Is Victor Wembanyama the best NBA Draft prospect since LeBron James?

French teenager expected to be San Antonio's next great big man

Metropolitan 92's French star Victor Wembanyama is being compared to some of the NBA's best players. AFP
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A skinny French teenager has the future of the NBA resting on his narrow shoulders — even before he plays a single game in the world's best league.

That teenager is 7ft 4in Victor Wembanyama, who had scouts drooling over his mindblowing potential ahead of the 2023 NBA Draft.

Thanks to some draft lottery luck, it was the San Antonio Spurs who earned the first pick in Thursday's draft.

Now that pick, Wembanyama, is universally expected to be the next great big man off the Spurs production line.

Here is why:

Why is Victor Wembanyama creating so much hype?

For a start, Wembanyama is huge.

Some say he is already 7ft 5in, though plenty of players have not made the most of such physical gifts.

In Wembanyama’s case, despite his massive size, he can dribble and shoot like a guard, run like a gazelle and play defence like a man possessed.

Rather than taking the traditional US college route to the NBA, Wembanyama spent his final pre-NBA season playing professional basketball with French top flight team Metropolitans 92, where he gained experience competing against fully grown professionals.

And he was dominant — winning Most Valuable Player, top scorer and Best Defender awards. He was also Best Young Player for a third time and led the league in blocked shots.

The Ringer’s draft expert Kevin O’Connor called Wembanyama the NBA’s greatest prospect in decades, with "the ceiling to be an all-time great”.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress called him the best NBA prospect since LeBron James, with LeBron himself calling the young Frenchman a "generational talent" and "an alien".

Why do the Spurs get to pick first in the NBA Draft?

The NBA Draft is designed to try to ensure parity among teams. The worst teams are given better odds at the top pick, with more ping-pong balls in a literal lottery that takes place a few weeks before the draft itself.

This year, despite winning more games than the hapless Detroit Pistons and the same amount as the Houston Rockets, it was the Spurs who got lucky.

Is San Antonio a good landing spot?

The last time the Spurs picked first in the draft, they chose franchise legend Tim Duncan in 1997.

A young Duncan lined up alongside 1987's top pick, "The Admiral" David Robinson, to form a dominant frontcourt that won the NBA championship in 1999 and 2003.

Duncan — who went on to win three more titles — is widely regarded as the best power forward to play the game.

He formed one of the most successful trios in history alongside international stars Tony Parker, from France, and Manu Ginobili, from Argentina.

Their coach, Gregg Popovich, is still at the helm and well-versed in helping non-Americans to settle in San Antonio, a low-drama franchise with a history of winning.

How good can Wembanyama be?

There is no limit to how good Wembanyama can be, according to the experts.

He is 19 years old, so NBA fans should expect an adjustment period, but Wembanyama's stats in Europe beat even those of Slovenian star Luka Doncic during Doncic's time at Real Madrid as a teenager — and Doncic was a star from day one.

"As long as Wembanyama stays healthy long term, something he's done so far this season after a bit of a history of picking up injuries here and there, Wembanyama is a franchise-altering talent whose acquisition would completely change the fortunes of whichever team acquires him," wrote The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie.

But that is not to say he has no weaknesses.

"In terms of potential weaknesses, the occasional scout has pointed to his passing and ability to make reads on the move, as well as the consistency of his shot," said Vecenie. "But I've yet to talk to one who doesn't see these skills as likely to be improved as he ages."

Which NBA legends has he been compared to?

Before he pulls on a Spurs uniform, Wembanyama has been compared to some of the greatest players to pick up a basketball.

"In NBA circles, scouts have privately thrown out comparisons to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," ESPN draft expert Jeremy Woo wrote, referring to the LA Lakers centre who was the NBA's all-time leading scorer until overtaken by James in February.

Wembanyama has already displayed the one-foot fadeway jump shot made famous by German forward and Dallas Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzski — one of basketball’s greatest shooters.

"We've never seen a player like Wemby before," O'Connor wrote. "He is like Kevin Durant crossed with Rudy Gobert, making him a Gen-Z Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Ralph Sampson raised on YouTube videos."

Who are the NBA Draft’s other big names?

Dynamic 6ft 2in guard Scoot Henderson, from the NBA G League Ignite feeder team, and Brandon Miller, Alabama’s 6ft 9in do-it-all forward, round out the draft’s three best prospects.

The Thompson twins, Amen and Ausar, both 6ft 6in, should also be solid NBA professionals, if not stars, in time.

But none come close to the potential of Wembanyama.

O'Conner said: “As hyperbolic as it all sounds, executives around the league already agree that Wembanyama has Hall of Fame potential — with the upside to be one of the greatest players ever."

Updated: June 21, 2023, 5:10 PM