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Victor Wembanyama's Defense | The Friday Screener
Despite some bad habits, Victor Wembanyama is already a dominant defender. Imagine what he'll be once those bad habits disappear.
Victor Wembanyama is one of the most unique prospects we’ve ever seen and will likely be the first overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. Wembanyama has proven that he can be a three-level scorer who knocks down movement threes, attacks closeouts, and scores in various fashions in the post. At 7’4” with an 8’0” wingspan, Wembanyama has a combination of size and skill that rarely, if ever, graces the NBA. While his offensive superiority can be intoxicating, it is his defense that will determine how high he will climb on the ladder of historical greatness.
With his size and length, Wembanyama has tantalizing upside as a defender and frequently acts as a dominant shot blocker. He is an imposing rim protector, and his fluidity and gracefulness engender hope that he can switch on the perimeter as well. However, like most teenagers, Wembanyama still has significant strides to make to reach his full defensive potential.
Before we get to his improvement areas, though, let’s start with his elite skill that should translate immediately: shot-blocking. Wembanyama’s size alone makes him an intimidating shot blocker, but his combination of awareness and ball location skills makes him a devastating force. Most of Wembanyama’s blocks come as a help defender as not many players are eager to challenge him at the rim. His eagerness to rotate and deny opponents at the rim ensures that he is almost never out of a play. It also gives his teammates confidence to be more aggressive because they know he is lurking in support.
Here, the G-League Ignite get the ball to the post for what should be an easy layup after a well-executed back screen in the corner. As the pass is being made, Wembanyama has his attention focused on Scoot Henderson, who is curling up to the wing. Once the pass is made, though, Wembanyama immediately shifts his sights. Aaron Henry’s recovery to Cissoko delays the shot just long enough for Wembanyama to collapse and pin the shot against the glass.
Even when he’s defending on-ball in the post, Wembanyama is a terror. Here, we see him give up the offensive rebound after getting out-leveraged for position by his man. Instead of giving up, though, Wembanyama absorbs the repeated shoulder of his assignment. Due to his lack of strength, Wembanyama does get put under the rim. For most players, this would take them out of the play and give the ball-handler a relatively easy score. Most defenders don’t have an 8’0” wingspan, though. Even though he gets moved, Wembanyama uses his length to snatch the shot attempt and retain possession.
A lot of great shot blockers thrive around the rim but see their defensive impact dwindle the further away from the rim they get pulled. Wembanyama has a myriad of jaw-dropping blocks at the rim, but what makes him so special is how effective he is at blocking jumpers. Again, an 8’0” wingspan can do wonders.
Even though Wembanyama is a fluid mover, especially for his size, he will likely play most of his defensive pick-and-roll reps in drop coverage. The goal of drop coverage is to take away the rim and the three-point shot, while essentially surrendering the mid-range pullup, the least efficient shot of the three. Given his length and timing, though, Wembanyama frequently takes even that option away from opposing offenses.
Here, we see Henderson reuse the screen and Wembanyama reposition his hips as he anticipates a drive. As Henderson comes off the screen, he glances back at his man. He quickly assesses that his defender was taken out of the play by the screen and promptly rises up for a jumper that is available to him 99% of the time when the defense plays drop coverage. Wembanyama has other thoughts, though, as he immediately reacts and blocks the shot before it has a chance to fully leave Henderson’s hand.
This time, we see Wembanyama switched on the perimeter in isolation. In these situations, in the past, Wembanyama would get too close to the ball-handler and not fully utilize his length (more on that in a bit). This time, however, Wembanyama gives the ball-handler a healthy cushion that allows him to react to any move the ball-handler makes. After feigning a drive, the ball-handler thinks he has enough of a cushion and pulls up. Wembanyama immediately reacts, blocks the shot to himself, and prepares to start the break.
Wembanyama’s absurd length and ball location abilities shine mostly when he is blocking shots. They also appear when he is disrupting passing lanes and digging at driving defenders. It doesn’t take much, but a simple dig like we see below can completely disrupt an offensive possession. When Wembanyama is on the court, nothing should be considered safe.
Wembanyama has immense upside as a defender and will likely even be a positive defender from day one, a rare feat for a rookie. However, he is far from perfect. Wembanyama still has a lot to learn with how he positions himself in the pick-and-roll, uses his length, and moves his feet on the perimeter despite how much his absurd length covers up. Some of these will seem like nitpicks, and that’s because they are. When someone gets mentioned as “the best prospect ever”, we’re going to tear through their game with a fine-toothed comb. These breakdowns won’t cover just the positives, but they also aren’t damning indictments.
The most significant improvement that Wembanyama needs to make on defense is his pick-and-roll positioning. Again, his length is highly disruptive on its own, but adept playmakers and scorers will find ways to pick him apart when he takes one wrong step.
Here, we see how Wembanyama’s poor positioning gives up the huge dunk to Efe Abogidi. As Henderson comes off the screen, Wembanyama positions his hips to force Henderson to his left. The result is that he fully turns his back to the area where Abogidi is rolling into, making it more difficult to recover to Abogidi. Wembanyama’s hip positioning would be fine, however, his front foot is positioned towards the center of Henderson’s body, instead of outside of Henderson’s right foot. Essentially, Wembanyama should be half a step closer to Abogidi.
Henderson still has to make a great pocket pass to Abogidi, but he, along with most starting NBA point guards, is capable of doing so. Wembanyama’s poor positioning not only creates an opening for Abogidi and Henderson to exploit but also disables Wembanyama from being able to flip his hips in time to recover.
Here, we see Wembanyama do almost the exact same thing out of a dribble handoff. He is far too close to the ball and unnecessarily reaches for it while his hips are nearly parallel to the baseline. He is able to recover enough to challenge the shot due to his teammate’s rotation, but they eventually get the score because of what Wembanyama allowed. Side note, the roller completely missed a kick out to the weak side corner shooter that also was an option because of the rotation Wembanyama’s teammate was forced to make.
This time, Wembanyama starts the play perfectly. He is sagging off his man who is setting a screen for Henderson. Wembanyama positions himself at the free throw line with his hips open towards his assignment. This positioning allows him to truncate Henderson’s driving lane, while also being able to recover to his man. So far, so good. As Henderson attacks, though, Wembanyama holds his ground instead of dropping. This is an example of how he inconsistently utilizes his length in space. As Henderson jump stops at the free throw line, Wembanyama thinks he is going to shoot and is far too close.
With an 8’0” wingspan, Wembanyama should never be this close to a ball-handler. By stepping to Henderson, Wembanyama allows his man a free lane to roll into.
While Wembanyama’s fluid movements suggest he can defend on the perimeter, he doesn’t have the footwork for it. The comparisons to Evan Mobley and Chet Holmgren will be inevitable, even though all three are very different players. Mobley has the footwork and footspeed to legitimately slide with ball-handlers on the perimeter. Conversely, Holmgren knows he usually can’t keep up, so he influences them to where he wants them to go, frequently resulting in him appearing to get beat, before using his length to recover and disrupt the shot. Wembanyama tends to get caught in between both strategies. Before we continue, I think he’s better off utilizing the Holmgren approach.
Here, we see Wembanyama switch the side pick-and-roll and position himself much better than we previously saw, forcing the ball-handler to the corner and baseline. The ball-handler hits Wembanyama with a hesitation, and Wembanyama is caught between cutting off the drive and forcing him under the rim. The result is an awkward collision that sends Wembanyama flying due to his narrow and upright stance.
Wembanyama needs to get over the idea of getting beat off the dribble. I love the competitiveness from which that reluctance derives, but it too frequently gets him in trouble. As of now, he doesn’t have the footwork, footspeed, or fundamentals to slide with opponents on the perimeter. Instead of being a steel wall, he needs to be a Venus flytrap. There is no need to entirely prohibit the opponent from getting to where he wants to go. Instead, allow them to gain a false sense of security before pouncing on them.
This time, Wembanyama switches the pick-and-roll at the top of the arc onto a much quicker guard. Again, Wembanyama is much too close to the ball-handler for no reason. With relative ease, the ball-handler attacks Wembanyama’s front foot, blows past him, and finishes with the easy layup plus the foul on the lazy reach-in.
While Wembanyama can struggle to defend in space when he has to flip his hips, he has shown really promising signs when he is able to keep the ball moving in one direction.
Here, Wembanyama switches in the pick-and-roll and shows the ball-handler to the left. Unlike what we saw before, Wembanyama keeps a healthy cushion and doesn’t over-pursue either direction. This allows him to react promptly and even keep the ball-handler forced to the left. Even when Wembanyama bites on the step back, he quickly recovers but doesn’t panic. He stays within arms reach and doesn’t bite on the second shot fake. The threat of his length alone deters the ball-handler from taking a shot and forces the kick out.
What makes Wembanyama such a fascinating prospect is that he has some meaningful areas to improve on, but he is still a highly impactful defender. The improvement areas we ran through aren’t unfixable. With more experience and coaching, I would expect them to disappear rather quickly. Once he irons out some of those bad habits, he can easily go from a really good defender to a truly dominant one. Victor Wembanyama is at the rare intersection of being a superior defender who also has some glaring bad habits. Instead of being concerned about his inconsistent pick-and-roll positioning or stiff hip mobility, imagine what he’ll look like once he figures those out.
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