Victor Wembanyama. Generational?
The NBA Draft Dude dives deep into the tape of the projected number 1 pick in the 2023 Draft; French unicorn big, Victor Wembanyama.
A recent pet peeve of mine is the insistent use of the term “generational” online. The context of my current complex typically comes when someone on the www’s uses the term to describe the above-average athleticism of a young prospect instead of saving it for truly special otherworldly athletes that do crazy shit like literally jump over and dunk on other NBA players in actual game play. It’s a heavy term, and one I feel should be designated for the real “I’ve never seen that shit before” kind of players. But now that I have your attention as I pontificate from my soapbox, I’m going to zag and contribute to the hyperbole, get loose with my tongue, and talk about a prospect that may indeed actually be a “generational”.
I’m sure the majority of the No Ceilings readership has a baseline level of familiarity with the name Victor Wembanyama. For the uninitiated, Victor is an 18-year-old French unicorn big who is listed at a modest 7’3” with a reported 7’9” wingspan and a bag of guard skills. And honestly, if this picture of Victor standing next to the 7’0” Chet Holmgren and 7’4” Zach Edey at the 2021 FIBA U19s is any indication, that listing may actually be completely underselling his physical gifts.
When I use the aforementioned “generational” title to describe Victor, I’m not describing the potential for generational impact on the court (although it is most certainly within the realm of possibility); I’m more so using it to describe a player that is unlike anything that we’ve ever seen step on the hardwood. Even off the back of Chet Holmgren, a similar archetype of player, Victor is unique. But uniqueness and hype doesn’t guarantee success. History tells us to slow our roll and proceed with caution when we bestow greatness on kids too early. You can find countless examples of players who were considered can’t miss up until the point at which they weren’t. OJ Mayo was the next LeBron, Greg Oden was the next Shaq, Emoni Bates was the next KD, Anthony Bennett was the next Larry Johnson (kidding), rinse and repeat. Sometimes life is unpredictable and things happen, and locks just don’t pan out.
I don’t want to go into this piece with the intention of predicting generational success or failure. What I do want to do is break down Victor’s game in an honest and in-depth fashion so that you ascertain a deeper understanding of both his strengths AND weaknesses, best preparing you for the season ahead, so you know exactly what to look for on your late night YouTube excursions to the Tank Bank™.
And it all starts with his otherworldly defensive potential.
With measurements that border on the occult, Wembanyama’s length is the stuff of hoop nightmares. Whether it’s at the rim or on the perimeter, offensive players get nothing easy when Victor is in the vicinity of the hoop. Wembanyama projects to be an absolutely elite rim protector at the NBA level that blocks a fuck ton of shots, but more importantly, he’s going to be an elite rim intimidator that alters any shots that cross his path. No matter how much distance between him you feel that you may have created, you still feel Wembanyama’s presence. Like the mark of Vecna on the back of Will Byers’ neck, offensive players can feel Victor lurking. No matter how far, he’s somehow always near.
The fear that Wembanyama instills on the offense at the rim is just one aspect of his defensive game that makes him special. What will make Victor a perennial defensive player of the year candidate is answering questions about his scheme versatility on the perimeter. How will he guard ball screens? Can he effectively play in a drop? Can he hold his own on a switch? Can he hard hedge and recover? At such a young age, Wembanyama has already answered most of these questions with a resounding yes.
Let’s first take a look at Victor’s ability to play the cat-and-mouse game while operating out of a drop. As the guard comes off the screen, Victor is dropped back to the free throw line in position to contest the shot if need be. He stays with the ball handler just long enough for his teammate to get back into the play where he can then recover back to his man on the pass. Once back, Victor does a good job staying in front of him, showing off his ability to smoothly flip his hips as his man tries to shake him free before getting a piece of his shot at the rim.
In this next clip, we see Victor guard a big-to-guard dribble hand-off, which is an action he’ll routinely see at the next level. On the surface, this is a pretty standard defensive possession, but I want you to focus on where Victor is positioned as the guard comes off the DHO. Because of his length, he’s able to plant himself at the nail with high hands and still be in position to prevent a three-point attempt. He then contains the dribble penetration and forces his man into a contested shot over his outstretched arms. More mortal bigs may have to guard closer to the level to accomplish that, but Wembanyama is a cheat code and can get away with giving a cushion that allows him to play both the shot and the drive.
Wembanyama’s ability to contest shooters is ridiculous. Though Victor has shown vulnerability on an island, shot creators are wary of driving on him and will often settle for pull-ups. Wembanyama can afford to give shooters space because no matter how much of it a shooter creates, Victor can still get a hand up and get a good contest. If a shooter knocks down a perimeter shot over Wembanyama, you pat him on the back, say nice shot, and dare him to try it again—because more often than not, it’s going to be a fool’s errand.
Wembanyama isn’t perfect, and at his age, having played legitimate minutes in one of the best leagues in the world, he shouldn’t be expected to be. I mentioned earlier that Victor can be prone to getting beat off the bounce by quick guards. It’s probably his most glaring flaw on the defensive side of the floor right now. Wembanyama can be a bit slow-footed when he’s on an island and routinely gets beat off the bounce by smart, quick guards that play with pace and know how to use angles; taking advantage of his youth by forcing him to stand up in his stance. He’s so young, and he has such a unique frame that his movements can come off a bit clumsy at times. Even when he does something spectacular, it can look a bit awkward. But to me, it feels like these are moments that come off like he’s still getting used to growing into his supernatural frame. There’s no guarantee that his footwork won’t get less fidgety, but I’d wager that as he gets older, he’ll learn to be more comfortable with his body and look more fluid in his movements. It’s something I’ll be monitoring closely this upcoming season.
For all his inconsistencies on an island, though, it isn’t as if Wemby hasn’t shown encouraging flashes while guarding the perimeter. There are very few bigs that don’t have trouble with guards. Wembanyama has shown to be more comfortable on the perimeter with wings and stretch bigs, as those archetypes tend to not be as crafty with the ball in their hands. When Wembanyama is forced to retreat on a perimeter attack, he has the mobility to stay in the play and the length to alter the shot. It’s a work in progress that is going to get progressively harder as he levels up, but there’s reason for optimism.
You didn’t come here just to read about Wembanyama’s defense, though; you want to dive into the bag. If we’re going to label a big as generational or a unicorn, that prospect damn well better be able to play on both sides of the ball. With Victor, the offensive side of the floor isn’t quite as clear-cut as the defensive side. It’s way more theoretical right now. You can watch the clips and highlights that make Wembanyama look like some maxed-out 2K create-a-player, but when you dig into full-game action, you’ll find that Victor is a bit more raw than you might expect. He’s certainly had moments of brilliance, and you have to put his game into the context that he earned real minutes playing in the EuroLeague and the LNB Pro A; it’s not like he was struggling against high school kids. If you want to see what it looks like when he puts it all together in a game, look no further than his 25-point performance vs. Le Portle, where he’s doing wacky shit like the clip below.
While that silky-smooth between the legs turnaround fade-away looked easy for Victor against Le Portle, there are way too many possessions where he hoists up a fade-away that leaves you scratching your head. For Wembanyama, the turnaround jumper is his security blanket; it’s where he feels most comfortable creating his own shot. If he were to perfect it at his height with his release point, it would be unblockable and one of the more deadly go-to weapons in the league. The issue is that right now, it’s more of a weapon for the opposing team than it is for Victor; it’s currently just an inefficient shot that bails out the defense that he’s way too willing to settle for on offense.
The thought of a jumbo KD is amazing, but the self-creation scoring package is really just a luxury rather than a necessity for Wembanyama. Even if the self-creation never comes around the way you would hope, he’ll still have an intriguing enough baseline scoring package where he’ll serve as a lob threat, rim runner, garbage man, and even be a guy you can throw the ball to on the block or use to space the floor and knock down shots off the catch.
Wembanyama has good hands and a wicked catch radius. He keeps the ball high and has pretty soft touch around the rim. I’d like to see him seek contact and play a bit tougher, especially close to the hoop and as a screener, but he times his rolls well and is athletic enough to go up and get it.
The off-ball shooting potential is where things get really interesting as Wembanyama can be more than just a standstill pick and pop guy. He can do that, sure, but what gets the juices flowing is that he’s flashed the ability to also shoot it off movement. The mere thought of running a 7’3”+ human being off floppy action is hilarious, but with Wembanyama, it’s possible. Like other parts of his game, though, the shooting is somewhat theoretical. The form is solid, and the release is smooth. I’d bet on the shot going forward, but at the end of the day, the shots have to go in; so far, Wembanyama has yet to find consistency in knocking it down from deep.
The last aspect of Victor’s offensive game that feels important to mention is his decision-making as a passer. So much of the modern NBA game is run through bigs that can make plays for their teammates. This is an area of the game that is fairly underdeveloped for Wembanyama currently, as he has a tendency to be pretty careless as a playmaker. He’ll throw the ball into traffic, force passes in transition, and quite frankly just make passes without thinking or looking. Valuing possessions is important to any level of basketball, and Wembanyama needs to work on valuing the ball more. Learning to process the game so that you can make quick and decisive good decisions isn’t easy, and that is going to be a majorly important aspect of his game to watch for this season.
Thanks to the magic of social media, we’ve had the opportunity to watch Victor Wembanyama since he was a 16-year-old kid going at it with Rudy Gobert in a game of two-on-two. His legend has only grown since then. NBA teams are chomping at the bit to enter themselves in the Wembanyama sweepstakes, and as the headliner of the 2023 NBA Draft Class, Wembanyama’s progress is going to be dissected under a microscope. With where he’s already at and still so much room to grow, his potential is limitless. We’ve heard about the best prospect in the world regardless of age for a few years now, but now is the time to not only show that he’s the best prospect in the world but that he truly is “generational”.