanyama said that upon hearing NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pronounce his name he couldn’t hold a sob. “I’ve dreamed about this. I have to cry,” he said. Wembanyama, who grew up in the suburbs of Paris, had been waiting for this moment for years, when he learned how the draft system worked for new players in the NBA, he acknowledged Wednesday. “Ever since I learned about the draft, exactly how it worked, I wanted to be the first. I think I started to realize I could be a professional basketball player when I was 12 years old,” he said at the time.
Although the draft was being held in New York, thousands of miles away the Spurs’ arena was packed to the rafters celebrating the arrival of the new basketball messiah, dubbed Wemby. It was the third time they had the first pick. In 1987 they chose David Robinson, with whom they won two titles. The last time San Antonio had the first round, in 1997, they selected Tim Duncan, who won five championship rings for the Texans with Gregg Popovich on the bench, where he has been since 1996. Frenchman Tony Parker, a first-round pick in 2001, played in four of those five titles.
That bar is going to be tough to clear, especially since Wembanyama arrives at what was one of the worst teams in the league last season, bottom of the Western Conference with 22 wins and 60 losses. A star can be key in the evolution of a team, as Michael Jordan or LeBron James showed in their day, but basketball is a team sport and even those superstars were not spared from mediocre seasons with their clubs.
Wembanyama was unable to lead his team, Metropolitans 92, to win the French league, despite having Bilal Coulibaly, chosen Thursday at number 7 in the draft, by his side. So the thought of Spurs becoming champions in the short term seems like science fiction. San Antonio has been out of the playoffs for four consecutive seasons.
In any case, the Frenchman is a perfect fit for modern NBA basketball, where it’s not enough to have tall centers who fight under the rim, but rather they are valued for their ability to dribble the ball and have good mid- and long-range shooting. Rebounds and blocks are taken for granted with his height. The Frenchman has all these virtues and defends the way he plays, which is unusual for someone so tall.
There were no surprises in the second and third positions of the draft either. The Charlotte Hornets, who had the second pick, took Brandon Miller, a forward from the University of Alabama. The Portland Trail Blazers, third, have opted for Scoot Henderson, a shooting guard from the G League Ignite. The Houston Rockets opted for Amen Thompson, fourth overall, and the Detroit Pistons selected his twin brother, Ausar Thompson, next.
The history of drafts is full of hits and misses. Michael Jordan (third in his class), Larry Bird (6th), Kobe Bryant (13th), Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th), Nikola Jokić (41st), Stephen Curry (7th) and Joel Embiid (3rd) were left behind by players who left much less of a lasting mark on the game. In contrast, others like LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal were number ones who defined their era.
Jokić was selected when the draft broadcast was in the middle of a break and a Taco Bell commercial was airing. This year, the Serbian player has been instrumental in helping the Denver Nuggets win their first NBA championship title.
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