The Defensive Uniqueness of Victor Wembanyama

The videos used in this content are from the 2020-2021 season.

It would not be surprising if different sized people were able to reach different maximum running speeds. For example, the length and overall size differences between beefy sprinters and some distance runners are determined by simple rules of form and function. Basically, the big bulk of speed monsters is explained by their need to hit the running surface harder to attain faster speeds. And when you think about it, the closer to the ground you are (or the shorter you are) the more likely you are to gain speed and momentum. In a basketball context, the recovery/footwork reaction/closeout running time will be in your favor.

Let’s be physics nerds for a bit. According to Albert Einstein’s special relativity theorem, time, space and motion are not independent of each other. On the contrary, these are all relative events that are interconnected. The object needs time, the time needs the object, the space needs motion, the motion needs the space and all these need each other.

In basketball, things that are very relevant to the player’s physical tools, such as having momentum, speed, and balance, are very important in a player’s shooting form, slashing skills and rebounding ability.

However, as a defender, the player’s need for these things multiplies. Because everything has accelerated in basketball and continues to accelerate. The player can’t be slow regardless of his position.

While I disagree with the idea that defenses are seen as unimportant in the NBA, I think the defense in Europe is much tougher. That’s why for this content, we’ll take a look at some notable defenders from EuroLeague history. You probably know who Kyle Hines is. He is one of the best centers in European basketball history and is an excellent rim protector.

You may also know Ekpe Udoh. The former Clippers and Jazz player was EuroLeague’s most effective defender while at Fenerbahçe. He was not only a good rim protector, but one of the closest defenders to the all-around level.

Let’s go back. One of the most decorated defensive players of the century, former Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion center Fran Vazquez, in his 254 career EuroLeague games, amassed 1,640 points and 911 rebounds. Even though the 2015-16 campaign was his last in the competition, Vazquez remains the all-time leader in blocked shots with 249. Shaun Stonerook retired as the seventh all-time stealer in Italian League with 1143 steals in eleven seasons. Stonerook was a completely unusual power forward, basically because his numerical ratio in statistical terms is beyond what is expected for an internal player. He was a good rebounder but his rebounds and very low average point-per-minute ratio (0.26) show us how important he was defending. Either with the ball or without the ball, he was a CRAZY defender in all terms. Besides bigs and forwards, there was a pretty important guard defender: Dimitris Diamantidis.

Now, I won’t talk about how Rudy Gobert is an extremely good defender. Same for Kawhi Leonard, Robert Covington, etc. You already know who they are and why they are good defenders. The archetype of defenders in Europe that I want to mention in these examples is based both on high-effort non-stat-sheet plays and block and steals numbers that do go on the stat sheet. However, we haven’t seen a young player above 7-foot-0 in Europe make this type of impact on the defensive end. There are two players in this sense, one is Yannick Nzosa and the other is Victor Wembanyama. This content is about Wembanyama.

Victor Wembanyama is a unique defender because as a 16-year old player who has 7-foot-3 height and an 8-foot wingspan, he has awareness on defense and can make a positive impact in every sense. Yes, sometimes it can be easy to go by him in live dribble situations but he can fix it because he has good speed.

Going back to my physics nerd section at the beginning, the three purest and most basic things (time, space, and motion) that an object has are completely interconnected. When we consider these three things in terms of height/speed/momentum ratio, we can expect Wembanyama to have many problems with his defensive capabilities. However, I think he is doing quite well in this regard compared to his age.

Before diving to some clips, let’s talk about some defensive fundamentals. So, clearly, all players have to learn how to defend a player that has the ball on the perimeter. Let’s call it on-ball defense. The player should get directly in front of the offensive player. The player must get their head on the ball, and his/her chest facing the offense. The defensive player’s hands should be active. One hand should close the offensive player’s dribble or passing angle. One hand should follow the ball. The defensive player’s stance should lower than the offense’s stance to exploit the ball.

In action, rim protection, switching, closing-out, etc. come to the table. My favorite advanced defensive skill here is closing-out. The key principle here is for the player to get into an excellent defensive position to defend his/her opponent as they catch the ball. Arm length, balance, etc. come to the table here. BUT if you have outstanding size/length/frame, closing-out could be a curse for you. Because you probably slow – you have the length, remember the beginning. So now, we can dive into Wembanyama’s clips. I think you get my vision here.

In this possession, Wembanyama’s lack of strength hurts him; as you can see that he wasn’t chasing the #41. However, take a look that picture.

He does a pretty good job of covering the handler and getting back to his man quickly. He doesn’t waste time, doesn’t make a defensive move that will break the whole line of the team.

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He fights with Khalifa Diop while also covering the strong-side game with his length. Tags all off ball offensive players who are around the rim very well and after shows good effort closing-out.

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The shooter baits him here at the end but do you see how he moves well laterally around the line? He tags the roller very well and then, runs to the shooter quickly before biting on the pump fake, which can be fixed.

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I mean, like the octopus scene. One hand follows the ball, another hand closes the angle, his body looks GOOD in terms of positioning, head in the game, and his entire torso is ready to make a quick move.

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One of the hardest things about making the close-out perfect is getting the right foot movement. Wembanyama’s feet look upside-down here. However, body coordination, downforce, and incredible length making good harmony, which allows him to make a good close-out.

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As I said, it can be easy sometimes to get by him in live dribble-ISO situations. However, it doesn’t happen every time. Let’s have a look at how Wembanyama puts Arnas Velička on a tough angle to close all of his possible scoring options. Pushing him to a “bad side” of the court.

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Yes, now, we are in the block clips.

There are various types of blocking the shot. However, in general, all types of blocks need five things: timing, aggressiveness, good body positioning (if you’re too far you are less likely to block but if you’re too close you’ll be more likely to make a foul), leaping, and the ability to use the length. Victor Wembanyama has demonstrated many times this season that he has these qualities.

The last thing I want to talk about is his awareness as a defender. When watching a player’s defensive performance, the criterion I specifically pay attention to is the player’s defensive awareness. Because although you are a unique defender, you cannot defend all five players on the court by yourself. You should talk to your teammates, guide them, and see the court. You should try to make an impact on all rotations – but also shouldn’t make mistakes as a help defender, because if you do, your man will be open. So, you should not sleep and be active. As a 16-year-old player, Wembanyama has excellent defensive awareness.

These are just quick thoughts about his defensive abilities. I cannot define him as an “NBA-ready defender”, because of his lack of strength and experience which naturally hurt him. However, he has two more years before he’s eligible to enter the NBA Draft, and he already makes an impact on the defensive end with his versatility, even at the level of Eurocup. So, he is a unicorn because he is 7-foot-3 and can shoot the ball – love for Pokusevski here also. However, his upside and uniqueness as a defender will always be where he adds the most value and his biggest selling point as a future prospect.

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