Promise Versus Pattern: The Untold Potential of Victor Wembanyama

The first time I saw a photograph of Victor Wembanyama, I thought I caught sight of some sort of apparition. Few teenagers in the history of basketball — perhaps the history of the modern world — have had such lofty expectations bestowed upon them. The French teenager will be poised to further transform the landscape of professional basketball when he is selected at the NBA draft in June.

Wembanyama’s height is listed at 7’4” by the Metropolitans 92, the French professional team he plays for. Some place his height at 7’5” or even 7’6”, and he has an eight-foot wingspan. Remember, Wembanyama is nineteen, the age of a McGill U2 student, and has not finished growing. There are only a handful of players in NBA history taller than Wembanyama. The majority of them had neither the coordination nor the agility to be productive NBA players. Only two recent players eclipse Wembanyama in size: Tacko Fall at 7’6” and Boban Marjanović at 7’4”. Fall and Marjanović are professionals almost exclusively because of their height. There has never been a player in NBA history taller than 7’3” who can shoot, drive, and pass with the proficiency expected of an NBA guard.

But Wembanyama can. Wembanyama shoots excellently from three and can adeptly create his own shot off the dribble. Wembanyama can score by maneuvering inside the arc and hitting contested mid-range fadeways. His pump-fakes and spins generate space at the rim and he is blessed with creativity and intuition as a passer. He glides off the ball with speed and grace and demonstrates exceptional instincts, timing, and, of course, length as a rim protector. 

This is why Victory Wembanyama is absolutely terrifying: Nobody of his height in the history of the sport has ever possessed his shot-making, range, and fluidity.

Wembanyama is not just the consensus first overall pick in 2023 — he’s the best prospect since LeBron James, and possibly the most coveted amateur talent in the history of professional sports. Sports Illustrated’s 2002 “Chosen One” profile of a teenage LeBron James highlighted his remarkable explosiveness and skill as a playmaker. LeBron was an incredible prospect, but he was not unprecedented; his attributes had been seen before in some form. The size and skill combination of Wembanyama, however, is unmatched by any individual to ever step foot on a basketball court.

This is why Victory Wembanyama is absolutely terrifying: Nobody of his height in the history of the sport has ever possessed his shot-making, range, and fluidity.

Kevin Durant is perhaps the most accurate comparison to Wembanyama. Durant is 6’10” and a preeminent shooter. He can thus move to anywhere on the floor and hoist a jumper that can’t be well-contested due to his height and his shot’s high-release point. Durant’s fusion of height and shot-making produced one of the finest players in the modern NBA. 

Wembanyama is more than a half-foot taller than Durant. At Victor’s height, it is a physical impossibility to stop him from shooting the basketball. If Durant weaponized this combination to an MVP, it is truly untold how far Wembanyama can push it. At 7’4”, he also has the tools to develop into the best rim-protector in the game. In a few years he might be the NBA’s best offensive and defensive player, an unequaled achievement.

Victor will not play an NBA game until October but he has already unsettled the fabric of the league. A host of teams purposefully lost during the regular seasoning for the opportunity to draft Wembanyama. The draft’s first overall pick is decided by a lottery on May 16th that awards the greatest odds to the teams with the worst record. The Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and Detroit Pistons had dreadful seasons and finished at the very bottom of the standings. But this is what they want. They’ve traded away assets and neglected to bolster their roster and now have the best odds to draft Wembanyama. 

Likewise, the draft lottery awards each team who misses the playoffs a chance at the first overall pick. Teams hovering in the middle of the standings made strategic trades to downgrade their current roster at the trade deadline. The Portland Trail Blazers parted ways with Gary Payton II and Josh Hart rather than adding depth behind Damian Lillard. The Utah Jazz dealt Mike Conley and the Washington Wizards traded Rui Hachimura. The Dallas Mavericks sat Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving for their last games to ensure they missed the play-in, resulting in an NBA investigation. Each of these franchises could feasibly make the play-in tournament or the playoffs. However, their general managers preferred to steer their team south for a chance at Wembanyama.

At Victor’s height, it is a physical impossibility to stop him from shooting the basketball.

Wembanyama has already changed the standings, but his likely stardom in the NBA might reconstruct the NBA’s geography. North America tends to import their giants from overseas. Many of basketball’s tallest players have been foreign: Fall is from Senegal, Marjanović is from Serbia, and 7’6” Yao Ming is from China. Indeed, only seven of the tallest twenty-six players in NBA history are from the United States. These players frequently bring the sport to a new part of the world. Ming is considered one of the most influential players in basketball history because he helped the NBA become the most popular sports league in China. 7’6” Manute Bol from Sudan and 7’2” Dikembe Mutombo from the Democratic Republic of the Congo have extraordinary humanitarian accomplishments and helped establish basketball facilities and youth camps on the African continent. When someone is that tall, even if they’re not from a traditional basketball nation, they come to play in North America but force the game to expand globally. 

European and African players have been immensely successful this decade. Luka Dončić from Slovenia, Joel Embiid from Cameroon, Nikola Jokić from Serbia, and Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece are arguably the four best players in today’s NBA. These stars have made the NBA more accessible and popular to overseas fans. In 2019, Reuters reported a 200% increase in NBA viewership in Serbia, Jokic’s country. In 2022, they reported a 272% increase in NBA viewership in Cameroon, the home nation of Joel Embiid. Adding a French superstar to this list might intensify this trend to an unknown new status quo. Basketball is an American sport, but if the majority of the world’s best players come from Europe and Africa, the center of basketball could veritably be pushed overseas. 


NBA fans make the teenager from the Paris suburbs seem ethereal and godlike, with capacities beyond what any mortal could do. Wembanyama, like LeBron, might somehow exceed these mammoth expectations. But some promises are just too good to be true. History has shown us that there is one obstacle that constantly undermines players who are the size of Wembanyama – injuries. There have only been twenty-six players in NBA history who stand 7’3” or taller. Of those, there are only a handful – I count seven – who have had something of a noteworthy NBA career. Nearly all of these seven skilled skyscrapers were too injury-prone to fulfill their like-sized potential.

Injury potential is the critical caveat to consider when we stare up in awe at Victor Wembanyama.

Hopefully Wembanyama’s story will not follow the arc of Yao Ming. 7’6” Ming was drafted first overall by the Rockets in 2002 and quickly became the best player ever in his height range. He excelled as a scorer in his first few seasons, boasting strong post moves and a soft jumpshot. Ming was one of the most valuable centers of the early 2000’s but saw his career quickly derail due to a myriad of lower-body injuries. From 2005-2009, Ming missed substantial portions of seasons due to injuries like osteomyelitis, sprained ankles, a broken knee, and stress fractures. He retired in 2011 at the age of thirty-one due to a third fracture in his left foot and never made as much as the Western Conference Finals. 

Nearly every talent at this height has a similar story. The career of 7’3” Latvian Kristaps Porziņģis has been marred by injuries. He missed the entire 2018-19 season and has played more than sixty games in a season just three times. 7’4” Ralph Sampson retired at the age of thirty-two due to knee injuries. Of each player above 7’3”, there are only two who had somewhat prolific NBA careers, never missed an entire season, and were not forced to retire because of an injury. Those two are Rick Smits from the Netherlands and the late Mark Eaton, neither of whom made more than one All-Star team.

Injury potential is the critical caveat to consider when we stare up in awe at Victor Wembanyama. Nobody of his height has ever maintained a level of sustained All-Star production for longer than a couple of seasons, and injuries have not become less frequent in the 2020’s.

Predicting Wembanyama’s career requires a negotiation between possibility and precedent, between potential and pattern. His height coupled with his ability to score from any place on the court is unmatched in the history of the sport. His story in the NBA, whatever it may be, will be seismic. If he defies the injury precedent, we will certainly be looking at the NBA’s next young star, and possibly its next all-time great.

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