On June 22, the NBA will hold its annual player draft in Brooklyn, New York. The consensus top pick will be Victor Wembanyana, a 19-year-old French professional who currently plays for the Metropolitans 92 of the LNB Pro A league. He has been described as the best draft prospect since all-time NBA scoring leader LeBron James was selected first by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003. Who is Wembanyana, and could he really be in the same class as LeBron?
An 'alien' arrives
Professional basketball is a physically grueling sport, but to exceed at the highest levels it helps to be unusually tall. Wembanyana stands at around 7 feet 4 inches, and he will be one of the tallest players in the league's history if and when he makes his debut, although far from the most towering. But it is his all-around game that has observers gushing and every team wishing he was theirs. Wembanyama wants to play power forward, whereas players of his build have generally been positioned at center.
Phoenix Suns power forward Kevin Durant remarked that Wembanyama has "cheat code-type vibes." LeBron James called him an "alien" — as a compliment. An unnamed scout told Sports Illustrated that "he's like a combination of the best parts of every great player. He's the perfect prospect." League executives apparently agreed, and multiple teams engaged in the controversial tactic of "tanking" – stripping down a team's roster to lose as many games as possible, and thus getting the highest possible odds of the top pick in the draft — 1 in 7. The San Antonio Spurs tied with the Houston Rockets for the second-worst record in the sport in 2022-2023, and Spurs owner Peter Holt celebrated wildly on Tuesday when he realized the Spurs would get the top choice. There seems to be little doubt that the Spurs will take the telegenic and charming Wembanyama with that pick.
A life in sports
Wembanyama's parents are both skilled athletes. His father Félix, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was a track and field star, particularly in high jumping, and his mother, Elodie de Fautereau, was a pro basketball player who played for the French national team. Wembanyama learned the game from de Fautereau, who now coaches at the Yvelinois Basketball Academy. His older sister Eve is a professional basketball player, and his younger brother Oscar is also a promising prospect at the age of 15. They grew up in the Paris suburb of Le Chesnay.
He quickly stood out as a youth basketball star, with one person mistaking him for an assistant coach when he was just 10 years old. He burst onto the global basketball scene in 2020 with the widely-watched YouTube video of a then-16-year-old Wembanyama scrimmaging with NBA All-Star Rudy Gobert. This year, he led his young French team, which draws much larger crowds than is typical, to a 23-11 regular season record and is almost certain to be named the league's Most Valuable Player.
Still, Wembanyama is not guaranteed a Hall of Fame career. For one thing, the NBA's greatest players are generally not quite this tall. LeBron James is "just" 6 feet 9 inches, and Michael Jordan was 6 feet 6 inches during his playoff days for the legendary Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990s. In fact, only three of the 26 players who clocked in at 7-foot-3 or taller have made it to the NBA Hall of Fame, including Yao Ming. That's in part because players who are 7 feet tall or bigger have tended to miss substantially more games due to injury — a 2014 analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that such players were hurt for almost a quarter of their games. There is simply more stress on their joints due to their size, in addition to some genetic ailments that afflict particularly tall people. Deadspin's DJ Dunson recently quipped that "the team of biomechanics experts studying Wembanyama when he gets drafted will rival The Manhattan Project's collection of scientific minds."
Still, one peer-reviewed study found no relationship between height and injury in professional basketball, and Wembanyama has no current injury concerns. His arrival in the NBA next year is likely to be one of the sport's biggest moments in years.