‘A true unicorn’: Expectations for Victor Wembanyama were wild. He exceeded them

<span>Victor Wembanyama has had a superb rookie season with the San Antonio Spurs. </span><span>Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Victor Wembanyama has had a superb rookie season with the San Antonio Spurs. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Hailed as the best prospect since LeBron James, labelled an all-time great in the making and distinctive for his 7ft 4in frame, expectations were high from the outset when Victor Wembanyama was drafted No 1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs last year.

He arrived in the United States to a maelstrom of hype, aided by eye-catching performances in a pair of showcase exhibition games against the G League Ignite in Las Vegas the previous October for Parisian club Metropolitans 92. Concerns were raised over the durability of his slender frame and projections were tempered by calls for patience with a young player not only taking his first steps in the NBA but moving to a new continent.

Yet with averages of 21.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and a league-best 3.6 blocks per game, plus almost nightly highlights of spectacular plays shared on social media to wide amazement, the 20-year-old has somehow exceeded the sky-high bar set for him in his rookie season. Back in Europe, those who came up against Wembanyama along his rise saw much of this coming, only not quite this fast.

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“I knew he would be good, but I didn’t think he would be this good already,” says American guard Keith Hornsby, who played against Wembanyama in France. “I thought there would be more growing pains for him coming into the NBA. I was also uncertain about his health, if he would be able to survive the majority of an 82-game season, but he’s shown that he can.

“You could see last year in France, the talent he has is undeniable. A lot of rookies go through some growing pains. But he has come out and been a more effective player than he was in Europe. A lot of that comes from the way the NBA game is. If you’re looking at stats, the game is eight minutes longer and you have so many more games. The style of play is more open. For Victor’s style of play, it fits very well.”

Jason Filippi, a Europe-based basketball scout, agrees. “My expectations were very high, but I didn’t expect him to be a dominant player consistently, night in and night out,” says Filippi. “His body has held up just fine. Even though he’s skinny, because of his length he doesn’t need to overpower people. He just shoots over them. On defense it’s the same thing. If you post him up, there’s nowhere to go because he’s so long.”

In the French Pro A league last year, Wembanyama averaged 21.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 3.0 blocks in 32.1 minutes per game. Few would have expected the then teenager to replicate – let alone exceed – those numbers in his debut NBA season, yet that is what he has achieved.

And while his jump shot is still ripe for improvement, he has already shown growth in that area. His 32.2% three-point accuracy on 5.5 attempts per game is a marked uptick from his 27.5% on 5.0 attempts in France last year.

“He seems more confident in his shooting,” says Nicola Alberani, the sporting director of French club SIG Strasbourg. “He’s quicker in taking his shot. He’s got a faster release and he makes quicker decisions. His game hasn’t changed much; it’s just faster.”

American power forward Chris Horton, who also played against Wembanyama in France, has been impressed by the young star’s attitude. “From what I’ve seen, he’s more aggressive,” says Horton. “The style of play in Europe is that you let the game come to you. You play within a system. He’s realised he can do whatever he wants out there and nobody can stop him. And he’s a real competitor. He hates to lose. You know he’s going to attack you. His attitude of wanting to win and to dominate everybody, that’s the biggest difference I’ve seen in him.”

Hornsby says Wembanyama does things no other player can. “Any given night with Victor you may see something that you’ve never seen before on a basketball court,” Hornsby adds. “He’s built like at alien. He does certain highlight plays that no one else can do. There are a few dunks he’s had where he’s taken off from an area where no one would consider it possible to finish with a dunk, but he’s found a way to do it; sometimes even with contact and while contested, which makes it even more amazing. It shows the type of coordination he has that makes him so special to begin with.”

For all Wembanyama’s eye-catching offense, he is a true gamechanger on defense. The runaway leader in the Rookie of the Year race, he is also in contention to be the first rookie to make an NBA All-Defensive team since another Spurs No 1 overall pick, Tim Duncan. It has become a regular occurrence to see opponents drive toward the hoop only to swerve and pass the ball away when the Frenchman looms beneath the basket.

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“He’s truly a unicorn – a 7ft 4in kid who can post up and show a variety of moves and at the same time shoot like a guard,” Filippi says. “But I’m more impressed by his defensive highlights, the way he can block a shot by coming from really far away and make up space in a split-second.”

But if Wembanyama’s first season in the NBA has proven anything, it’s that he can’t win games on his own. The Spurs were able to select him for a reason – they had the worst record in the league last year, and this season hasn’t been much better, results-wise; they have inhabited the lower reaches of the Western Conference for much of the season and were eliminated from playoff contention some time ago.

“Can he average 30 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks? Absolutely, but the team has to improve,” Filippi says. “His career progress will run parallel to the improvement of the team. San Antonio knows this. They need an elite point guard to complement Victor.”

As far as his individual development is concerned, Wembanyama is so far ahead of the curve – already so well-rounded and consistent – that further improvements will be a case of refinement rather than a wholesale reimagining of his skillset.

“I think he can become a 40% three-point shooter,” Alberani says. “I think he will win multiple individual awards, because his game is so exciting and impressive.”

Horton, on the other hand, thinks Wembanyama is right where he needs to be.

“If he does what he’s doing right now for the next 15 years, how are you not going to say he’s one of the greatest?”