In preparation for Tuesday’s exhibition game against the G League Ignite, a select team from the NBA’s minor league, Metros players handed their backpacks to screeners as they walked through a towering gray metal detector which was nearly 7 feet tall. But Wembanyama, who would have been measured at 7ft 4in without shoes, had to hunched his shoulders and ducked sharply to avoid a head-on collision.
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The building was unprepared for its main attraction, and neither were its salivating occupants.
Wembanyama then took to the field, where he went through a lengthy stretching routine before the game barefoot. As the sneakers flexed his hips, Wembanyama’s massive sneakers, long enough to almost look like snowshoes, awaited him nearby. A Metros staffer estimated that Wembanyama wears a size 55 Nike in Europe, which is equivalent to a size 20.5 in the United States. For reference, Nike’s basketball sneakers are generally only available up to size 18 on its website, and its official shoe size scale is over 22.
Standard metrics don’t quite apply to Wembanyama, an off-the-charts basketball prodigy who is among the most captivating prospects in sports history. Without much effort, Wembanyama can jump up and bang his head against the backboard. As he warmed up on Tuesday, he casually threw a windmill dunk with his toes just an inch or two off the hardwood.
Once the match started, 18-year-old Wembanyama kept surprising the Ignite players by appearing out of nowhere to block their shots. Wembanyama’s 8-foot wingspan ensures he’s rarely out of action, even if he’s not in position. While centers usually have to sprint over the paint to contest lay-ups, Wembanyama can often get the job done simply by stretching his arms to full extension.
When he was ready and waiting for the Ignite discs, hilarity ensued. Wembanyama sent Scoot Henderson flying towards the court with the force of a block, and he hit another volleyball shot so hard he sailed to the subways bench, prompting teammate Ibrahima Fall Faye to do a toothy smile.
The NBA, of course, was built on tall players with long arms and jumping ability: 30 different 7-foot players took to the court last season alone, and giants such as Manute Bol (7-foot 7 inches) and Yao Ming (7-foot-6) remain well-known long after their retirement. Over the past decade, a wave of skilled big men, including Washington Wizards center Kristaps Porzingis, have even been dubbed “unicorns” for their rare ability to shoot and dribble despite their massive frames.
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But no player as great as Wembanyama has ever done what he can already do, and his performance on Tuesday was more fantastic than just a unicorn.
Consider: This was his first game in the United States and the first time he played under NBA rules and in a 48-minute NBA-standard game. Consider also that the Metros were more than 5,400 miles from home and their transatlantic journey had taken place in the middle of their French championship season. Finally, consider that more than 100 members of the media had invaded the Nevada desert from at least three continents, Phoenix Suns stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker were seated courtside, and representatives from all 30 NBA teams were present.
“In terms of global recognition, this has to be the greatest game I’ve played in my life,” Wembanyama predicted on Monday.
None of that fazed Wembanyama, who finished with a game-high 37 points, seven three-pointers, four rebounds and five blocks in a 122-115 loss to Ignite. How high did Wembanyama set the bar in his premiere? Danny Green is the only player in NBA history to record seven three-pointers and five blocks in the same game, and he needed three extra periods to do so.
Henderson, a savvy 6-foot-2 guard who is widely considered the second-best player in the 2023 class, made a point of attacking Wembanyama early and often, finishing with 28 points, five rebounds and nine assists in an impressive display of his own. . Wembanyama responded by coldly biding his time before taking over in the third quarter with a three-point flurry to cut Ignite’s double-digit lead.
Each stroke was more absurd and graceful than the last. Wembanyama created his own look from the dribble, avoided a fadeaway three in the corner and converted a four-point play off the top of the key. After a mid-range jumper, he broke his typical even-keel pose to glare and turn both palms up in a Michael Jordan shrug.
Unlike many sky-scraping teens, Wembanyama doesn’t look like he’s trying to regain control of his body after a disorienting growth spurt. He moves fluidly and decisively, and he seems more comfortable assessing defenders on the perimeter than fighting for post position.
“I’ve been playing this way for years,” Wembanyama said. “Even when I was 9, 10, 11, 15, I was still shooting at three and handling the ball. I didn’t look up to the players for me to do that. I was inspired by whatever I wanted TO DO.
There are heavy doses of Kevin Durant in the way Wembanyama sets up and unclogs his pure jump shots, but he’s a lot taller and a lot longer than the Brooklyn Nets superstar. Wembanyama’s rim guard is reminiscent of Rudy Gobert, except his fellow Frenchman rarely dares to dribble through traffic or come to a deep stop.
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While Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren can move from edge to arc, he can’t quite match Wembanyama’s physical dimensions. Anthony Davis was the most highly regarded big prospect of the past 15 years, winning an NCAA title as a rookie from Kentucky and becoming No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft. Still, Wembanyama is a much better outside shooter than Davis does was the same age, and he dwarfs the 6-foot-10 Los Angeles Lakers forward.
“There’s nothing to compare,” said G League Ignite coach Jason Hart. “A special talent.”
Nobody, not Wembanyama or Mets coach Vincent Collet, would present him as a perfect player. Venerable Collet, who guided the France team to silver medals at the 2020 Olympics and 2022 EuroBasket, said Wembanyama needed to become stronger physically, smarter in his decision-making and more effective in his distribution of shots.
Collet noted, however, that he considered not coaching during the French league season due to the rapid turnaround in EuroBasket. Ultimately, he decided guiding the final leg of Wembanyama’s journey to the NBA was a “very special” opportunity that would never happen again. Collet’s next hope is that Wembanyama will play for France at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
“He’s the best prospect we’ve ever had in our league,” Collet said. “He’s incredible, not just in size, but also in his incredible skills. I’m impressed with how calm he is with all the buzz around him. He has a truly impressive listening ability.
For now, but not for long, Wembanyama remains a fishbowl phenomenon, known to die-hard basketball fans around the world, but not yet a household name. Tuesday’s exhibition played to a half-full crowd in a 5,500-seat minor league hockey arena, a far cry from the sold-out sales LeBron James consistently drew as a teenager from Ohio.
Fame and acclaim are coming, and Wembanyama seems poised for the storm, in part because he played his first professional game at age 15 and has years of experience handling media obligations. There was no obvious nervousness as Wembanyama faced rooms full of cameras and recorders this week, and he lamented, in fluent English, that he would soon have to leave France because his “fate is here in the United States”.
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Then, with his goals set, Wembanyama set his next major milestone with the clarity of a young man who understands there is no one else like him.
“Of all the perspectives I heard about in our class, I think [Henderson] is my favorite,” Wembanyama said. “It’s the most reliable I’ve seen. He really is a great player. If I had never been born, I think he would deserve the top spot.