Inside the rise of Victor Wembanyama: ‘When I saw him, I knew he was just special’
Ahead of his first games on American soil, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA draft has the basketball world buzzing about his talent and future
LAS VEGAS – Nicolas Batum was walking out of a French men’s basketball team practice in suburban Paris four years ago when this giant kid caught his eye and stopped him from departing.
The 14-year-old wowed Batum as he gracefully ran the floor at 6-feet-11, had a complete offensive game and blocked shots and dunked the ball with ease. While it’s usually kids who introduce themselves to NBA players, the Los Angeles Clippers forward made a point to introduce himself to this kid named Victor Wembanyama.
“I saw this 14-year-old kid walking and I said, ‘Hold up. Let me watch this kid play.’ I saw him moving, dribbling and I called Tony Parker right away and said, ‘We got to get this guy Victor Wembanyama.’ For anyone listening, I have been telling people during the last four years about him. They’re listening now,” Batum recently told Andscape.
Today, the entire NBA is saying we got to get this guy Victor Wembanyama, who now stands 7-3 with an 8-foot wingspan and a 9-7 standing reach, and is a generational talent widely projected to be the top pick in the 2023 NBA draft.
Wembanyama is expected to enter the 2023 NBA draft after playing for the Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92 of the French LNB Pro A league this season. The 18-year-old will be playing for the first time in a game on American soil when the G League Ignite host the Metropolitans 92 in exhibition games in Henderson, Nevada, Tuesday night and Thursday night.
Oklahoma City Thunder president Sam Presti and New Orleans Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon were among the NBA personnel who scouted Wembanyama at practice Monday here, and between 120 to 150 scouts are expected to attend the two exhibitions.
One NBA general manager told Andscape that Wembanyama will grow into his slender frame despite being about 210 pounds now and he has a chance to eventually become a “generational player.”
“Victor is a physical specimen that you rarely see, like Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] or Ralph Sampson,” the NBA general manager told Andcape. “[Wembanyama’s] length, size and skills are unmatched. His work ethic will determine what level he becomes. But he has it all.”
“I called his mom and told her I was coming [to watch Wembanyama] for fun. Not working. I’m coming as a friend. So, I went to watch. But when I saw him, I knew he was just special by the way he passed, dribbled … ” – Bouna Ndiaye
Agent Bouna Ndiaye represents such French national team members as Batum, Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert, a three-time NBA All-Star, and New York Knicks guard Evan Fournier. The Frenchman is also guiding Wembanyama’s road to the NBA.
Felix Wembanyama, who is of Congolese descent, is Victor’s father. Victor’s father, a former high jumper, stands 6-5 while his mother, Elodie de Fautereau, is 6-2, according to the Focus News. For years, Ndiaye has known Wembanyama’s mother, who was a youth basketball coach who taught his son and her own son the game. And for several years, Ndiaye was told he needed to see de Fautereau’s son play and balked at the suggestion due to his young age.
Finally, when Wembanyama was 13 years old, Ndiaye relented and immediately learned the hype was real.
“My friend told me, ‘The son of your friend [de Fautereau] is big-time. You have to go watch him. He’s 13. You have to go watch him. He’s special,’ ” Ndiaye told Andscape. “So finally, I went. I called his mom and told her I was coming for fun. Not working. I’m coming as a friend. So, I went to watch. But when I saw him, I knew he was just special by the way he passed, dribbled …
“I saw him a few times after that and with the French U-16 team. He’s unlimited.”
Wembanyama began making a name for himself worldwide after playing well for France while squaring off against 7-0 Chet Holmgren and USA Basketball during the FIBA U19 World Cup in 2021. Holmgren was the second overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft by the Thunder but will miss his rookie season due to a foot injury. Parker, a former San Antonio Spurs star, signed Wembanyama to the French power ASVEL Villeurbanne in Lyon during the 2021-22 season after Wembanyama played two seasons for league rival Nanterre 92.
Wembanyama scored 25 points in a game against Le Portel on April 3 and won his second Pro A Best Young Player Award. However, he succumbed to a muscle injury in the French Jeep Elite League semifinals and missed the rest of the season as ASVEL went on to become champions. Wembanyama averaged 9.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in 18.5 minutes over 16 French League games off the bench and 6.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks in 13 EuroLeague matches.
Two-time NBA champion Norris Cole was impressed by Wembanyama’s potential when he played against him in French League action last season. Cole says “at minimum” Wembanyama can have a similar NBA game like Washington Wizards 7-3 forward Kristaps Porzingis.
“Physically, he is very gifted with how tall he is and his reach,” Cole, who played for JL Bourg in France last season, told Andscape. “He can shoot. Obviously, his body has some work to do. But he has gifts that you can’t coach. He is very confident in his age playing against grown men …
“Can he be ‘the guy’ of a franchise? I’m not sure. The least he can be is a Porzingis-type of player. Blocking shots. Shooting 3s. He may grow to be even more.”
Parker told Andscape he offered Wembanyama an opportunity to return to ASVEL as a starter this season. But ultimately, Wembanyama decided, with the aid of Ndiaye, to opt out of the contract to leave ASVEL. Parker, a four-time NBA champion and majority owner of ASVEL, told Andscape he was disappointed by the decision but wished the teenager well.
Wembanyama acknowledged it was tough to turn down Parker’s offer, but ultimately thought it was best to return home.
“Obviously it wasn’t a happy moment for either for him or for me,” Wembanyama, who speaks fluent English, said. “But at the end of the day, I know he wishes the best for me, and he understood my decision. And it’s just a path for my career. So, I know I took the best decision and I’m grateful for what I had in ASVEL. All the time I spend there, I’m thankful.”
G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim told Andscape that Wembanyama turned down an offer from the Ignite. Jonathan Givony of ESPN also reported Wembanyama also had offers from the Australian NBL, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris Basket, among others. With the Metropolitans 92, however, Ndiaye believes he has a structure tailored to benefit Wembanyama while being home during his last season before going to the NBA.
Ndiaye said it was important for Wembanyama to “stay grounded” to prepare for the NBA, which was why he returned to Paris and did not play for French’s national team this offseason. Ndiaye added it is key to “slowly build” Wembanyama’s body for a long NBA career. To aid that mandate, Ndiaye said, Wembanyama has a weight trainer, physician and an orthopedist working with him daily.
“Everything has to be built the proper way,” Ndiaye said. “The kid is mentally ready to play anywhere. His body needs to keep being ready because he is one of the longest players we have ever seen move at that scale.”
The Metropolitans 92 also hired renowned French men’s national team head coach Vincent Collet to help develop Wembanyama.
The five-time French League Best Coach is also the head coach of French’s men’s basketball team and was ecstatic about the unique opportunity. It also helps him build a bond with Wembanyama, who is also expected to play for France during the 2024 Paris Olympics. Collet also sees Wembanyama is a generational special talent, but also hopes to raise his basketball IQ and push him to use his passing talent more.
Collett called Wembanyama the “best prospect” to come out of the French League, whose alumni includes Parker, Gobert, Fournier, Boris Diaw, Joakim Noah, and Udonis Haslem.
“He is amazing, not only by his size but incredible skills … ,” Collet said. “He still needs to learn the game. He’s very young. Last year he didn’t really play much with ASVEL. So, we will try to give him this experience. That’s the deal we have together. Him and me, we want to get experience before coming to [the NBA].”
“He’s definitely as skilled as advertised. He is going to make an immediate impact defensively. Just like all the young bigs, he is going to have to adjust to the strength of NBA pros.” — Myles Turner
While Abdur-Rahim struck out on signing Wembanyama for the Ignite, he did hit a home run on his idea to get the Metropolitans 92 to come to America to play the Ignite.
The Ignite is a G League development team in its third season that also has a heralded NBA draft prospect in guard Scoot Henderson. Henderson is projected to be the No. 2 pick in the 2023 NBA draft, but told Andscape he still holding hopes to convince scouts he’s the best choice. The two exhibition games will be played at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nev., while airing on ESPN2.
“You have a unique situation with the top two NBA prospects not playing college basketball,” Abdur-Rahim, a 2002 NBA All-Star, told Andscape. “Their paths are different than usual. How can you bring them together? We brought them together to give something interesting to basketball fans. In this case, you have Victor, who is in France. The NBA community, and its fans, in most cases, would not be able to see him.
“This is a special time to bring the talent from both teams together. You’ve been hearing rumblings about Victor through international competition and people who know the talent that he is. If he was here in the States, he would probably be a big of a name as any young player we’ve seen over the last 15-20 years.”
Wembanyama was looking forward to spending more time in the States after residing in Dallas with Ndiaye during the offseason. The teenager worked out with Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner and Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey there.
“He’s definitely as skilled as advertised,” Turner told Andscape. “He is going to make an immediate impact defensively. Just like all the young bigs, he is going to have to adjust to the strength of NBA pros. But I’m personally looking at the bigger picture, which is how tantalizing of a prospect he will be when he grows into his frame mentally and physically.”
Wembanyama also plans to attend the NBA preseason game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday in Las Vegas. Being in the States is also a reminder that his days in France are numbered before becoming an NBA player during the 2023 NBA draft. Wembanyama was born in Le Chesnay, France, on Jan. 4, 2004, and will be residing in another country for the first time upon arrival to the NBA.
“That’s something I’ve been thinking for the past couple months,” Wembanyama said. “I got to enjoy these last few months. I’m spending time with my friends. It’s a crazy thing that in the next 15, 20 years I’m not going to live in France and in Europe. I’m just going to leave my country like that …
“It’s saddening, but it’s exciting also, because I know my destiny is over there, is here in the States. But, yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. I know I miss France for sure.”
As far as living up to the media hype, Wembanyama appears to thrive in it. Currently profiled in the cover story of Slam magazine, he said he enjoyed the media questions on Monday before practice. He held two basketballs as wide as possible before practices with his Plastic Man-type wingspan for a photographer while Presti, Langdon and other NBA executives and scouts watched. He also has 209,000 followers on Instagram.
Even with the confidence, swag, and smile, Wembanyama will likely be nervous on Tuesday night.
“In terms of recognition worldwide, this is, it has got to be the biggest game I’m going to play my life,” Wembanyama said. “I’m just curious to know how it’s going to go, because we are an overseas team and we are playing against an NBA team with NBA rules, NBA court. Yeah. So, this is really going to be a first time for me … I know it’s going to go well, but I’m still curious.”
Batum offered some advice.
“I told him, ‘Embrace it, then you’re going to be fine,’ ” he said. “He’s a very smart kid.”