Victor Wembanyama: Future #1 NBA Draft Pick

A few weeks back, Victor Wembanyama went viral for a clip of him playing 2 on 2 against Rudy Gobert. The 2004 born prospect could be seen on every big basketball highlight account. For the larger basketball audience, this was the introduction to Wembanyama. Not only was the 16 year old prospect scoring over an NBA player, he was making Gobert (measured at 7′ 0.5″ without shoes) look small. There was intrigue, there were questions, and there were a lot of bad takes. Everyone had an opinion on what this skinny French kid’s chances were based on the highlights of a casual pick-up game. But one thing was clear: the youth movement in basketball had come to Europe. No longer will talented players like Luka Dončić be unknown by American audiences until they start learning about them in the season leading up to the draft. Players were going to get attention similar to the most hyped high school freshmen in the United States. I went back to watch Wembanyama film new and old (and very old) to get an idea of how we got here and what could be next for his career.

This past Wednesday, November 4th, Wembanyama got his first non-garbage-time action at the professional level. It wasn’t just any professional league either. He played 17 minutes for Nanterre 92 in Eurocup, one of the top leagues in the world. This wasn’t part of the original plan. Wembanyama was supposed to play Espoirs (U21) the top youth league in France. His contract allows him to play for Pôle France – a team of elite U18 prospects – in NM1, the third division and top non-professional tier in France.

Wembanyama was also on Nanterre’s pro roster but he had yet to get any playing time in 2020-2021 and it seemed like he wasn’t going to be getting much burn outside of blowouts. But in 2020, plans don’t last long and Nanterre’s plan for Wembanyama was no different. Multiple COVID-19 tests forced Nanterre to travel to Ljubljana, Slovenia with six pros and two youth players, Wembanyama and 2001-born big man Samuel Eyango-Dingo. So Wembanyama was the 7th man for Nanterre against a significantly better opponent than any team he’s ever faced.

To put Nanterre’s opponent, Cedevita Olimpija, into perspective for fans who don’t watch much international basketball, these are the four Americans that played on Wednesday:

-Kendrick Perry, who averaged 21.3 as a senior at Youngstown State in 2014
-Rion Brown, who averaged 15 points in his senior year at Miami in 2014, and averaged 6 for the Nuggets 2019 Summer League squad.
-Mikael Hopkins, who averaged 5 & 5 at Georgetown in 2015, and has made significant improvement as a scorer, especially his 3-point shooting, since graduating.
-Jarrod Jones, who averaged 15 & 9 at Ball State as a senior in 2012, and also became a much better shooter as a pro.

An NBA vet past his prime in Roko Ukić and four guys who stood out enough at the D1 level to sign pro contracts and then worked their way up the professional ladder. And now, a few years out of college, they’re in their prime. Not to mention, the many talented European players on the roster.

So keep in mind that we’re talking about a team that would be favored by double digits against any NCAA team and a player who would be preparing for his junior season in high school if he were in the United States.

Wembanyama definitely felt that pressure, he looked nervous and passive. He played 17:29, coming in for the last 2 minutes of the first half and then the last 15 minutes of the game.

He clearly didn’t want the ball and just wanted to do his job and leave. It was the complete opposite of most Wembanyama games where he is the center of attention because of all the different areas where he contributes on both ends. He would catch it and immediately pass back, he was just playing it safe. Then, a few minutes into the 3rd quarter, he blocked a shot and grabbed a rebound on defense with Nanterre in a zone.

All of a sudden, instead of passing immediately on every touch, he was calling for the ball. He wanted to score. And a couple possessions later he did.

It’s like as soon as he did, he realized that he could hang with Cedevita and there was no reason for him not to be on the court with them. He ended up blocking a few more shots and finishing a nice oop in transition.

5 point, 6 rebound performances don’t often get much attention. But what Wembanyama is doing at his age is incredible and at each level he plays against, he exceeds expectations. It was enough for me to tweet a somewhat hot take that I had been struggling with for a couple weeks.

The rise of Wembanyama has been quick but steady and we may just be getting started.

The first time that his name really started to come up in these discussions was back to Wembanyama’s FIBA debut in August 2019 where he made the all-tournament team at the U16 European Championships. At 15 years old standing 7’ 2” with a wingspan reported between 7’ 8” and 8’, it was pretty clear that Wembanyama was a high level prospect.

Ok here’s where I do the Rudy Gobert thing, let’s get it out of the way.

I’m not sure the Gobert comparisons would come up as often if Wembanyama was from Iowa instead of France. But with France across his chest, superhuman length, and 37 blocks in 165 minutes, it was an inevitability.

A headline reading “This 16 year old French kid is the next Rudy Gobert” is the best way to get clicks and at this point, the two are probably inseparable in the minds of most fans. But it’s boring to me. Partly because I’m not a fan of player comparisons in general but mostly just because Wembanyama is so fun in ways that Gobert isn’t.

Where I do think there is value in this conversation is when projecting what kind of defender Wembanyama will be in the NBA. I don’t think the question is about how much Wembanyama will look like Gobert on defense. I think the question is how much more could he be and, in my opinion, will he be. So before I upset any Jazz fans, I want to reiterate that Gobert is used as a gauge for Wembanyama, not because I think Gobert is bad but because he is good. Then again….

In Gobert’s oldest film that I could find on the internet, he is 17 playing in the U18 league, and 18 and 19 playing Espoirs. Despite being older than Wembanyama is now, Gobert was not as dominant on defense as Wembanyama is today. When Gobert was 18, he averaged 2.3 blocks in 33 minutes per game at the Espoirs level. In 15 career Espoirs games between last season and this season, Wembanyama is averaging 3.1 blocks in 21.6 minutes per game. That’s at ages 15 and 16. And it wasn’t just the stats, they were on different levels as shot blockers and Wembanyama clearly has a head start on young Gobert. But Gobert was a late bloomer. He made massive improvements, from 21.4 minutes per game his last year at Cholet to 9.6 as a rookie before jumping to 26.3 in his second NBA season. Where did Gobert make improvements and where does Wembanyama have the most room to improve?

Gobert had trouble defending away from the rim and his instincts at the rim were not quite the same as he or Wembanyama today. His lateral movement still isn’t great but it was worse then and he had much less body control in the air than he does now. Just like Wembanyama, he had to improve his strength. He was stronger than Wembanyama but not by much and he was older. It’s not surprising as he’s a young 7-footer and big men frequently take longer to improve their bodies and start to have the look of an NBA player. One thing they both have going for them is freakishly long arms. In this clip where Wembanyama blocks his shot with both arms because that’s just how long they are.

But there’s more to it than just size with Wembanyama. He also sets himself apart with his core strength, body control, and excellent second and third efforts.

While Wembanyama does have crazy long arms, he’s not completely out of control like you might expect. In this clip he’s able to stop himself from blocking a shot and save his team two points by not blocking a shot.

One area where Wembanyama excels is getting to the ball quickly. He has excellent footwork when leaving the floor to create lift to get in the air and quickly get his arm to the ball. He can jump off any foot and block with either hand. Wembanyama’s standing reach – one of the most important factors in shot blocking – will be one of the highest in NBA history. Combine that with his high basketball IQ and quick footwork to get in position and load his feet and there’s no reason for him to quickly jump forward like many shot blockers. Instead of having to meet a shot right out of a player’s hands, Wembanyama can wait a split second longer and create a greater window of time to get to the ball when he’s in position and reach for shots that only he could get if not.

Gobert has a bad habit of keeping his hands up when sliding his feet. He did it more at a younger age but he still does as a pro. Going back to the previous paragraph, Gobert does this to be ready to react to shot quickly. If he put his hands down, he would be able to slide quicker, and his movement to get to shots would be more explosive. Because he has to keep them up, he slows himself down moving laterally and doesn’t use his arms to create lift off the ground. Wembanyama is a much more natural lateral mover and his quick reactions to shots on drives allow him to pick up more blocks here.

Wembanyama is a one man wrecking crew on defense. He isn’t the quickest on the perimeter but he covers so much ground that he frequently blocks drivers who have blown by him. The only thing stopping him is his teammates who almost never have a better shot at it than he does.

Just because Gobert was able to answer questions about his strength and ability to defend the post doesn’t mean that they weren’t questions worthy of asking, or that Wembanyama doesn’t need to drastically improve here himself. Just go to any video of him on YouTube and you’ll see a mixture of “I really hope he puts on weight” and “he’s too skinny, he’ll never make it” from insightful internet commenters who are apparently used to seeing 7-footers who can bench 300 pounds as high schoolers.

He has three years to put on muscle and fill out his frame. However, there may be more urgent adjustments required in other areas. The right-left footwork he uses to get his arm to the ball quickly is one of his biggest advantages but it also exposes his biggest weakness. It’s very similar to a volleyball spike which utilizes many of the same principles to maximize the force put into the ball. The left leg bears a significant amount of the force that goes into the jump, as it acts as a fulcrum. It simultaneously stops momentum from horizontal movement and turns that energy into vertical lift and rotation. What these volleyball players don’t have is the harsh knee valgus that Wembanyama has on many of his jumps. They use more rotation, as well as the strength of their glutes, quadriceps, and hips to prevent their knee from going in as far as his does.

This is an issue he must address first and foremost in the weight room. It’s concerning that he has worn some kind of sleeve or brace on that knee on a couple occasions. If he puts on weight in his upper body first, it will only put more stress on that knee. It appears that he’s focusing on the right things in this video released by Nanterre last season. It’s going to be a long process for Wembanyama to look like he’s strong enough for the NBA but if he can improve his lower body, he could have the functional strength necessary by the time his name is called.

The biggest question as it relates to defense is his ability to withstand contact and still affect a shot. It’s hard to tell exactly how much of an issue this is will be for Wembanyama because so few opponents have dared to try to finish through him. Even if they were able to overpower him, his length still makes finishes very difficult. Obviously, players are much bigger and stronger in the NBA and it will take a lot less for them to go over and through Wembanyama so the more progress he makes between now and then, the better.

While Gobert had to improve his strength before entering the NBA, especially in his rookie season in the league, he also had to significantly improve his mobility and coordination. With Wembanyama there’s not nearly as much of a gap to make up between where he is now and where he has to be before entering the league in those categories. Gobert was definitely a late bloomer and it’s very, very unlikely that Wembanyama will improve at the same pace that Gobert did in his age 17-22 years. But he doesn’t need to. He already has a lot of those skills that an NBA rim protector doesn’t have and now he needs to build on them. He may have a longer road to go in terms of strength but Gobert was very skinny at his age too. It can be done. And if not, he just has to continue to make reasonable improvements in the other areas, mobility, timing, vertical explosiveness, etc. to surpass Gobert’s prowess.

So in terms of defending – particularly shot-blocking – it’s not difficult to see a path for Wembanyama to be more effective than Gobert. Defense and shot-blocking is what Gobert, a top 25-30 NBA player by anyone’s standards and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, is known for. We’re just getting started.

Ok, I’m done talking about Rudy Gobert.

The competition that Wembanyama faced at U16s was the highest level he saw until the Adidas Next Generation Tournament in Kaunas in February 2020. ANGT is a U18 tournament that features most of the top clubs in Europe split up into four different regional qualifying tournaments. Wembanyama was playing two years up against mostly 2002-born competition. It was the next test to see if the hype was real and how he would fare in a more difficult competition.

This is how the first quarter of the first game went for Wembanyama. 7:45 on the court…1:15 on the highlights.

He was dominant right away. It was a statement that he wasn’t going anywhere. Not only did he live up to the hype from the previous summer but he exceeded it. Mike Schmitz of ESPN wrote an article on Wembanyama and the hype was starting to make its way to the United States for the first time.

Throughout the tournament, Wembanyama’s high skill level was on display in ways it wasn’t in the past. He was asked to do more for his team than he was the summer before and he carried that load well. Everything that Wembanyama had showed flashes of at FIBA six months earlier, he was allowed to expand on and had clearly grown in.

Wembanyama again made the all-tournament team, this time he was joined by now-Arizona freshman Ąžuolas Tubelis, Wake Forest commit Cameron Hildreth, mid to high major PG prospect Augustas Marčiulionis, and fellow 2004-born NBA prospect Paulius Murauskas. Wembanyama finished the Kaunas regional 10th in points, 2nd in rebounds (3rd off, 2nd def), and 4th in steals. His nine blocks vs. Zaragoza would have led the tournament even if he didn’t block any shots in the other three games but he still blocked fifteen other shots to be sure.

Nanterre brought a young team to Kaunas. It’s typically not among the clubs that go to ANGT and it was reflected in their roster with many 2003 and 2004 born players. But they had the best prospect at the tournament and it was enough for a 2-1 record in the group stage, two close wins and a blowout loss to Žalgiris Kaunas. They then lost in another blowout to Joventut in the third place game of the tournament. Wembanyama was clearly tired in the two losses, which occurred in the second game of the first day, and in the 3rd place game – the fourth game in three days – he didn’t even start.

While these tournaments have been the best place for a broader audience to watch Wembanyama, there are some issues that only seem to pop up in a tournament setting. He does settle for shots too often and occasionally get blown by on defense but many of his issues, including the aforementioned, are much more frequent towards the end of tournaments. Playing four games in three days at ANGT and seven games in nine days at FIBA clearly takes a toll on Wembanyama.

There’s a chance that these tournaments are actually causing most to underrate him to some extent. Or at least, underrate him for the wrong reasons. With how much he was asked to do and how little help he got at ANGT – the tournament with the least rest – it’s understandable for him to be tired by the end. But the conditioning question still has to be asked. How is he going to handle three games in four days at 36 minutes per game at NBA speed? That’s a question that Wembanyama will have to answer with his training. It may take care of itself to some extent as he reaches his athletic prime but it may also become more difficult as he puts on weight. He already exerts significantly more energy to move his 7’ 3” frame than a smaller player so his conditioning will be a focus throughout his career.

One of Wembanyama’s most impressive traits is his motor. He consistently plays hard but it’s not nearly as apparent in tournament settings. A little thing that he almost always does is fight for rebounding position when his teammates shoot free throws. He uses a lot of spin moves and swim moves to get the rim on shots that he probably doesn’t have a great chance to get to, even if they do miss. It’s a small thing that doesn’t have a huge effect on the final score but that’s just how hard Wembanyama plays.

One game recently where his motor really stood out was his NM1 debut with Pôle France against one of the top teams in NM1, Le Havre.

NM1 is not technically a professional league, it’s more like a pro-am league. It’s far from your average rec league that you’ll find at the local YMCA. The competition is tough for young guys, many of the players in the league do get paid and a lot of them are former pros. PFBB had lost 28 games in a row, not winning since May 2019, and had not won a road game since April 2011. But that changed in their 72-63 win in October. That’s the effect that Wembanyama has at every level he’s played at. He continues to move up and face better and better opponents and he’s yet to find a level where he isn’t immediately impactful. His motor was on display throughout. Scouts may realize they have been missing aspects of his game that only shine through when he’s rested.

Wembanyama didn’t just help Pôle France win, he carried them to victory. They needed every minute they got from him against Le Havre’s solid frontcourt. 33 year old 7’ 1” center Romain Duport is a professional, he spent over a decade in Jeep Élite and even played a couple seasons in Euroleague and Eurocup with Strasbourg and Cholet. Kevin Mondesir moves between Pro B and NM1 but he’s a solid player who has a lot of strength that Wembanyama isn’t used to. He was a force on the defensive end, blocking shots and discouraging shots at the rim.

Wembanyama also made some excellent passes. He has great vision and he’s becoming much more effective at quickly making passes as the entire defense adjusts to him having the ball.

Wembanyama has always been a willing and creative passer but never before was he able to execute them consistently. He’s very similar to Aleksej Pokuševski in that regard. Wembanyama has been able to close the gap by passes he wants to make and passes he successfully makes by taking less risks and become more accurate as a passer.

Let’s go back in time even further.

Wembanyama was playing U14 two years ago so it’s not like there’s a ton of film to work with but I went way back to get some insight into how he got to this point as a prospect. Shoutout to the dads who put their sons’ U11 games on YouTube.

Typically when a young player towers over everyone else on the court, they spend most of their time around the rim. Coaches who have a player with a huge height advantage feed them easy catch and finish buckets at the rim and run a lot of zone to keep them in the paint blocking shots and grabbing rebounds. If I walked into the gym and saw a U13 team with a player like Wembanyama, I would be pleasantly surprised to see that team playing man defense with their star big man defending on the perimeter, while allowing him to handle the ball, and shoot jumpers.

However, it’s not a surprise at all watching back and knowing the player that Wembanyama is now. I watched as far back as when he was just nine years old playing at the U11 level (although he looked like an 11 year old playing U9) and I saw the same thing throughout his career on offense. He was definitely coached and guided but it never looks like he was told that he couldn’t do certain things on the court. Not only was he given freedom to handle the ball but, most importantly, he was allowed to make mistakes doing it. And he did make mistakes.

If he was never handling the ball at that age, it’s unlikely he would be as comfortable on the perimeter as he is currently. It seems simple but for a long time this wasn’t how things worked with youth coaches. If you’re thinking “well if he was the best ball handler, of course they let him handle the ball” then you haven’t watched much U10-U13 basketball. Can’t blame you, but unfortunately that’s not how it typically plays out because no matter how good the kid with a 6+ inch height advantage is on the perimeter, it’s always going to be easier to win with them camped at the rim.

Side note: Any coach who still thinks like this, stop coaching please. If a kid can play, they can play. You’re not making them better. Maybe it turns out that their ideal role in the future is only to post up and block shots. Great. Getting shots over kids half their size won’t help them become that. If you never let them handle the ball at the early stages, they never will at the next levels. Unless you have incentives written into your contract tied to the number of wins your U12 team gets, you’re not helping anyone except your own ego. The kid with potential will have a tougher time being the best version of themself and the kid without potential will just quit a year earlier and hate basketball because they turn it over 10 times a game. Rant over.

Wembanyama was actually pretty solid and clearly had some natural talent with the ball.

He’s grown more confident in his handle and it’s a useful part of his offensive arsenal that will only continue to grow as he continues to get comfortable in his body that I’m assuming will stop growing at some point. His high center of gravity and long legs make it tough for him to change directions and maneuver in tight spaces but his handle is very functional, especially in space such as transition where he is very effective.

As he’s moved up, it’s become more rare to see Wembanyama running offense in the half-court but the time he spent doing so will serve him well going forward. He may never be the dynamic scorer like Kevin Durant, currently the closest example of a ball handling big man, but he will be more effective driving a hard close-out or putting it on the floor on a short roll than a typical big man would be.

Like I said, Wembanyama’s teams appeared to exclusively play man defense early on in his youth career. I won’t make you read another rant but this was also important for his growth. As the best and biggest player on his team, he got to guard the best and biggest players on the opposing team. He still had size advantages ranging from huge to hilarious but that’s the case more often than not even in 2020.

The ability to move his feet on the perimeter is very unique to a player of his size. His footwork was even more awkward than it is now as he was constantly growing. But he grew a lot here and it’s an area he is now somewhat comfortable in and it’s why he can now move his feet on the perimeter well enough to keep up and blocks.

In February 2018, Wembanyama played Minicopa Endesa with FC Barcelona. Minicopa is a U14 tournament for Spanish clubs. Many of the top clubs invite talented young players from around Europe to give themselves a better chance at winning the competitive tournament and maybe a shot at bringing the player to their club. Wembanyama had recently grown and was about 6’ 10” at the time. Barcelona assumed that because he was so tall, he was used to playing in the post and that’s where he would have the most success. Wembanyama clearly wasn’t a fan. He tried post moves but it was clear that he didn’t have much experience there. He was always down low calling for the ball but usually he just caught it and took it to the 3-point line.

The language barrier (Spanish youth teams typically speak Spanish unlike most mixed-nationality teams in most countries) might have been an issue for him. Wembanyama did get some chances. He still got to do some of what he does well but ultimately, he just looked too uncomfortable to be impressive. Occasionally, Wembanyama would slowly get to the offensive end, it seemed like he may have been doing this just to get a chance to have the ball on the perimeter. He took every chance he had to handle the ball, which it seemed like his coaches weren’t always fans of.

The coaching staff probably didn’t realize he had never played in the post. He had also never played against players of that size. His strength was another thing that held him back, as it was an issue in his first time playing players of that size.

Despite his skinny body, Wembanyama’s reach allows him to be successful in the post. He has quick footwork and is stronger than he looks, with the ability to overpower mismatches.

But he cannot back anyone down and he has to be in position to be effective. He frequently settles for rushed post fades. It’s a good shot to have in his arsenal because it’s impossible to block but for that exact reason, he needs to be more patient to get on balance and hit at a higher rate.

2018-2019 was the year Wembanyama figured it out. It’s also the last season that game film just doesn’t really exist until the end of the year. But it’s pretty clear from his performance in May that this is a different player than we had seen in the past. He grew significantly and seemed to move more fluidly than before. This was in the months leading up to the FIBA U16 tournament and when France started to realize that they might have a generational prospect on their hands.

One of the biggest new developments was his shooting. The make to airball ratio still leaned slightly in favor of airballs but there was something there. He had always been confident in his shot but it was starting to look more and more like something that would actually be effective. He took his guide hand off the ball, and become more consistent with his wrist, a big issue in the year prior that arose when he started releasing from his eyes instead of his chest.

The most impressive part of his shooting is the rhythm and dip he takes. It’s very rare for a 7-footer to have a shot that looks as natural as his. He has great balance on the move and really impressive range as a result.

He does take some wild off dribble shots that are not the most accurate. But if he can reel those in like he did his catch and shoot looks, he will incredibly tough to stop. His movement shooting and off the dribble attempts are strong evidence that should be make them more in the future. That’s dangerous; there aren’t many players that can contest his shots and the ones that can will have a tough time keeping up with him if he does start shooting more off the dribble.

At his age, it’s rare for any player to have great percentages from three. Wembanyama has only recently starting shooting with proper form as he’s now able to actually get the ball to the rim when doing so. While his 13/53 shooting from deep last year and 4/9 this year (27.4% on 62 total attempts) may not inspire a ton of confidence, he’s still very young as shooters go (see @mikegrib8 on twitter today) a solid foundation to turn himself into at least an average shooter at the NBA level.

Also, Wembanyama is apparently shooting with both hands now?

Right now, the best spot for Wembanyama is at the high post, where the Espoirs team frequently keeps him. His passing is most valuable here when he isn’t forced to handle the ball as much as on the perimeter but he can still be the focal point of the offense. His shooting, and ability to put it on the floor and take a couple dribbles to the rim, forces the defense to give him their maximum attention when he catches it at the free throw line.

If he starts catching at the free throw line and finishing these….

He can just as easily step out for a three as he can crash the boards for second chance points, one of his most valuable skills.  

Wembanyama is also extremely effective in transition where he has space to handle the ball and the vision to make passes. He sprints to the rim, going for lobs before the defense can get a rim protector back. He runs hard, with and without the ball knowing that he’s probably going to be able to make an impact near the rim.

Whether Wembanyama’s primary role is eventually more of a spot-up shooter, screen setter, or high post operator is still to be determined. Where he will add value from Day 1 in the NBA is his defense.

Defensively, Wembanyama is the kind of player that opposing offenses have to gameplan around. Knowing that there will not be easy looks at the rim and there isn’t a great way to play Wembanyama off the court, he isn’t a liability on the perimeter and he rarely ends up in foul trouble, makes it a tough assignment for opposing coaches. Even those who try to exploit his lack of strength haven’t had consistent success to date.

Wembanyama is a defensive anchor that completely changes a defense. He discourages shots at the rim just by being somewhere on the court and he’s extremely active on defense causing havoc and creating turnovers with his length.

Wembanyama is a cerebral, intelligent player with unlimited potential. By all accounts, he loves the game of basketball and he is working hard to fix the issues (namely strength) that could be his downfall. He has NBA franchise player potential, completely changing a team’s outlook in the NBA like he does on his youth teams. He continues to exceed every expectation and hit every milestone quicker than the most optimistic timeline could predict.

Wembanyama wasn’t supposed to play a role on Nanterre’s EuroCup team this season but a COVID-19 outbreak threw him into action. Now, he may have performed well enough to earn minutes going forward in the prestigious league. The team social media account seems to think so…

We’ll see how much he, and ID Prospects’ top ranked 2003-born player Jean Montero, play in the matchup on Wednesday. It may give a good indication of where we’ll see Wembanyama spending most of his time this season.

No matter what happens, it’s pretty clear that we’ll be able to watch Victor Wembanyama in the NBA before too long.

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