Two security guards at the edge of the field look at each other with open mouths when Victor Wembanyama steps onto the parquet floor of Madison Square Garden an hour before the match in a white shirt and dark sweatpants. “He’s 7 feet tall,” one of them says in awe.
With a series of dribbles and shots, the 19-year-old Frenchman from San Antonio Spurs warms up for the away match against New York Knicks. The crowd has come to the stadium early, as they only do for the biggest stars.
Wembanyama is only playing his eighth game in the NBA in New York, but is already the talk of the town among followers of the league. Even last year, when he was still playing for the French Metropolitans 92, he kept people busy across the Atlantic Ocean. Wembanyama was heralded as the greatest talent since LeBron James, possibly the best basketball player ever.
About the author
Koen van der Velden prescribes de Volkskrant about sports in the United States. He lives in New York.
The first weeks did not disappoint: on average he is good for almost twenty points per game. A masterful performance against Phoenix Suns in particular fueled the excitement. Wembanyama scored 38 points against the team of his idol Kevin Durant, on whom he made a deep impression. “He’s different from anyone who’s ever played,” the American said of the teenager. “He’s going to create his own path.”
“Victor, why are you so tall?” shouts a spectator from the stands at Madison Square Garden. With his height of 2.24 meters, arms with a wingspan of 2.40 meters and his shoe size 55, the skinny Parisian is a remarkable appearance. There seems to be no end to his legs. Compared to his limbs, his torso seems on the small side.
His body is intriguing, but it is only when it starts moving that the real magic takes place. Where basketball players of his height are usually condemned to a clumsy, stiff motor skills, Wembanyama glides smoothly and lightly across the court.
The Frenchman has speed, can dribble like a small playmaker and shoot from any position. “He shows things we have never seen from someone of his height,” says former professional Henk Norel, himself 2.13 meters tall. ‘He can actually do everything.’
The Frenchman reminds him of video games in which players can create their own virtual basketball player. “Everyone then shifts the length to the maximum, makes the arms longer and also lets him shoot well,” says Norel. ‘A kind of Wembanyma. And it now exists in real life.’
New York is critical
The duties of the biggest, tallest basketball players have changed over the years, says Norel, who was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2009 but did not make it to the NBA. For years he played in the highest Spanish division. “When I made my debut, you had the classic big man who weighed 130, 140 kilos and didn’t move more than ten feet from the basket. That is moving further and further. You also have to be able to shoot now.’ Wembanyama seems to have skipped a number of steps in the evolution of basketball with his complete, unorthodox play.
Expectations are high for his debut in Madison Square Garden, the iconic basketball temple where the stars usually shine brightest. Before the match, American media look back on the debut performances of greats such as Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson and LeBron James, the Wembanyamas of yesteryear.
They too were once considered talents that come along once in a generation. These are the men Wembanyama is compared to by the outside world, whether he wants it or not.
He has a tough time against the Knicks, who seem extra motivated by all the attention on the teenage sensation. In the first half, Wembanyama only recorded two points, both free throws. A three-pointer sails along the ring in a vacuum. The New York crowd is merciless. ‘Overrated’, it sounds en masse from the stands. Overrated.
Wembanyama is protected after the match by his coach, 74-year-old Gregg Popovich. “He’s only 19 and has just arrived,” says the American who helped Spurs to five championships. ‘At this stage of his career he is still learning a lot.’
Popovich is not concerned about his pupil, whom he calls mature and balanced. Wembanyama was raised well, he regularly emphasizes. He is the son of a Congolese high jumper (father) and a French basketball coach (mother).
The young basketball player is modest, eloquent in French and English. Although he lacks the exuberance of other stars, he seems to understand the American appetite for entertainment. On the Halloween holiday he dressed up as Slenderman, a supernatural appearance from American folklore. Fully dressed up and with a white mask over his head, he reported for the away match against Phoenix Suns. Due to his height, it was quickly clear who was in the suit.
The match in New York (125-105) is all considered lost when Wembanyama shows some flashes of his class in the fourth quarter. He receives the ball at full speed, dances around a defender with a pirouette and throws the ball through the ring. A difficult left-handed lay-up also makes an impression. Only his shot keeps letting him down on his debut in New York.
He often excels defensively. With his long arms, Wembanyama blocks shots that would be far out of reach for anyone else. Players who think they can aim for a three-pointer in complete freedom are regularly surprised by Wembanyama’s speed and his windmill blades that appear out of nowhere. “It’s not just the shots he blocks,” Norel said. “A lot of shots aren’t even taken when he’s around. Opponents see him and change their mind.’
Wembanyama will have to get used to losing this season in San Antonio (Texas). The club was able to select him in the spring because only 22 of the 82 games were won last season. In the NBA, the greatest talents are dealt to the worst teams.
San Antonio’s defense is a problem, especially if Wembanyama is allowed to rest. So far, he has played an average of just under half an hour per match.
His reputation makes him a target for opponents. He is occasionally tackled harshly against the Knicks. Out of frustration, he punches an opponent’s arm away after the whistle. He will be met with boos. “They want to test me, but that is not new,” Wembanyama says afterwards in a packed press room. ‘I’ve been used to that for years. It’s up to me to stay calm and help my team.”
Mass or speed?
According to some experts, he will have to gain muscle mass in the coming years if he wants to be able to compete under the basket. For the time being, he mainly positions himself around the three-point line. “His dribbling and shooting are great, but his weight is an issue,” said ESPN commentator Hubie Brown. ‘He gets pushed aside by the bigger boys. The only question is whether he would lose speed if he were to gain weight.’
Just because Wembanyama can do everything doesn’t mean he has to do everything, says Norel. ‘He is already the go-to guy at Spurs. He dribbles the ball, blocks and takes shots. Maybe they should let him specialize a little more, because the question is whether this can be sustained. If you have to do this 82 games per season, it is really a challenge for such a body.’
For the tallest men in basketball, it is important to guard against injuries. Joints are vulnerable in heavy bodies, says Norel, who suffered from persistent knee problems during his career. But if Wembanyama remains fit and he manages to reach his ceiling, then there is no limit to the Frenchman. Norel: ‘He has the potential to be the best player in the NBA for years to come.’
Five famously tall NBA players
Manute Bol (2.31m). Player of Sudanese descent who played in the NBA between 1985 and 1994. He blocked more shots than he scored: a first in the NBA.
Gheorghe Muresan (2.31m). Originating from Romania. Played in the NBA from 1993 to 2000 and, together with Bol, is known as the tallest player in that competition.
Yao Ming (2.29m). Born in China. Played in the NBA from 2002 to 2011 and was named to the NBA All Star Team eight times.
Rik Smits (2.24m). Dutchman. Played for the Indiana Pacers from 1988 to 2000. Acquired nickname ‘Dunkin’ Dutchman’.
Wilt Chamberlain (2.16m). American who played in the NBA from 1958 to 1973. Averaged 50 points per game. His most famous record: 100 points in one game.