HENDERSON, Nev. — For any prospect, even one as heralded as Victor Wembanyama, the endorsement of LeBron James is no small thing.
On Wednesday night, the 37-year-old Lakers superstar lauded the 18-year-old who many NBA minds think could one day rival his greatness. He called him a “generational talent,” “fluid and graceful,” and said his 7-foot-3 height (or 7-4, or 7-5 depending on your source) combined with a perimeter-oriented game made him less like a “unicorn” and “more like an alien.”
In a Thursday afternoon press conference, wrapping up his weeklong Las Vegas residency, Wembanyama took just a moment to let those comments sink in. But it was clear that, though he’s flattered, the Frenchman is not one to linger on any kind of praise – even from James.
“I felt like I deserve it, so I’m not gonna be surprised by the attention,” said Wembanyama, who is fluent in English. “So that said, if I was stunned or amazed by all this, it would mean I’m satisfied with it – and I’m not. I want to get better every day. So this state I’m at now, it’s not enough.”
By the end of his two exhibitions against the G League Ignite, most NBA minds had seen enough to become believers: Wembanyama could be the best prospect in a long time. He looks like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; he plays more like Kevin Durant.
The second of these games on Thursday afternoon was chock full of moments that left talent evaluators at The Dollar Loan Center slack-jawed with amazement. Playing against a mix of elite draft prospects and fully grown, experienced G League and overseas players, Wembanyama was clearly a cut above. The geometry of his game – shaped by his 7-11 wingspan and his towering height – allows him to do things even the NBA has never seen.
He can block shots from anywhere: 6-10 forward Efe Abogidi found out in the third quarter when he attempted a hook shot, only to have Wembanyama swat it from the sky once it was already three feet above his hand. In the fourth, Wembanyama reached down by his ankles to save a ball from going out of bounds, then recovered to slam atop an unfortunate 6-10 Leonard Miller, who looked like an overwhelmed guard next to his gargantuan foe.
But what really has people talking is what Wembanyama can do as a perimeter player: He hit a second-quarter falling-away three with ease. He bullied poor Miller later with a Dream Shake – the patented Hakeem Olajuwon move – from the baseline. Just a day after James’ label, a new nickname “The Alien” was beginning to spread around the arena.
The Ignite tried to be more physical with Wembanyama than in the first meeting, when he had scored 37 points. Initially, Ignite forward Eric Mika said, that seemed to be working (he had just three points after his first-quarter stint). But as the Ignite defense kept him from his comfort spots, Wembanyama rose to the occasion – like when he spun out to a turnaround baseline jumper in Mika’s face in the second quarter. The shot release point, some eight feet in the air, was impossible for anyone else on the floor to reach.
“It’s unique watching a guy that can change shots and block shots like (Rudy) Gobert. … He’s that much of a presence in the paint, but then last game he hit seven threes,” Mika said. “He’s hitting those baseline jumpers that are literally impossible to guard.”
Afterward, Ignite coach Jason Hart noted that Wembanyama had shot 9 for 18 from 3-point range in the two-game series, and the Ignite were pleased to have held him to just two in Thursday’s game. But that didn’t stop him from piling up stats: 36 points, 11 rebounds, four blocked shots in a win for Wembanyama’s Metropolitans, based in a Paris suburb and competing in France’s top league.
Assuming health, it’s only a matter of time before Wembanyama is the top pick. Among the many laudatory appraisals shared by scouts and other basketball observers, one Western Conference executive offered Southern California News Group a two-word scouting report for the team that winds up with the No. 1 choice: “Take him.”
Wembanyama has guidance: Gobert has mentored him through the last five years, and the two players share an agent. The Minnesota Timberwolves center beamed for photos with Wembanyama, who manages to dwarf even the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He’s anxious about leaving France, the only home he’s ever known, but has plenty of time to prepare for life in the NBA.
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“It’s been a goal of mine for a lot of years,” he said. “Yeah, it’s gotta be tough to leave my family back in Europe and pretty much everything that I know, but at the same time my future is (in the United States). So I’m still excited and so happy about it. I know I’m so lucky to have this chance.”
The games were also a showcase for the G League Ignite, a program entering its third season as an alternative for players who wish to skip the college level. They boost Scoot Henderson, a 6-2 guard widely considered the runner-up draft prospect to Wembanyama and who had a strong game himself in the first matchup before leaving early in the second after banging knees with the Frenchman.
But in a larger context, the Ignite will be remembered as the first American foes to truly test Wembanyama in his ascent. Even Hart seemed to understand that his team was just a stop in the road.
“The good thing for me coaching: I’m glad I got a chance to play against him at 18,” Hart said. “At 24, he’s gonna be a whole ’nother player – somebody else’s problem.”