Victor Wembanyama now faces his toughest opponent: expectation

Betsy Reed

Victor Wembanyama’s rookie hazing tipped off before this week’s NBA draft. After origamiing his 7ft 4in frame (some say he’s taller) onto a flight from Paris to Newark, he folded himself again for a subway ride to the Bronx to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium, missing well outside of home plate. (Zut alors.) All the while a frothing New York press mob gawked at him like he was something that had slipped out from under PT Barnum’s tent.

But by Thursday Wembanyama was standing tall again in a green kimono suit after the San Antonio Spurs tapped him with the night’s first pick. It’s a status that comes with significant expectation, and the pressure on Wembanyama – the surest prospect since LeBron James, it’s been said – was immense; the King himself has called the Frenchman “an alien,” one dwarfed only in the NBA by Washington’s Boban Marjanović.

Not only that: Wembanyama heads a draft class that’s remarkably short on name recognition, thanks to the rising trend of top prospects opting to make their names away from the bright lights of elite college basketball. For many many fans, if there’s any doubt about the 19-year-old with the 18ft wingspan, it’s not about if he’ll win a championship; it’s about how many and how soon. Worse, if he falls short, it will be because he failed to clear a high bar he never set for himself in the first place.

Basketball wasn’t always judged so harshly. It used to be that you could appreciate a player for the same grit and artistry that tennis fans celebrate in their court idols. But as the conversation around the pro game has devolved into one endless GOAT debate, there’s been a mushrooming urgency to toss in younger names just for the sake of trying to win the argument. James didn’t exactly cool down the talk by fulfilling just about every expectation set for him since his high school games were nationally broadcast.

Wembanyama doesn’t just have six inches or so on James. He comes to the NBA a professional already, with a championship and an MVP award from the French league. Where James was an athletic marvel who took years to develop a multi-level offensive arsenal, Wembanyama became an expert ball handler from watching Pistol Pete tutorials and And1 mixtapes, can drain three-pointers with either hand and dunk the misses in one bound. With further tutelage from his new coach, Gregg Popovich, Wembanyama is well poised to follow in the San Antonio tradition of gilded big men and foreign-born heroes – that latter legend owing much to the OG French connection Tony Parker.

Within seconds of commissioner Adam Silver announcing Wembanyama’s name on Thursday night, Parker set the stage for what comes next. “I hope you’re gonna change basketball for the best, and you’re gonna live up to all those expectations,” Parker said in a pre-taped message. “Now it’s your turn to bring us a championship.” It’s a shadow made longer by the fact that Parker never left San Antonio and hopes to have a hand in guiding Wembanyama’s NBA transition.

And yet: the pressure doesn’t appear to faze the young Frenchman, who carries himself with a maturity beyond his years – more nonchalant than insouciant. “I think if I wasn’t a basketball player, my second passion would be … drawing,” he told ABC’s Robin Roberts ahead of the draft over a gloomy Parisian déjeuner. “It’s really something that is really myself, really in my soul.”

His is a truly old soul with a fabled affinity for bobbysoxers like Michael Douglas, whose hopeless one-man campaign to win Wembanyama a spot on his beloved Miami Heat is officially on hold for the moment. (Although credit to Miami: they could’ve tanked their season to try getting Wembanyama as Dallas did, a foundering bid that resulted in a $750,000 league fine.) It’s not hard to imagine Wembanyama and Popovich ruminating on the moods of their cherished game and its shifting place in a changing world over a dusty Bordeaux at the coach’s crib – since, legally, Wembanyama is still too young to buy a round in the US.

All this would seem to set up Wembanyama for dizzying success. But only time can tell how the ball ultimately bounces. NBA lore is awash with can’t-miss prospects who never met the hype, through no fault of their own. Big men have it particularly hard, what with their greatest strength, – their size – also being especially vulnerable to the repeated shocks and stresses of the game. Critics already have Wembanyama framed up as too frail for the NBA – as if he’s about to back his 230lbs frame into Rick Mahorn on the low block, or as if Kevin Durant didn’t blossom into a reedy assassin.

But that’s not to say any skepticism is unjustified. For every Kareem, there’s Sean Bradley, Eddy Curry and Michael Olowokandi. Chet Holmgren, the 7-footer picked second in last year’s NBA draft, has yet to play a regular-season game for the Oklahoma City Thunder since a Lisfranc injury grounded him at a summer pro-am. Hiccups can happen to shorter players too. Four years ago Ja Morant and Zion Williamson, the last best prospect since LeBron, were thought to be headed for permanent NBA stardom only for their progress to stall from injury and off-court issues that were largely self-inflicted.

A history-making career is a lot to ask of a professional in any field, much less one where the best prospects don’t even get to choose their future workplace. What’s more, NBA lore is full of lesser heralded talents who found their way to greatness over time: guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, and Nikola Jokić – the player head and shoulders above the rest at the moment. Just because everything seems lined up for Wembanyama to succeed doesn’t mean that he won’t veer off course, or that he should be condemned for that. Even if he never changes the game or revives the Spurs or (gasp) wins a championship, he’s still the teenage hoops phenom who defied the odds to become the first top draft pick in his country’s history; whether he turns into Bill Russell or Bill Walton doesn’t change any of that.

The upshot of course is that Wembanyama has his sights set pretty high, too. It’d just be nice if he were free to pursue his goals at his own pace without feeling like he has to bend over backwards for the rest of us.

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