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Victor Wembanyama: When Are Expectations Too Much?

Heading into June 22, 2023, there weren’t going to be any surprises. A month prior, the San Antonio Spurs received the number one pick in the draft lottery, and it was sealed then that Gregg Popovich would be coaching another generationally talented big man, following the franchise’s previous selections of Hall of Famers David Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997. This time, they would be selecting the 7’4” French power forward Victor Wembanyama. Wembanyama had made waves in the international basketball scene, particularly beginning during the 2020-21 LNB Pro A season, where he would demonstrate flashes of brilliance in limited minutes for Nanterre. He was an oversized point-forward, capable of handling the ball and performing typical guard duties at well-over seven feet tall while being a lockdown post defender, immediately drawing comparisons to NBA stars such as Kevin Durant, Kristaps Porzingis, and his fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert. His statistical output and efficiency would only improve the following season as he joined ASVEL.

During the 2022-23 French season, he joined Metropolitans 92, leading the team to a 23-11 record, allowing the team to post the third highest net rating in the league, and averaging a near 22 point double-double to go alongside three blocks per game. During this time, his profile was incredibly high, with the team’s exhibitions against the G League Ignite and his fellow 2023 draft class member Scoot Henderson, the likely number one pick in any other year, being broadcast on NBA TV. Due to his mobility and breadth of skill set, particularly at his size, he established himself as the clear cut top prospect in the class. He would turn 19 in January of 2023, officially making him eligible to play in the NBA. As clip after clip of him tearing apart defenses and making seemingly inhuman defensive reads would go viral on what seemed like a weekly basis throughout the 2022-23 season, pundits and fans alike began discussing him as one of the most highly touted prospects in recent memory, with some even saying that his hype and expectations exceeded that of LeBron James, who was given his “King James” moniker by Sports Illustrated before he had even graduated high school.

It made sense for the expectations to be high. Rarely have NBA fans seen a player of his size to begin with. Listed at 7’4”, there are only a few players in the league’s history with larger frames, and even fewer were regarded as top prospects within their respective classes, most notably Yao Ming, who came into the league from China in 2002, standing at a towering 7’6”. The rarer combination came with his skillset. Of those in the ballpark of the seven foot range, very few players have emerged as three-level scoring threats and primary ballhandlers. Listed at 6’10”, Kevin Durant is probably the closest thing we’ve seen in terms of play style, which is a lofty comparison for any prospect, given Durant’s ten All-NBA selections and four scoring titles that are a mere fraction of the accolades earned throughout his Hall of Fame-level career. When you combine the size and his raw offensive talent with a high defensive IQ and motor, both on the perimeter and in the low post, you are looking at a real-life player who more closely resembles a demigod MyPlayer build from 2K than anything that has actually been encountered in the league before. The only concerns surrounding Wemby’s player profile came from his build; he’s gaunt and seems frail, despite demonstrating great flexibility and mobility. However, players that large always come with injury concerns. Yao Ming’s career only lasted for 486 regular season games due to constant foot issues. Durant has had a long career but missed a full season with an Achilles tear. Pacers legend Rik Smits lasted less than 900 games at 7’4” due to foot problems. Ralph Sampson’s knees never allowed him to become an all-time great, retiring after 456 games. It comes with the territory, but it is something to keep in mind. If his legs don’t hold up, he will enter conversations as a mere “what if?”

Following his inevitable selection at first overall, Wembanyama made his American debut in a Spurs summer league game against the Hornets where many fans found themselves underwhelmed. He scored nine points, shooting only 15.4% from the field, grabbed eight rebounds, and blocked five shots. Many pointed to a poster dunk from the recently waived Kai Jones as a lowlight from Wemby, seeming to ignore the amount of ground covered by the Frenchman in order to contest the shot coming off of a pick-and-roll. Yes, it was a disappointing effort on the offensive side of the ball, but fans were quick to call him overrated following the debut, even after following it with a twenty-seven point, twelve rebound outing in his second and final game during the Vegas festivities. Ultimately, it feels necessary to ask if the media hype and attention surrounding him in the years leading up to his NBA debut was too much. Can Wembanyama ever live up to the standard of being one of the most highly-touted prospects that has been seen in not only basketball, but in team sports in general?

When looking at the most productive Rookie of the Year seasons of all time, it begs us to wonder if we should be immediately gunning Victor to the top of the list. Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain posted a ridiculous rookie statline, averaging 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game back in the 1959-60 season, but did so back when pace was at a high point and efficiency was still in its infancy as a relative concept within basketball, at least compared to more modern standards. Looking at more modern standards, the rookie seasons of Blake Griffin, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant stand out, as all four averaged over twenty points per game, but they did so on substandard efficiency. It is the ultimate pitfall of the generational prospect in the modern lottery era; these players oftentimes are immediately handed the keys to the franchise at an incredibly young age, and while the scoring numbers may outwardly look great, they aren’t associated with winning basketball. With the exception of Griffin, the 21st century players who averaged over twenty points per game all posted career-low Player Efficiency Ratings in their rookie years on teams with losing records (note: Griffin’s Clippers had a losing record his rookie year and he posted only the seventh highest PER of his 14 year career during this season). It becomes reasonable to assume that if Wemby joins this club, it will be an indication both of a more productive career to come, at the cost of the Spurs likely being a net-negative team during the infancy of his career.

The narratives are likely to start following this that Wembanyama isn’t capable of producing winning basketball, a narrative that was a common thread throughout the early stages of LeBron’s career, despite a Finals appearance in 2007 during his age 22 season. LeBron wasn’t an NBA champion until his age 27 season in 2012, the same age as Michael Jordan when he won his first of six rings in 1991. Even if Wemby’s Spurs aren’t an immediate success, there is still comfort in knowing that the 1A and 1B in most fans’ “Greatest of All Time” discussion weren’t on top of the basketball world until the latter half of their 20s, giving Victor a solid seven seasons at the soonest to climb the mountain before any discussions surrounding him underachieving become truly warranted.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be doubters and naysayers. Despite the prospect of averaging a twenty-point double-double in his rookie year, he does find competition, namely in Scoot Henderson and Chet Holmgren. Henderson finds himself as the lead guard on a quickly rebuilding Portland Trail Blazers team, and with young wings such as Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons, recently acquired lob threats in Deandre Ayton and Robert Williams III, and veteran presence of assumed-starting power forward Jerami Grant, he is likely to find himself in a better team situation than Victor, allowing his rookie year stats to appear more impactful than anything that Victor can contribute to a team that has been stuck in relative purgatory since the Dejounte Murray trade two seasons ago.

Holmgren finds himself making his NBA debut in an even more favorable situation, coming in as the Thunder’s starting center. The Thunder contain one of the most promising young cores in all of the NBA with 2022-23 All-NBA First Team member Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Australian wonderboy Josh Giddey. Jalen Williams emerged as a Rookie of the Year candidate in the second half of last season and the team rose to 40 wins from 24 the previous year. They also own thirty-five draft picks over the next seven years, meaning that they have virtually unlimited resources in making more moves ahead of the trade deadline in February. Holmgren also fits the same archetype as Wembanyama, being a true-seven-foot stretch big with monster defensive instincts. Given his easier route to a playoff berth and potential for similar statistics to Wemby, Holmgren stands a true chance of taking over the Rookie of the Year race. The two faced off in a preseason game where they appeared to be neck-and-neck in terms of productivity; Wemby posted twenty points, five boards, two steals and a block to Chet’s twenty-one points and nine rebounds.

Should Henderson or Holmgren take the award over Wembanyama, who currently stands as the consensus odds-on favorite to take home the award across every major sports book, the media narratives surrounding Wembanyama would quickly be filled with immense levels of vitriol, even if he had a productive year. Given his status, already being named a top 50 player in the NBA by ESPN without having played a single minute, it feels inevitable that anything short of a ten-win improvement for the Spurs, a unanimous Rookie of the Year, and a 20-10 average will result in disappointment for the majority of writers. Is this fair? The Magic improved by twelve wins with the addition of Paolo Banchero last year. The Raptors improved by twenty-one wins after adding Scottie Barnes the year before, so perhaps the trend would suggest that these are the same standards that Wembanyama should be facing, even if both of the aforementioned teams saw explosions in productivity from other role players, namely Markelle Fultz and Franz Wagner for the Magic and Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby for the Raptors.

However, therein lies the largest issue with media expectations. According to NBA Draft Room, Banchero received comparisons to those like Carlos Boozer, Chris Webber, and Blake Griffin, all great players, but ones that rarely find their way into conversations about the true upper echelon of all-time talents. Barnes’ comparisons were even less flattering, with one source calling him a stronger Nicolas Batum and a taller Draymond Green, meaning that he could play a role on a good team, even if it meant being a relative non-factor on the scoring end. From the same source, they called Wembanyama a 7’4” Kevin Durant, immediately bringing his hype-ceiling to a player who often finds himself on the lower end of the consensus top 15 list. Those with lesser comparisons aren’t expected to be as productive as the generational-tier talents, causing them to be less scrutinized by fans and media alike. Ultimately, it feels as though Wemby is doomed to disappoint from a media perspective before the season even gets underway.

My perspective is that awards do not tell the full story of a player. Wilt Chamberlain didn’t win MVP in the 1962 season where he averaged 50.4 points per game and dropped 100 on the New York Knicks. LeBron James was arguably robbed by Marc Gasol of a Defensive Player of the Year award due to discrepancies in the way the award voting was conducted back in 2013. Michael Jordan “only” won 5 MVP awards in a decade-long stretch from 1987 through 1997 (save for the full year of retirement in 1994 and the half-season he played upon returning the following year) where he realistically could have been given the award in each of those seasons, having led the league in win shares, box plus/minus, and value over replacement player every year. These voids in trophy cases affect most of the greats. I believe the same about Wembanyama. He is likely to win regardless of Henderson and Holmgren, however good they may be in their first years, but even if he walks away from his first NBA season empty-handed, we are unlikely to look at him or any of his competition in a negative light twenty years down the line. This is a loaded class, full of talent at every position, that ultimately represents the transition of basketball to being a global and positionless game. No matter if he exceeds expectations or fails to meet every metric, Victor Wembanyama is ultimately good for the sport.

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