Victor Wembanyama, the French teenage star, wows NBA folks in Vegas
Everything you needed to know about the 2023 NBA draft could be learned in the parking lot sandwiched between the water slide and nondescript minor league hockey arena.
As NBA executives and scouts piled out of their black SUVs, no one was wiping a late Vegas night out of the corners of their eyes.
“You ready for the show?” one said to another with a huge grin, practically rubbing his hands together in excitement.
It’s hard to be a lock with the draft more than 250 days away, but talk to any scouts, executives and team owners who filled the stands and lined the sidelines for two exhibition games in October and it’s settled.
Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 18-year-old player from France with the 10-foot reach and the 30-foot shooting range, will be the first player selected with the assurances of changing a franchise and maybe the game itself.
After the game, when he looked like some mixture of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant with Ralph Sampson’s body, Wembanyama posed for a photo with fellow French national star Rudy Gobert and made him look small.
“It looks like me playing basketball with my kids,” one NBA source said of watching Wembanyama tower over everyone.
If this sounds like hype, it’s almost impossible to overstate how excited NBA teams are for this player.
Several executives, when asked how many future picks they would trade for the No. 1 pick in June, answered exactly the same.
“All of them.”
Wembanyama and the consensus No. 2 prospect in 2023, Scoot Henderson of G League Ignite, had an epic duel Wednesday that left people around the NBA buzzing about a race to the bottom this upcoming season for the best chances of landing one of the two. Though Henderson would be a treasured prospect in any other draft, he’s a clear second behind Wembanyama.
“Everybody has been labeling this unicorn thing. Everybody has been a unicorn for the last two years, but he’s more like an alien,” LeBron James said. “I’ve never seen — no one has ever seen anyone as tall as he is, but as fluid and as graceful as he is out on the floor. I mean, at 7-4 or 7-5 or 7-3, whatever the case may be, his ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot step-back jumpers out of the post, step-back threes, catch-and-shoot threes, block shots. … He’s for sure a generational talent.”
Wembanyama heard the praise and said he was honored. He also, then, deflected and showed his humility.
“It really doesn’t change anything. … I try to stay focused because I didn’t do anything yet,” he said.
Scouts and executives might disagree.
The night before James called him an “alien,” Wembanyama scored 37 points, making seven of 11 three-pointers.
“Almost never do you see the guys you come to scout play that well,” one NBA general manager said.
A leg injury knocked Henderson out of Thursday’s rematch early in the first quarter, further putting the spotlight on Wembanyama, who again left scouts and executives in awe.
Wembanyama had 36 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and four blocks Thursday. His team was 25 points better than the Ignite when he was on the court in a game his team won by only six.
Instead of breaking down his game, so many of the NBA people spoke a rare scouting language in which you simply just laugh and shake your head after seeing him do something incredible, like make a ridiculously tough turnaround jumper.
The fallout of the two games should be fascinating.
One executive walked through the concourse at the Dollar Loan Center arena at halftime Thursday and simply yelled “Tank!” as he laughed and met with colleagues. That was before Wembanyama dunked on someone despite being outside the width of the backboard and before he calmly and smoothly stepped into a 30-foot three-point shot in the second half.
It’s a common feeling, scouts and executives looking at their rosters wondering if it’s worth total implosion for the 14% chance of winning the draft lottery. The teams with the three worst records will share those odds — and after seeing Wembanyama this week, at least one third of the NBA could be figuring out the fastest way to the bottom.
The good news for the Lakers, it could be a buyer’s market and lower the asking price in any of the deals they’ve considered. The bad news is that it’s impossible for the Lakers to draft Wembanyama No. 1 because New Orleans has the right to swap picks with the Lakers because of the Anthony Davis deal.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t watching. Lakers executive Rob Pelinka, for the second straight game, attended Thursday afternoon. So did Joey and Jesse Buss along with members of the team’s scouting staff.
No one could, or should, look away. One NBA executive said Wembanyama’s potential was essentially limitless, a true “one of one” player.
Asked about his potential for growth as a player, Wembanyama said it was “pretty high.”
And after two exhibitions in Las Vegas, there isn’t a person in the city who would argue.
Lonnie Walker IV made his preseason debut for the Lakers while LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn and Patrick Beverley sat out Thursday against Minnesota. Walker scored 10 points in 23 minutes in a 114-99 loss. Troy Brown Jr. (back) and Dennis Schroder are the lone Lakers to not play this preseason, though sources with knowledge of the situation said Schroder is expected to join the team this weekend. The Lakers next play Sunday in San Francisco against the Warriors.
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